China must overcome image crisis in Colombia

A new Confucius Institute opens in Medellín, Colombia. In May, Chinese premier Li Keqiang stressed the need to improve cultural ties between China and Colombia (image: Universidad EAFIT/ Flickr)

China must overcome image crisis in Colombia

Despite the wealth of opportunities presented by Beijing to improve Colombia’s infrastructure, a third of Colombians still have a negative perception of China, according a recent survey.

The survey by the Pew Research Center carried out in 44 countries revealed that last year only 48% of Latin Americans viewed China favourably, compared to 66% for the US. In Colombia, however, positive perceptions were among the lowest at 28%, compared to 56% in Peru, 60% in Chile and 67% in Venezuela.

And the proportion of Colombians with an unfavourable perception of China was 32%, lower than the 44% in Brazil but higher than the 26% in in Chile and Peru and the 19% in Nicaragua. More than 45% of Colombian respondents thought China’s expansion into Latin America was a bad thing for their country, one of the highest rates in the region.

“Many Colombians are stuck with the idea of the Communist China of the 70s. It’s obviously an outdated perception, but it still contributes,” said Benjamin Creutzfeldt, a professor at the Bogotá-based College for Advanced Administration Studies (CESA).

According to Creutzfeldt, this generally negative view is enduring in nature and its proponents point to the environmental conflicts surrounding big Chinese-funded infrastructure projects to justify it – but it is not driven by Colombia’s “environmental conscience”, Creutzfeldt says.

Prejudices

Creutzfeldt thinks that Colombia’s business sector also harbours much prejudice towards China. Despite importing many Chinese products, Colombian businesspeople often don’t admit their connection with China because they fear it will bring bad publicity by association, he says.

This tentative engagement is reflected in China’s comparatively low investment in boosting trade with Colombia. According to the Inter-American Dialogue’s China-Latin America Finance Database, prior to Li Keqiang’s visit in May this year, Colombia had received only US$ 75million in investment, which pales in comparison to the amounts lent to neighbours Venezuela (US$ 56billion), Brazil (US$ 22billion), Ecuador (US$ 10.8billion) and Peru (US$ 2.3billion). Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador have secured yet more credit since the China-CELAC summit in Beijing in January.

Gina Rodriguez, director of the China-Colombia Chamber of Commerce and Integration admits that Colombians still know very little about China and that there is a “long way” to go to improve the trade and investment relationship between the countries. And she agrees with Creutzfeldt that for Colombia’s collective imaginary everything ‘made in China’ is bad.

Speaking at a China-Latin America culture seminar in Bogotá in May, China’s Premier Li Keqiang emphasised the need to increase cultural exchanges between China and Colombia so as to lead to a better understanding and “strengthen practical cooperation”.

But Li Zhiguo, a long-time observer of Chinese overseas investments at Beijing-based law firm Dacheng, argues that the success of commercial relations should be determined by the market, not by politicians.

“The US’ commercial engagement with Colombia is strictly business,” Li told Diálogo Chino and added that irrespective of nationality, doing business properly should depend solely on a company’s management capabilities.

And according to Tatiana Roa, coordinator of green group CENSAT, it’s not the fault of Chinese or other investors that many big infrastructure works in Colombia remain uncompleted.

“The government keeps all the money in Bogotá and none of it reaches the provinces,” says Roa, who claims; “it’s all eaten up by corruption.”

Investment Plans

China’s expansion into Colombia is part of its drive to build strategic alliances with the region which has involved integrating with its more market-friendly economies. Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos and Chinese premier Li Keqiang signed a number of accords to develop infrastructure during Li’s Latin America tour in May. But Environmental groups have voiced concern about some of the projects, including controversial plans to turn the Magdalena River into a logistics super-highway.

There are also plans to develop the giant Pacific port of Buenaventura and to build a road that runs alongside the Meta River, in the east of the country along the border with Venezuela. The road is likely to affect communities who live and farm in the Meta basin.

The Magdalena river project has been met with resistance from environmental groups but Roa points out that other companies also suffer similar public relations problems. She suggests that Colombians are misguided in their heightened wariness of Chinese over US or European companies.

Creutzfeldt argues that Colombia should learn from China in addressing its pressing development issues.

“I think it’s a positive thing that China is promising to participate in the development of Colombia’s infrastructure,” Creutzfeldt says.

But the environmental crisis caused by such rapid development at home is part of what concerns Colombians, says Roa, although she warns against hypocrisy.

“Let’s not pretend the situation here is much better. The degradation of Colombia’s environment is very bad,” she says.

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