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Itinerant envoy on wheels
2013-09-17 15:31

China's Ambassador to Belgium sees himself as a matchmaker

Liao Liqiang always seems to be on the go. His driver tells him he has covered about 80,000 kilometers by car since he became China's ambassador to Belgium in May 2011. It means Liao has traveled an average of more than 100 kilometers a day, which for tiny Belgium (he calls it the tiny Titan) is a lot.

"I want to know more about this country, mingling and talking with the locals and friends and getting the two countries to know each other better," Liao, 49, says in the guest room of his official residence, hidden in a forest a short walk from his office in a picturesque suburban area of Brussels.

As an "ambassador on wheels", Liao says he is a salesman for both Belgium and China and a matchmaker for the two economies. Liao says he has already set foot in all of the country's 10 provinces.

"Belgium, a small country with state-of-the-art science and technology know-how, can play a bigger role in China's economic structural reform and grow economically by tapping into the Chinese market," he says.

Liao uses the letters A to E to describe Belgium. A stands for antique, denoting the country's long history, B is for beer, a reference to the country's 800 brands.

"This country is also famous for chocolate and diamonds; E is euro, a symbol of the European Union of which Belgium is the heart."

Because of the country's strengths, Liao says, he is optimistic about Sino-Belgium cooperation in high-tech to help China move up the economic value chain, even as the two sides work to expand cooperation on two-way investment, urbanization, environmental protection and agricultural modernization.

Belgium has "special expertise" and can make special contributions in these areas, Liao says.

"China is committed to structural reform, and the advantages in the Tiny Titan can well meet the demands of our country's development, which is changing gears."

Liao spent two hours talking to China Daily before the Belgian Prime Minister, Elio Di Rupo, travelled to China on Sept 9.

Liao says China is developing economically thanks to industrialization, computerization and urbanization and Belgium's advantages in microelectronics, electronic waste processing, bio-pharmaceutical and agriculture provide good opportunities for the two countries to work together.

"As a diplomatic salesman and matchmaker, I am always trying to find possibilities for both sides to explore potentials."

Liao says healthy relations are the result of a long history of cooperation and exchange.

"In 1971 the two countries established diplomatic relations, opening a new chapter in bilateral ties, furthering friendly exchanges between the two peoples that began in the 17th century."

Belgium was one of the first European countries to do a technology exchange with China, in 1979, when the country offered a 900 million Belgian franc (22 million euros) no-interest loan to support a thermal power plant project in then impoverished Henan province.

Liao cites Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell Co Ltd and Xian Janssen Pharmaceutical Ltd as two well-known China-Belgium joint ventures, which were among the pioneers in the 1980s when China's opening up began. Xian Janssen Pharmaceutical was one of the earliest multinational pharmaceutical companies to enter China after opening-up.

China-Belgium relations have developed smoothly over the past 40 years and there have been solid achievements in recent years, Liao says. The visit of King Albert II, now retired, to China in 2005 further deepened bilateral exchanges and cooperation.

"Bilateral trade has risen from over $20 million in 1971 to $26.3 billion last year. Bilateral cooperation has gradually extended to cover various fields of economics and trade, science and technology, education and culture."

The year Liao was appointed ambassador and bilateral trade was worth $29.1 billion, but, on the back of the European financial crisis, the figure last year was $26 billion. To increase and diversify bilateral trade, Liao says, he will focus on increasing Sino-Belgian cooperation in high-tech.

Such cooperation will help China, he says, adding that the two sides are ready to expand cooperation in investment, urbanization, environmental protection and agricultural modernization.

Belgium is China's sixth-largest trading partner among all the 28 EU member countries. China, as Belgium's second-largest trading partner outside the EU, has rapidly increased its investment in the country. Cumulative non-financial direct investment from China was $140 million at the end of last year, and more than 300 Belgian companies have invested in China.

Last year, China invested $82 million in Belgium and Chinese enterprises have invested more than $650 million accumulatively in the country.

Liao, who was once assistant mayor of Mianyang, Sichuan province, says that earlier he had not intended to become a diplomat.

When he was a student at Wuhan University he majored in French but devoted much of his time to studying law.

He even used to be a coffee shop proprietor in his student days. When he was at university he was the student union president and found that there was no place for university associations and students to hold meetings and relax, so the student union opened a non-profit cafe on campus.

It may well have been one of China's first university cafes, even if it was located in the corner of a canteen, and offered only cheap instant coffee, but which, he says, still managed to draw crowds every night.

Liao's business sense has not been wasted but has been channeled into helping him promote economic ties between China and Belgium.

Besides economic growth, he says, culture is a foundation for international communication, and since he was appointed ambassador he has made it his mission to increase exchanges between the countries' peoples.

Liao says that when he met the previous king, the monarch reminisced fondly on his trips to China in 2005 and 2009. It made Liao realize that "before you talk about business you should know the other side first, and build friendship before a trade relationship". That has driven his resolve to promote cultural exchanges.

Belgium has four Confucius Institutes, and 23 Belgian elementary schools and middle schools offer courses in Mandarin. Liao says that over the past two years he has visited them all.

A Chinese cultural center will be built in Brussels soon, and that will be an important platform for enhancing mutual understanding between Europe and China, he says.

China's Ambassador to Belgium, Liao Liqiang, has a way of using his sales skills to get his message across. Provided to China Daily

Liao puts a premium on "talking with the locals and friends". Provided to China Daily

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