"Don’t Rush to Celebrate the Post-Gaddafi Era"

Chinese media views of events in Libya draw implicit contrasts between the Gaddafi regime and China’s own government. Beijing, it is suggested, has enabled the country to stand up against the West by strengthening the nation, enacting judicious reforms and maintaining supposedly unshakeable unity. An opinion piece at Xinhua, for example, lamented the chaotic state of Libya, expressing concern that fragmentation of the rebel forces might stall reconstruction and leave the country vulnerable to Western interference. While The Economist proclaimed “The birth of free Libya“, the Xinhua piece warns readers, “Don’t rush to celebrate the post-Gaddafi era”.

Despite Gaddafi’s fate remaining unknown, his era has undoubtedly come to an end. However, there are reasons to remain cautious, or at least not too optimistic, about the country’s future as no one has any illusions about the tremendous difficulties ahead.

The fact is that a new era is yet to come, due to the current power vacuum and a newly unfolding power struggle.

Currently, the big question is how long the transitional period will last in the crisis-torn North African country now that the Gaddafi regime is gone.

The answer to this largely lies with the rebels themselves. Now the common goal of toppling Gaddafi’s rule in Libya has been achieved, can the rebel camp maintain its unity, establish a new cause, strike a sustainable power balance and secure national reconciliation? For the hastily formed National Transitional Council (NTC), it will be an extremely complicated and arduous mission to establish a national political structure that includes a parliament, various levels of governments, an army and police force.

The Global Times, under the headline “Libya media spectacle gives way to reality“, claimed that the country had become a “mess” for which the West should take responsibility, while simultaneously attributing the collapse of the regime to the will of the people and playing down the importance of Western intervention.

Gaddafi’s fate has told the world two things. First, never underestimate the power of the people. The Libyan civil war resulted from Gaddafi losing the support of his people, particularly those in the east. The spread of the Arab Spring and the help of Western governments were unlikely to have a deep impact without the support of the people.

The second lesson to learn from Gaddafi’s demise is that a weak country cannot easily control its own fate. It cannot escape the will of the major powers.

If Gaddafi had woken up to public demands earlier and pushed reforms through before the West decided to remove him, he might have avoided a civil war and taken Libya down a different path. Now, Libya’s future lies in the hands of the West.

… Overthrowing Gaddafi is entertainment for the media, but talk of rebuilding is not. The West has to take responsibility for clearing up its mess in Libya .

There are too many places in the world that need to be rebuilt right now. Afghanistan and Iraq are already headaches, and Egypt is added to the list. The West is going through economic hardship now, and it is doubtful whether it can stand the Libyan burden?

In a blog post translated by China Media Project, Yang Hengjun dismissed such comparisons with Iraq:

Talking about the whereabouts of Gadhafi recalls the time when Saddam Hussein was found hiding away in a hole, and some people wondered why he would subject himself to such humiliation. What had happened to all of those lofty sentiments about leading the country in opposing America and the West? Was he not willing to sacrifice himself for his righteous cause? How is it these tyrants are all the same? And in talking about Iraq, we can’t help but remember the words we’ve seen on so many websites in China lately: “We’re concerned that Libya might become another Iraq . . . ”

“Another Iraq”? This definitely means seeing Iraq as a negative example. After the American invasion of Iraq there certainly was a time of chaos and killing, but was that not because the dictator Saddam was unwilling to give up his absolute rule and continued to put up a resistance? Try asking the Iraqi people: How many of you are unwilling to make these sacrifices and would rather return to the era of Saddam Hussein? Was there less mass murder and chaos in Iraq under Saddam than there is now …?

When we hear international media reporting again and again on continued chaos and violence in Iraq, however, and when see Iraqis saying on the television that times aren’t as good as they once were, this in fact shows us the biggest difference between Iraq in the time of Saddam and Iraq today. In the Saddam era, did we ever see Iraqis looking into the lens of international media and daring to express their dissatisfaction with political leaders? Those who see Iraq as a textbook of bad examples should look at North Korea, which the American military never has managed to topple. Are the people there harmonious? Are there no killings? Is there no chaos?

A preview of the Global Times’ argument was available in weibo posts by its editor-in-chief, included in Jeremy Goldkorn’s survey of Chinese reactions at Danwei earlier in the week:

The Global Times, a tabloid that often takes an anti-Western stance has not yet published an editorial on the conflict but probably will do soon, judging from editor-in-chief Hu Xijin’s comments on his Weibo microblog. Here is one of them in translation (original here):

In today’s world of negotiation and compromise, Libya has a revolution even more bloody than those of the last century to change the country: this is unreasonable with respect to history.

In this “final battle” for Tripoli, Gaddafi has already been forced into the position of either dying while fighting, or ending up being hanged.

When Western countries can help Libya to make choices, they always help them to make the choice with the highest cost.

Goldkorn went on to describe reactions to a Global Times poll, according to which only 12% believed Gaddafi’s fall could lead to stability in Libya. CNN’s Business 360 blog, meanwhile, collected an array of other views from Sina Weibo:

@FanZaisWorld says: “Lessons learned from Gadhafi’s downfall: (1) never point the gun at your own citizens; (2) never neglect your citizens and have drastic wealth discrepancy; (3) never disregard widespread global values to enforce unpopular governance.”

@JingZhongFengYing: “The Western nations are finally about to make Libya their colony! Libya’s oil will continuously flow into the barrels of the corporate giants in the West! These thieves are stealing in the name of justice! The opposition forces in Libya have become traitors to their country in their battle against the regime.”

@Yanglichuan: “Gadhafi is over. MoFA (China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs) commented, we respect the choice of the Libya people. What if Gadhafi continues to rule the country? MoFA will say the same thing, and China will have its state-run enterprises go back in Libya to find more oil…..This is the most primitive materialism.”

@shanghaixintuofufan: “There is no forever friend but only forever interest. Bye bye our ‘old friend Gaddafi’.”

@Rainliuxing:”After Gaddafi surely comes Syria. There are not many ‘old friends’ left for China.”

Demonstrating that Global Times was not alone in taking the opportunity to cast recriminations, CNN chose the headline “China, Libya’s fair-weather friend”, alluding to China’s scramble to ensure that its oil and other interests outlived the falling regime. China has suggested that the new rulers’ cooperation in the resumption of its oil drilling would be in both parties’ interests. From Reuters:

“China’s investment in Libya, especially its oil investment, is one aspect of mutual economic cooperation between China and Libya, and this cooperation is in the mutual interest of both the people of China and Libya,” the deputy head of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce trade department, Wen Zhongliang, told a news conference.

Wen was answering a question about an official at the Libyan rebel oil firm, AGOCO, who said on Monday that Russian and Chinese firms may lose out on oil contracts for failing to support the rebellion against long-time leader Gaddafi.

“We hope after a return to stability in Libya, Libya will continue to protect the interests and rights of Chinese investors and we hope to continue investment and economic cooperation with Libya in the future,” said Wen ….

Rebel leaders promised last week to honour China’s business contracts in the country and requested China’s help in rebuilding Libya once they ended Gaddafi’s rule, Xinhua reported earlier.

Hoping, no doubt, to secure its role in the reconstruction, China has argued for a UN-led international effort. From Business Insider:

In a phone call with U.S. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said the U.N. should lead redevelopment in Libya, rather than NATO, according to Reuters. China is “willing to work alongside the United Nations to promote a rapid stabilization in Libya and a swift course towards reconciliation and reconstruction,” Yang said in a ministry release.

China’s Ministry of Commerce also weighed in: “We hope to play an active role in rebuilding Libya in the future, together with the international community,” spokesman Shen Danyang told a news conference in Beijing.

In a U.N.-led reconstruction program, where contracts might go to the highest bidder, China would benefit greatly. China has money to spend, it knows how to work cheap and it has a huge demand for energy.

China, India and Russia have yet to officially recognize the rebels, however, which may jeopardize their future economic cooperation. From The Wall Street Journal:

Global powers who took chilly positions toward Libya’s insurgents–such as China, Russia or India–will have trouble getting new oil contracts in the future, a spokesman for a rebel-controlled company said this week.

He was speaking as fighters opposing the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi entered the capital Tripoli over the weekend. Though Gadhafi himself is still nowhere to be found, the development triggered hopes foreign oil companies may be closer to return to Libya after pulling out in February.

Speaking to Dow Jones over the phone, a spokesman for the Arabian Gulf Oil Co. said “for countries that took hostile positions toward the TNC [rebel Transitional National Council], it will be difficult in the future to get new concessions,” citing India, China and Russia. The spokesman said the TNC “will honor existing contracts.”

But being unable to develop new resources in the country that holds Africa’s largest oil and gas reserves would be a setback for these countries. Unlike the U.S. and European nations, which supported the rebels, the three only had a fledgling presence in Libya prior to the war.

China received 11% of Libya’s oil production in 2010 out of 1.8 million barrels of oil a day produced in the North African nation last year.

China has been a supporter of Gaddafi in the past, and earlier this year Gaddafi cited the Chinese government’s suppression of Tiananmen protests as a model in dealing with Libyan rebels. From the Washington Post:

In a frenzied February speech in which he vowed to wipe out rebels like “cockroaches,” Moammar Gaddafi held up China’s 1989 military assault on Tiananmen Square as an example of how to deal with popular unrest.

“Students in Beijing protested for days near a Coca-Cola sign,” he said. “Then the tanks came and crushed them.”

China’s ruling Communist Party, usually quick to publicize tributes from foreign leaders, banned all reference to the Libyan leader’s tirade in the Chinese media and blacked out foreign television coverage of his praise for the “Tiananmen solution.”

Today, the fortified Tripoli compound where Gaddafi declared his intention of mimicking China’s methods is overrun by rebels. And Beijing is scrambling to distance itself from a leader who lauded its approach to dissent and awarded Chinese companies billions of dollars in contracts — but who has for years also embarrassed, unsettled and sometimes defied the Chinese leadership.

Though often in sync with Gaddafi’s diatribes against Western “imperialism” and eager for a piece of Libya’s massive oil and gas reserves, Beijing has long looked askance at his erratic government, which flirted with Taiwan, criticized China for “colonial” behavior in Africa and frustrated the expansion plans of a big state-owned Chinese petroleum company.

From The Globe and Mail:

“China is now encountering the complications of its non-interference policy,” said Patrick Chovanec, associate professor in Beijing’s Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management. “China has a presence in a lot of countries that are seen as potentially politically unstable and yet it has this policy of supporting that status quo…When things are uncertain, it puts China in a very uncomfortable position.”

Beijing had been in fact been in touch with the rebels for some time, maintaining contact with both sides; Mustafa Abdel Jalil, leader of the rebel National Transitional Council, visited China in June, while a high-ranking Chinese diplomat visited the opposition stronghold of Benghazi the following month. This hedging of bets was noted in an Asia Today video report on China’s preparations for a post-Gaddafi Libya:

Also at The Wall Street Journal, Ben Simpfendorfer suggested that the change may in fact be to China’s advantage:

For China, specifically, the risks and opportunities have always been greater. Libya is China’s 11th largest oil supplier. But the Libyan regime had also turned more hostile towards China in recent years. Sure, China had 35,000 workers in the country. Yet the regime has publicly accused China of colonialism and rejected a bid by China National Petroleum Corporation in 2009 to buy the Libyan energy assets of Verenex, a Canadian oil company.

So regime change in Libya might offer China new opportunities. With that in mind, the fact China’s Ambassador to Egypt was in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi last month was an important statement of intent. And Chinese language reports at the time emphasized that he was there to meet with both the Transitional National Council and Chinese companies (who would like to get paid for old contracts, as well as winning new deals).

Perhaps the bigger risk for China, and the rest of Asia, is what regime change in Libya means for stability in the wider Middle East. The Arab Spring appeared to flagging a few months ago, as Libya’s opposition suffered setbacks even as Syria’s regime dug-in. But Ghaddafi’s fall, as well as recent televised scenes of former Egyptian President Mubarak behind bars, will give new impetus to the Middle East’s revolutionaries.

China Daily reported on Tuesday that staff at the Libyan embassy in Beijing replaced the national flag used under Gaddafi with its predecessor, the Kingdom of Libya flag favoured by the rebel National Transition Council.

While Global Times accused the global media of indulging in a “free-for-all”, and reducing the conflict to a form of entertainment, the situation of the 35 foreign journalists trapped in Tripoli’s Rixos hotel focused attention on the dangers of reporting there. Among them were five reporters from China’s own CCTV, who were safely evacuated along with the others on Wednesday. Their video from inside the Rixos had been subtitled and widely redistributed by CNN, providing a glimpse of the situation inside the hotel alongside Twitter postings by CNN’s Matthew Chance:

Xinhua also recounted the arduous journey its reporters had to make even to reach Tripoli:

A crowded border crossing. Numerous wrecked tanks. Charred trucks. Flattened buildings. Guarded checkpoints. Then, finally, Tripoli, rocked by gunfire and explosions.

That was what a group of Xinhua reporters had just seen on their trip from the Tunisia-Libya border to the Libyan capital, a 400-km odyssey across the desert of western Libya after a 300-km detour through Tunisia.

Due to the UN’s no-fly zone over Libya, it was utterly impossible for the reporters to take a commercial flight into Tripoli. Meanwhile, traveling from the rebel-held eastern port city of Benghazi to Tripoli was also nearly impossible, given that the road between the two cities had been riddled with landmines and ships were mostly being used to transport fighters and war supplies.

Under such circumstances, a viable option for the reporters was to enter the war-stricken North African country via its border with Tunisia. Yet because Tunisia had closed the main Ras El Jedir border crossing, the only way left was to make a detour of hundreds of kilometers and cross the Dehiba border post, which was controlled by Libyan rebels ….

For the foreign reporters covering the Libya conflict, the stress and hardships they had to endure were only temporary and therefore endurable. But for the Libyans, who were still facing an uncertain future and the arduous task of repairing their ravaged homes and hearts, it was hell.


The birth of free Libya – The Economist
Don’t rush to celebrate the post-Gaddafi era – Xinhua
Libya media spectacle gives way to reality – Global Times
Qaddafi ‘s imminent fall – some views from China – Danwei
China, Libya’s fair-weather friend – Business 360 – CNN.com
China urges Libya to protect investments – Reuters
China Swoops In To Claim Lucrative Libyan Infrastructure Deals – Business Insider
Libya Rebel Oil Official Says China, Russia Will Have Trouble Getting New Deals – WSJ.com
Libya policy a balancing act for China – The Washington Post
Why China may regret its support for Gadhafi – The Globe and Mail
What Does Gadhafi’s Fall Mean For Asia? – Dispatch – WSJ
Stuck inside the Rixos hotel – CNN.com
Xinhua reporters’ journey through war-ravaged Libya – Xinhua
Flag changes at Libyan embassy in Beijing – chinadaily.com.cn

Victoria Wu contributed to this post.


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