15 November 2019

Xi’s absence at Mandela memorial a misstep for China

As the world mourned anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, China missed a golden opportunity to show that it is what it claims to be: a responsible power.

By sending Vice President Li Yuanchao to join more than 90 world leaders at a memorial service on Dec. 10, China left an impression that it did not pay due respect to the late leader. 

Humility was evident in the U.S. delegation, which included four of the country’s five living presidents; George HW Bush was the only exception due to ill health. Hillary Clinton, a presidential hopeful and former first lady, was also there.

Guests delivering speeches at the memorial included United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, African Union Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, U.S. President Barack Obama, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Apart from Li, there was no deputy head of an organization or country.

Those with knowledge of China’s political hierarchy will soon realize that Vice President Li is not at the very top of the country’s top decision-making body.

Li is not on the seven-member Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. He ranks eighth in the party’s power structure so it’s no wonder that South Africans were not happy with China. Gathering to honor Mandela on Dec. 10, the South African community in Beijing asked why President Xi Jinping was not in Johannesburg. They appeared to be upset, if not angry, at China’s “arrogance”.

Arrogance is an accusation that Chinese diplomats would surely reject, arguing that sending a vice president is already unprecedented. It is true that China’s presidents and premiers have not attended the funerals of foreign leaders for more than three decades. China sends a minister-level official as the special representative of the president to attend leaders’ funerals or inaugurations.

But Mandela was not an ordinary figure; he deserved the presence of a Chinese leader at his memorial. China should not cite usual practice to justify the absence because it was a tradition to send a government, state or party head to the funerals of old friends, including Joseph Stalin, Ho Chi Minh and Josip Broz Tito, to name a few.

More recently, China sent Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin to the funeral of Norodom Sihanouk in 2012. His political position was certainly higher than that of Li Yuanchao.

Given South Africa’s growing ties with China through the collective rise of the BRICS nations, China was wrong not to send a higher-ranking official to Johannesburg.

China’s “arrogance” of not sending top leaders to foreign leaders’ funerals may stem from the “independent diplomatic strategy” it has adopted since opening-up and reform. In the past three decades, the country has tended to not to ally with any groups, focusing on its economic development.

But times have changed.

With the country’s growing integration with the world and rising economic clout, its interaction with other nations is expanding and it must learn to behave as a member of the international community.

To achieve what Xi calls the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation, Beijing must first ensure others recognize it as a member of the big global family. And to do this China has to learn to respect others.

When Chinese officials want to adopt a new approach they often cite “international practice” to justify the policy. But in the case of Mandela, China failed to follow international practice. It should learn a lesson or two from this experience.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



The writer is an economic commentator. He writes mostly on business issues in Greater China.