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June 22, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 218

Nasrallah's Chinese Delusion

June 22, 2020 | By Alberto M. Fernandez
Lebanon | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 218


On June 17, Naim Qassem, the deputy of the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbullah which enforces the Iranian satrapy over Lebanon, gave a lengthy interview to the LBC channel in Beirut.[1] Ostensibly, Qassem and his boss Hassan Nasrallah are just the leadership of a political party/"resistance" organization, but Hizbullah's stranglehold over the country means that everyone looks for context and meaning in these periodic discourses and interviews. Enemies look for clues, and Iran's servants in Lebanon look for guidance.

Among other points, Qassem reiterated a point made earlier, that Lebanon should look east for economic support as it seeks to survive a financial crisis which has morphed inevitably into an unprecedented economic and societal catastrophe. Lebanon has opened negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for emergency assistance, but various accounts relate that negotiations have not gone well. The transparency, reform, and pain usually demanded by the IMF is tough for the country's elite (which is in turn subservient to Hizbullah) to swallow. By east, Qassem mentioned "Iran, China, Syria, Russia" as possible alternate sources of economic support. Qassem was echoing an earlier interview given by Nasrallah to Hizbullah's own Al-Manar channel touting the Chinese option.[2] He suggested that Chinese investment in the port of the north Lebanese city of Tripoli, in a railroad and a power plant, would bring money and job opportunities for Lebanese.

Not surprisingly, the remarks by the two Hizbullah leaders were echoed within hours by other Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Hassan Diab and former foreign minister Gebran Bassil. Another Hizbullah-controlled media outlet publicized "exclusive documents" stating that China was ready to invest $50 billion in Lebanese projects.[3]

There is no doubt, of course, that China has real economic heft in the world today and that it is aggressively seeking to project all sorts of power – soft and hard – worldwide. But the China boomlet among Lebanon's terrorist masters and their collaborators seems eerily familiar.

I first encountered this People's Republic of China wet dream among authoritarian rulers in Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua. Looking at the economic basket case that was the Soviet Union and Cuba, some Nicaraguan regime journalists offered China as an example of a "socialist country that actually works." It would not be the last time I heard this.

Years later, around 1994, while serving as a diplomat in Assad's Syria, I heard a more expansive claim for China. While visiting a supposed think-tank connected to the ruling Ba'ath Party in the Damascus suburb of Al-Tal, I was told how China was a much more attractive model than the West. Here was true development, but also "socialism," and "order." A better standard of living and monopolistic party rule – what's not to like?

The Islamist ideologues of Sudan's then ruling National Congress Party (NCP) a decade later also repeatedly touted China. Here the claim had a real-world connection, as Chinese oil companies had replaced American ones to exploit Sudan's new-found oil wealth. The Americans, companies like Chevron, had discovered the oil but had to withdraw from Sudan due to complaints about the country's massive human rights violations. While the "China card" played by NCP officials was always tinged with scornful arrogance directed at the U.S., local Sudanese living in the oil patch told me that American companies had been far more benevolent and paternalistic than the tight-fisted Chinese.

Interestingly enough, the one country where I heard a more cynical appraisal of the Chinese in high places was in Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich state in the Gulf of Guinea, which had a considerable Chinese economic presence (except in the petroleum sector, which was overwhelmingly American). President Obiang, now Africa's longest-ruling head of state, once told me that "we use China because we have to, but you get what you pay for."

An able authoritarian to his fingertips, Obiang was particularly irritated by the poor quality of Chinese construction – some projects had to be redone a second or third time – and by the Chinese propensity to bring in Chinese labor to perform even the most menial jobs which could have been done by locals. "When you go to China and visit Shanghai and see these companies, this is not what they send to Africa. They don't send their best," he noted.

But the authoritarians' China pipedream is a hardy perennial. Even before the recent comments from Hizbullah, the terrorist group's counterparts in Iraq were promoting China, and to a lesser extent Russia, as economic and security substitutes to the U.S.[4] Both Iraqi militia leaders and the heads of Shia Islamist parties were enamored with the China option because they had seen it work, more or less, in neighboring Iran. China could not solve all of Iran's problems, but it had proven to be a major lifeline. China is Iran's biggest trading partner for over a decade, and even during the American "maximum pressure" campaign in 2019, trade between the two countries totaled more than $20 billion.[5]

In Iran, China has made a difference. It has been a lifesaver for the regime in spite of American pressure. The problem is that China's motivation cannot only be to thwart the U.S. There is profit to be made and power to acquire. Lebanon does not offer China the energy resources and large market it craves and which exist in Iran or even in Venezuela. And any Chinese infrastructure investment in Lebanon is one Israeli airstrike away from being reduced to rubble in the next Hizbullah-instigated war. China cannot solve Lebanon's problem in the same way that it could not solve them in the Syria and Sudan, which said that they looked to China as a model to emulate. The Sudanese regime fell, and the Syrian one survives, barely, amidst the rubble. China will not rebuild Assadistan for nothing.

For Lebanon's corrupt ruling class, the China appeal is obvious. It will give the impression of forward motion and progress while the Lebanese people sink further into servile penury. Maybe it will buy more time as it has done in Iran – time to continue doing what that Lebanese ruling class and what Hizbullah have been doing for years, without change or reform. China's Yin to the IMF's Yang; instead of the American-controlled IMF with its onerous conditions, you have the tantalizing image of Chinese largesse with no strings attached. This is, of course, an image which may well have no basis in reality, either from the Chinese side or on the ground in Lebanon.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.

 

[1] Lbcgroup.tv/news/d/lebanon/528148 /%D9%86 %D8% B9% D9%8A% D9%8 5-%D9 %82% D 8%A7%D 8%B3% D9%8 5-% D9%8
A%D8 %AA%D8%AD%D8%AF %D8%AB -%D9%84 %D9% 84%D 9%8 0lbci-%D 8% B9%D 9%86-% D8%A2 %D 8% AE%D8 %B1-%
D 8%A7%D9 %84 % D8%A  A %D8%B7%D 9%88% D8%B 1%D8%A 7%D8%A A- % D9%88-% D8% A3%D8% A8 %D8%B 1%D 8%B2
-%D8%A7% D9% 84 %D9% 85/ar, June 17, 2020.

[2] Asiatimes.com/2020/06/hezbollah-head-prefers-china-to-imf-for-lebanon-bailout/?fbclid=IwAR0  1I7cSyzE_lCHvH  qhr92v0A
c36YK CWq  fr5 lXZdp5l wuJq PRU0S_8rsGKM, June 17, 2020.

[3] Alahednews.com.lb/article.php?id=20561&cid=125, June 18, 2020.

[4] English.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2020/01/06/Iraqi-militia-leader-says-Russia-China-can-replace-US-support-in-Iraq,
January 6, 2020.

[5] https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/how-the-coronavirus-is-cementing-irans-tilt-towards-china/, May 7, 2020.

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