By Wang Hai
Zhang Jiuhuan, former Chinese Ambassador to Singapore and Thailand, knows how to tell a good story.
“A tasty orange grown in southern China would turn sour if it’s grown in the north,” Zhang recounted while telling of one of his favorite stories during an interview with China Report ASEAN at his home in Beijing. “The fruit may look the same but the taste is quite different. The moral of this thousand-year-old story is that to learn something new, one should not simply copy what someone else has done. Instead, you should make adjustments according to the situation. In other words, ‘transplanting’ is not a good idea. A hybrid is much better. I told my Singaporean friends this story, and they agreed with me. Our cooperation on the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park, which we had been working on at the time, became much easier after that.”
Zhang is a man of exceptional literary talent and a veteran diplomat who served as director general of the Department of Asian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before he was appointed Chinese Ambassador to Singapore. His vivid accounts of Singapore, Thailand and other ASEAN countries go beyond any ordinary narrative on Southeast Asia.
Suzhou Industrial Park
To the east of the old city center of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, lies Jingji Lake. Row upon row of tall buildings by the lake showcase the thriving local economic scene. Twenty-two years ago, the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park was first established on Jingji Lake. Today, the park has become a thriving economic engine in Suzhou’s urban development, as well as the most prominent example of China-Singapore intergovernmental cooperation.
In 1994, after a fairly long period of economic development, Singapore, as one of the “Four Asian Tigers”, showed a willingness to engage in foreign economic cooperation. At the time, China was in its early stages of reform and opening up, and was in urgent need of advanced technology, capital and management experience. Singapore was able to offer access to these resources, and cooperation came together at a vital moment in the creation of the industrial park.
When the two governments began initial contact and consultation on the project, Zhang was serving as deputy director general of the Department of Asian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He attached great importance to this major cooperation project and closely followed its progress. According to Zhang, both sides showed a strong willingness to invest during the “honeymoon” period after the park was initially launched. The project looked promising. However, when it came to actual implementation, there appeared a lot of specific issues that needed to be addressed, which resulted in a variety of difficulties and challenges.
In 2000, Zhang was appointed China’s Ambassador to Singapore. As he assumed office, the six-year-old industrial park was encountering serious difficulties. A wave of problems faced the project, and some stakeholders became pessimistic about its future. At one point, it was rumored that the Singaporean government was prepared to withdraw investment.
In his new role as Ambassador, Zhang did some in-depth research on the ground, getting in contact with Singaporean stakeholders to hear their views on the park’s development.
“Singapore was successful in developing the Jurong Industrial Estate in Singapore,” Zhang said. “Therefore, they had intended to apply the Jurong model to Suzhou. In other words, to ‘transplant’ their Jurong model. However, this thinking didn’t work properly. Suzhou is in a different location with a different climate. The park’s construction was slowed down. I spoke with my Singaporean friends about whether or not this ‘transplant’ model was effective, or if there was a better idea for going forward.”
Zhang told his friends that a hybrid model would likely be more successful. The two sides gradually reached a consensus on how to proceed. With constant communication and adjustments, various difficulties were overcome. The park grew quickly, driving the development of peripheral areas. In May 2004, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented: “The Suzhou Industrial Park is the most important cooperation project between Singapore and China. It is something to be proud of.”
In October 2003, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao attended the 7th ASEANChina (10+1) Leaders’ Meeting, in which he put forward a proposal that a China-ASEAN Expo and a ChinaASEAN Business and Investment Summit should be held annually from 2004 in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The proposal was well received by ASEAN leaders. So far, the expo has been held 12 times since its launch in 2004.
The China-ASEAN Expo has improved each year since its initial launch in 2004, playing a significant role in the construction of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area.
Zhang, who is originally from Guangxi, felt a sense of duty to do something meaningful for his native region. When the expo was first started in 2004, Zhang assumed a new role as Chinese Ambassador to Thailand. At that time, the Guangxi regional government contacted him, seeking assistance in promoting the expo. Zhang responded that he would take on the role of promoter, saying that it was part of his job as a Chinese Ambassador in an ASEAN country.
“It was a common understanding among many Chinese diplomats in Southeast Asia that the expo should be promoted as a major event,” Zhang said. “We should do well in communicating with all parties in an effort to convince them that the expo in Guangxi would be held successfully, and a great deal could be achieved.”
In Zhang’s view, the expo has improved each year since its initial launch in 2004, playing a significant role in the construction of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area.
Zhang said the expo has become an important “four-in-one platform”.
“First, it is a platform for economic and trade cooperation between China and ASEAN countries,” he illustrated. “Second, it offers a stage for cultural exchanges, highlighted by the annual Country of Honor activities. Third, it has become a platform for experts, scholars and think tanks to conduct high-level discussions. And fourth, most importantly, it has become a platform for important members of the government to exchange views on issues of common concern, promoting cooperation, just like a new stage of diplomacy.”
In recent years, poetry has become one of Zhang’s favorite hobbies. He has published a collection of his poems called Xinglu Ji (A Collection of My Journeys). He enjoys writing in his spare time as an expression of his emotions. In the preface to his anthology, former Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing praises Zhang as a “diplomat fully dedicated to the people and to the motherland”. In the 12 years Zhang spent as a diplomat in ASEAN countries, he devoted his loyalty, sincerity and love to the development of China-ASEAN relations with a “willing heart”.