Cracks in Botswana/China relations

SHARE   |   Sunday, 12 July 2015   |   By Phillimon Mmeso
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The diplomatic relationship between Botswana and China spanning 40 years is now sitting on a shaky ground after Beijing expressed their frustration at the way their citizens are treated in the country.
Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China Li Nan did not mince words when talking about the ill-treatment of their citizens by Gaborone. In a press briefing on Tuesday which came after the recent visit to China by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Nan said Chinese businessmen  are reluctant to come to Botswana due to its stringent immigration laws. “Botswana government usually sends delegates to China to woo our investors to come here but they are afraid because in Botswana one can be deported any time without any reasons,” said Nan.
He said trade between Botswana and China has also suffered a deficit in the last three years due to visa restrictions in Botswana. Chinese investors are very smart and won’t come to a country where one can be deported even when he has invested a lot in a country and not be given time to wind up his/her businesses, said Nan. Stopping short of saying Botswana government is petty, the Deputy Head of Mission, said that recently a Chinese businessman was deported for a crime he committed two years ago. “He was arrested for illegal fishing and fined and now recently was deported for that crime,” said the frustrated Chinese diplomat.
There has been concerns from law enforcement agencies in Botswana, that some Chinese nationals are involved in some criminal activities especially ivory smuggling. In 2013 President Seretse Khama Ian Khama took a swipe at Chinese companies for compromising developments in Botswana. In an interview with Business Day, Khama is said to have complained that Botswana has bad experiences with Chinese companies and the influx of their nationals in Botswana.“We accept China’s goods. But they don’t have to export their population to sell us those goods. That we can quite ably do. They will crowd us out,” said Khama in an interview with Business Day. Early this year a Chinese national Hongbo, an engineer at Jianshu Company, was arrested at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in possession of elephant tusks. Nan had none of it, saying Chinese nationals are not involved in any criminal activities but are just honest business people. He warned that if the situation does not improve it could lead to Botswana losing a lot since China is one of the largest consumers of Botswana diamonds.
Trade volume between Botswana and China is currently stood at around 300million US dollars in 2014 making it one the largest trading partners with Botswana. China is the second largest consumer of Botswana’s diamonds. The other issue that has strained the relationship between Beijing and Gaborone is the complaint by the latter that Chinese construction companies are doing shoddy jobs on multimillion tenders awarded to them. One of the multibillion pula projects is the failing Morupule B Power Plant, which was constructed by China National Electric Equipment Corporation (CNEEC).The plant has experienced consistent technical problems leading to the country experiencing power outages.  The power crisis is one the issues that nearly cost the ruling party Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) power in the last general elections.
During the press briefing, Chinese ambassador admitted that CNEEC faced some challenges in constructing the Morupule B Power Plant and they have promised to rectify the problems. “As a sign of their commitment, CNEEC sent some experts to investigate why the plant had some technical problems and after the findings will rectify it,” said Chinese ambassador to Botswana Zheng Zhuqiang. He said that CNEEC is a reputable company and have built similar power plants in other country like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and still wondering why the Botswana one gave them problems. He refuted allegations that the embassy once advised Botswana government not to engage CNEEC as they didn’t have experience in constructing a mega project like Morupule Power Plant. “I just read that in the media and don’t know where it is coming from because CNEEC has experience in constructing big power plants,” he said.
Although CNEEC is a state owned company, Zhuqiang said that government does not have any control over it and as such they cannot be answerable to their deals with Botswana government. Another project that has angered Botswana government is the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport project which cost taxpayers over P500 million. Government had to terminate the services of the contractor Sinohydro, a Chinese state owned company after they failed to complete it on time. The Chinese ambassador said that the issue is different from the Morupule B Power plant as they were never involved in the negotiations for the project.
Moitoi travelled to China to meet her Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi to raise concerns over the shoddy jobs done by Chinese contractors. Minister of Labour and Home Affairs Edwin Batshu acknowledged that the Chinese ambassador has once approached him regarding the complaints that Chinese nationals are either denied visa or deported out of Botswana. “Some of the people have been denied visa because of security reasons as some of them come masquerading as business people while they are criminals,” he said adding that they are not targeting any particular nationals. He said that one has to apply for visa and there is a board that will review the applications and determine who qualifies.
Batshu said China is not the first to complain about their nationals who are denied visas as Bangladesh and Nigerian ambassadors have also raised that concerns but were given reasons why some of their nationals are denied visas or deported.
It was recently revealed during the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that visa restrictions which were mostly blamed on Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) could have cost the country over P4 billion of foreign direct investment. The Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism has also complained that the visa restrictions by the department of immigration have affected tourism in Botswana.PAC Chairman Samson Guma Moyo revealed  during the PAC hearings that he has received complaints from various stakeholders among them, Botswana Investment Trade Centre (BITC) and Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB) over unexplained rejection of foreign entrepreneurs and tourist VISAs and work permits.

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