China’s ambassador to Morocco speaks to MWN about China’s unassuming attitude when cooperating with other countries and why Morocco has the potential to achieve the prosperity it seeks.
Rabat – Li Li, China’s ambassador to Morocco, does not seem to mind all the fuss about the “Chinese miracle,” the catchy description economists and political commentators often use to refer to the spectacular economic growth and structural changes the Asian giant has seen in recent decades.
When you ask Ambassador Li about China’s eye-catching rise in global prominence and what lessons other developing countries can take from such a heartwarming success story, you get what you almost always get from China on questions like modernity or globalization: An unrepentant belief in the now increasingly invoked precept that “one size does not fit all.”
“As China’s ambassador to Morocco,” he told Morocco World News at a book launch in Rabat last week, “I really tend to distance myself from giving in to this assuming attitude that contends that Morocco has a lot to learn from China.”
He continued by pointing to the efforts Morocco has made in recent years to bring political reforms and effective policies that could put the North African kingdom on track to materialize the “royal vision” of inclusive development. “I have to admit I have been a firsthand witness to Morocco’s development during my time here as China’s ambassador,” he stressed.
These comments, taken straight from China’s “no strings attached” and “equal partnership” playbook when dealing with other countries, especially those from the developing world, came on December 10, as Ambassador Li participated in the launching of the Arabic translation of President Xi Jinping’s book, “The Governance of China.”
At the event, the ambassador spoke pointedly about the role of culture and history in the socio-economic outcome of a country. But mostly, of course, he spoke about the “historic” relationship between Morocco and China and how to make the two nations’ “multifaceted” and “wide-ranging” friendship even stronger.
Adorning his speech with Chinese historical and cultural references, he cited President Jinping and—inevitably— channeled lots of Confucius quotes to hammer home his belief in culture and history being essential in driving a country’s development.
During the book launch, there was a procession of approving nods and whispers of agreement from the audience as Ambassador Li spoke of improving the cultural cooperation between Rabat and Beijing.
The event’s guests and speakers, including Fathallah Oualalou, author and former economy minister of Morocco, made the same points as Ambassador Li when speaking about the “remarkable Chinese miracle” in the past five or six decades and what this could mean for China-Morocco and China-Africa in a global context marked by the inevitability of China’s global hegemony.
“For me, while China has made immense progress in recent years, two things have really stood out: the depth of the country’s economic model, and the launching of the Belt and the Road Initiative,” Oualalou said.
The Moroccan economist did not only speak from his experience dealing with China as Morocco’s economy minister. Author of an acclaimed book on China’s economic rise and political “indispensability” in our era of “multipolar or a-polar” globalization, Oualalou made it clear that he was speaking from the perspective of an economist who has done his homework in understanding why China’s global leadership ambitions are unstoppable and whether—or how—other developing countries should seek inspiration from the Chinese development model.
Chiming in, other guests—Moroccans and Chinese—came up with similar points, all puncturing the need to upgrade and strengthen China-Morocco ties. “Win-win,” “equitable exchanges,” and “coincidence of wants” were among the working concepts that every other speaker at the event seemed to agree on, although there was also an unarticulated agreement that Morocco actually has more to learn from China than the other way around.
Ambassador Li, for his part, seemed firmly invested in avoiding anything that could have easily been interpreted as patronizing.
“Morocco has incredible potential. And we [the Chinese government] have always been driven by the ambition to go as far as possible, and why not in Morocco, to learn more about the world and nourish our national aspirations,” he told MWN.
Does that mean that Morocco, too, could teach China about development? It’s always a two-way street business, the ambassador argued, by which he meant that both countries can and should learn from their cooperation.
“I really believe that in cooperating with Morocco, all we should do is share with our Moroccan friends our experience with economic development. But the choice of which Chinese experience to try or emulate is ultimately up to Morocco. The Chinese will never teach, never.”
His rhetoric evinced the sprinkles of self-awareness of a voice from a “developing country” (It’s curious that China is still described as such) who knows what most people in the “Global South” abhor: the self-appointed lesson givers from “developed” or “more economically advanced” countries whose political successes have filled them with the self-righteous pretentiousness of having the responsibility to drag poorer countries from the abyss of poverty and failed policies.
At the risk of sounding didactic and self-absorbed, Ambassador Li was unimpeachably diplomatic and measured when speaking of China’s “economic miracle”—and it is worth mentioning that he detests that description—and its significance for scores of other developing countries setting out to improve their economic performance.
Ambassador Li Li’s principled abhorrence of the inherent condescension of richer countries is commendable in many regards. But the problem with such measured, heavily balanced, and unassailable self-conscious rhetoric is that one never gets to the heart of the speaker’s politics, or profound convictions.
Is it a performance? What, for instance, is Morocco’s place in China’s African ambitions? Does Rabat’s growing continental assertiveness make it central in China’s plans for Africa, I asked Ambassador Li, desperately directing my questions in order to get bolder, less self-aware answers.
In response, there was a short, longish pause, littered with a series of bearably long sighs. There was—again—a measured silence, the “are-you-serious-right-now” kind of composure of those with unshakable belief in the veracity or wisdom of what they are about to say. And then came the actual (spoken) answer, confident, serene, and almost erudite.
“I hate saying that this or that country is central for China. When it comes to economic cooperation between countries, the norms are always dictated by the market, by companies which are actually the ones that drive and sustain the cooperation.
“So the market decides. But I should add that I trust Morocco’s economic potential, because not only is this country, like China, politically stable and economically open to the world, I see here a remarkable willingness to cooperate with other countries. So I think Morocco and China can become central for each other and develop relations where we learn from each others’ experiences.”
While this felt like a continuation of what Ambassador Li said during the book launch minutes earlier, it was encouraging enough that he was at least willing to argue, make a more detailed, bolder case for the bullet-points-like recital he had offered earlier.
In some ways, it helped perhaps that Ambassador Li’s response was a fitting summary of what China has been advocating for as an increasingly global player. Having weathered the storms of Cold War era bipolarization and post-Cold War unipolarization, Fathallah Oualalou wrote in the introduction to his book on China’s rise, “China is offering a kind of harmonious globalization, which implies the equal participation and involvement of all countries in global exchanges. The point is that no individual culture or country should feel entitled to run the world.”
In our interview, Ambassador gave more flesh to the “harmonious globalization” argument. “With the level of stability and tolerance that Morocco offers, coupled with the country’s burning desire to go forward, I think we can work out a kind of cooperation where there is enough oxygen for both countries [Morocco and China] to learn,” he argued, speaking with the vigor of a new convert.
Inspiration, not duplication
Of development and “economic miracle,” Ambassador Li offered no fanciful theories.
However, not content to limit himself to constantly shrugging off the notion that other developing countries could learn from China, he spoke about why such an attitude—China teaching others what works best for them—would be catastrophic for both China and the countries it would pretend to teach. While this would make China condescending, it would deprive the recipient countries from an inescapable element on the road to development: The right to make mistakes while finding one’s own way.
For the ambassador, China’s success is not an invitation for others to be like the Asian giant, or duplicate what worked for China. Rather, a close inspection of China’s rise—both the history of successive dynasties that ruled it and the arduous, mistakes-laden path that it took in the last century—should be a telling reminder that every country is duty-bound to find within its own political and social traditions what is best for its social needs and economic aspirations.
The “Chinese way,” as some commentators have dubbed China’s model, is neither self-perpetuating nor miraculous, Ambassador Li suggested. It should therefore not be taken for granted by those who admire its effectiveness, nor should they try to emulate it regardless of their own social and political realities.
The argument is well-established among China-Africa scholars. Even in its engagement on the security front in Africa, writes Abdou Rahim Lema, a Yenching Scholar at Peking University focusing on China-Africa security, Beijing, unlike Western partners who usually come to the continent with ready-made policies, instant panacea to Africa’s problems, has opted for “African solutions to African problems.”
Ambassador Li agrees, at least in spirit. China’s sudden development after decades of failed or less successful attempts, according to him, is perhaps the most striking indication that change does not occur, nor does national wealth accumulate magically, courtesy of some foreign generosity. Rather, it is painfully, diligently achieved. It takes sustained effort, immense investment, incredible political will, and—perhaps more importantly—a certain degree of comfort with making mistakes.
As any successful individual would attest, the ambassador seemed to contend, success is the child of countless failures. And so, only after many ill-conceived, sometimes calamitous policies, can a country ultimately hit the start button that eventually unleashes the hitherto dormant potential to devise the policies that finally work. The process is as vital as the outcome is gratifying.
Development, in the ambassador’s analysis, is a coming-of-age story, a journey of maturity and learning. It’s about resilience, adaptation, last-ditch adjustments, and reorganization. It’s not about hoping for the miracle to happen. It’s about setting out to make the miracle happen, to achieve the unprecedented. This all the while knowing that the horrendous and immeasurably horrific may occur before the coveted miracle finally presents itself. Here, political vision and ambition are essential; but they are not enough. It also takes guts to admit that while change can—and will— hurt, it is worth the try and the sacrifices.
What, exactly, does that say of Morocco’s recently launched, much-reported new development model?
Here, Ambassador Li allowed himself a relatively fawning praise for Morocco’s recent policies. In a calm, unassuming voice, he gave due credit to the North African kingdom’s recent reforms and perceived willingness to be a force to reckon with in global dialogues. But, even while highlighting the undeniable merits of Morocco’s reforms, Ambassador Li drifted back to his earlier points about the need for Moroccan policymakers not to give in to the fashionable idea of “importing” success stories.
It does not benefit Morocco, he insisted, to attempt to be another China, or Africa’s China. It is enough to be a better Morocco, investing in becoming more economically advanced and brighter on many other fronts, including education and scientific innovation, but never altering its cultural specificities and underlying political culture. This means the whole point of economic development—yet again—is not to mindlessly emulate what has worked elsewhere in the hopes that it would work here. The point is to get inspiration from others in order to devise your own way, what works for you.
“I understand that Moroccans like to say that Chinese are hardworking and diligent people. But these [diligence and hard work] are fundamental virtues for development and the kinds of aspirations that Morocco is now nourishing.
“Some years ago, the consensus was that China was the world’s factory. Now there is a growing sense that China is becoming the world’s market. This means that China’s policy of opening to the world has paid noticeable dividends. With Morocco’s new development model under the impulsion of the King [Mohammed VI], a similar experience is possible here,” he said.