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Focus - Didier Reynders
How can tiny Belgium catch the eye of a giant like China? Foreign minister Didier Reynders encourages the Middle Kingdom to listen to the Low Countries on a whirlwind mission to Beijing. The Bulletin joins him
Didier Reynders saunters out of his official car and skips up the steps to the dragon’s lair. Of course, as Belgium’s foreign minister, Reynders would never describe it as such, but officials talk in the hushed tones of bystanders watching an intrepid knight encounter a mythical beast of yore. The lair in question is Zhongnanhai, next to Beijing’s Forbidden City. It is the inner sanctum of Chinese power, the fiercely guarded headquarters of the Communist Party and the State Council, as well as the actual home of leaders since Mao Zedong.
For Reynders, this is a perfect moment: making an impression on the Chinese, and selling Brand Belgium. With a chipmunk grin, he grasps the hand of China’s vice-premier Li Keqiang and – in English – applies all of his garrulous charm. “It’s good to see you again,” he says, although it was only in May, in Brussels, that they last met. Li – expected to be named China’s new premier in October, when a wave of leadership changes will sweep over the Communist Party – appears to be won over, as they sit down in front of an elaborately painted screen for their formal chat.
This is just one stop in Reynders’ three-day mission in Beijing. He has a packed schedule of meetings with officials and business leaders, speeches and interviews as he bids to make an impact on the country. It’s an uphill task: Belgium’s 11 million population is just one 120th the size of China’s 1.3 billion. Beijing alone, almost twice Belgium’s size, is growing so fast it adds the population of Antwerp every year. If Belgium sometimes finds it hard to make its voice heard in Europe, what hope can it have in the Middle Kingdom?
But Reynders, 53, is nothing if not ambitious in his efforts to impress. As well as meeting Li, he also has encounters with other top officials, including China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, and Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic development body, while vice foreign minister Zhang Zhijun hosts a banquet for him.
Reynders, who is also one of Belgium’s six deputy prime ministers, will discuss a broad line of issues with his counterparts. For example, he asks China to join international efforts to stop the violence in Syria, in particular by pressuring Russia, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s strongest ally in the United Nations. He repeats the EU line about respecting domestic human rights and civil liberties, a mantra that irritates the Chinese even if they are now used to the formula. And he urges Beijing to engage more fully in international climate-change agreements, while offering to partner various Chinese environmental initiatives, notably in waste treatment.
“Yes, we are modest in size,” he tells me after his meetings. “But have some key assets. We are one of the world’s top twenty biggest economies. We are also the capital of Europe, and we are founder members of the EU and of Nato. And we have experience: we were the second biggest industrial power in the world in the nineteenth century. We still play important roles in the world, as you saw last year when we joined the coalition in Libya, and before that in Afghanistan.”
Reynders could have picked up the phone – or even used Skype – to chat with the Chinese, but he insists that the personal visits make a difference. “Bilateral relations are much easier and more effective when they are conducted directly,” he says.
As Belgium’s finance minister for 12 years before moving to the Foreign Ministry last December, Reynders has a unique expertise on the euro, and his counterparts are particularly keen to hear his opinion on the raging turmoil in the single currency. He is upbeat about the situation, however. “Europe has shown resilience in the past,” he says. “I think it will do so again.”
He gives his take on why the crisis occurred: the asymmetry between a common European currency and national fiscal policies, which led to a widening spread of interest rates on debt. And then he offers his prescription: “The solution lies in more convergence and hence in more Europe,” he says. “And that is what we are working towards.” He also draws on some Chinese inspiration for Europe. “We try to manage 500 million people in Europe, but we should look at China doing the same for 1.3 billion. We can learn from them, and realise that it is not an impossible task,” he says.
This was not a negotiating mission, although Reynders did sign an amusingly original agreement: the ‘Bumblebee Protocol’. The protocol, which comes after an equally niche bull sperm export accord signed last month, is a literal one, allowing China to import up to 40 million bees a year from Belgium. “Some may think this modest insect is a marginal product. They should think again, as it actually has super powers,” Reynders said at the signing ceremony.
The deal was pushed by Belgium-based Biobest, the world’s second biggest bee exporter, which says there are 634,000 hectares of Chinese crops – including tomatoes, aubergines, melons and cucumbers – that could benefit from the bees. But Reynders uses the occasion to hail the often unheralded drive by Chinese authorities towards a greener and technologically advanced agriculture. “Bumblebees, used for biological pollination of crops, substitute chemical hormones and human labour, reduce chemical residues on the fruits and increase yields by up to thirty percent,” he says.
In between his encounters with officials, Reynders fits in meetings with business leaders, helping oil the wheels of commerce for Belgium in China. “I see myself as a salesman,” he says. “On site you can see the real bosses of big businesses in China.”
Belgium is keen to exploit every avenue for trade and investment with China. Eurostat figures reveal China invested US$843 million in Belgium between 2000 and 2011, while two-way trade between China and Belgium was worth €24 billion last year. Last October, Belgium and China celebrated 40 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations: it provided Prince Philippe with the chance to lead a 450-strong, 10-day trade mission to five Chinese cities. Reynders himself meets the head of Hainen Airlines, Chen Fang, who wants to see more flights to Brussels and Liège. He also discusses a possible venture involving Belgium’s Exmar in exporting Colombian liquefied petroleum gas on ships built in China.
And he pushes Belgium’s merits as a trading partner at every occasion. He has perfected a spiel for Belgium, which he reels off in an interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television. He elaborates later in a speech to three trade groups: the Benelux Chamber of Commerce, the EU Chamber of Commerce for China, and the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs. “This is in essence the story of Belgium: a highly developed and mature society, fully geared to the knowledge economy, engaged in scientific research and in innovation, sensitive to international developments and therefore clearly oriented towards exchanges with the outside world,” he says.
But he does even better when he dispenses with the set speech. A few hours later, speaking at another conference, he plugs Belgium as the ideal venue for investors. He talks of the country as the gateway to Europe, offering generous tax incentives, many of which he himself put in place. “And if you need to convince your wife or husband about the quality of life in our country, we have the best fries in the world, the best chocolates, the best beers, fabulous restaurants and beautiful diamonds,” he says. This, he later tells me, is only half a jest. “When we visit people, they always joke about beer and chocolates, but these are important Belgian businesses, as important as diamonds and chemicals,” he says.
Beer and chocolates help establish the country’s identity, but they are not the most distinctly Belgian export. That would be Tintin, who enjoys a remarkable popularity in China. Belgian officials underline the comic book hero’s nationality – or at least that of his creator, Hergé – and during his trip Reynders unveils a brightly coloured banner of Tintin that hangs over the embassy’s wall. The unveiling takes place with translator Wang Bingdong, who was responsible for the official Chinese versions of the Tintin books, published in 2010. However, pirate copies have been around for decades, especially the two ‘Dingding’ adventures set in China itself. Tintin first went in The Blue Lotus, in 1936, where he battled with Japanese-funded opium smugglers in Shanghai: the embassy banner is an image from the book of Tintin emerging from a Ming vase. Hergé revisited the country in 1960 with Tintin in Tibet (renamed Tintin in Chinese Tibet to reflect Beijing’s claim that Tibet is part of China).
It’s time to head back home. There is one last official stop on the trip, and it is a cultural visit: the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. This is a gallery funded by Belgian foodstuffs baron and art collector Guy Ullens and his wife Myriam, and is the country’s most important modern art centre. Opened in 2007 in Beijing’s hip Dashanzi or 798 district, the Ullens centre houses the collection in a Bauhaus-style former arms factory. Reynders is given a tour and shown their latest exhibits. Afterwards, the minister’s entourage stops off at a trendy hotel-restaurant, Grace Beijing, run by a former chef from the Barsey lounge restaurant, on Avenue Louise in Brussels.
By now, Reynders has changed out of his suit. He is still in relatively smart clothes, but with no tie, and his trousers don’t match his blazer. “I can’t be too informal. I can’t wear sneakers or jeans,” he says. “You have to respect local protocol: in Tunisia, they had a guard of honour around me all the time, so I had to be smart. I always have an emergency tie ready.”
The jetlag is catching up. Adrenaline has kept him going on a few hours’ sleep, but on the plane itself, Reynders settles into his seat for a long nap on the flight back to Brussels.
FACTS & FIGURES
• 1971: diplomatic relations between China and Belgium were established
• €24 billion: two-way trade between the countries
• US$843m: the amount China invested in Belgium between 2000 and 2011