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.
Responding to the collapse of Gaddafi’s rule this week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said curtly that Beijing respected “the choice of the Libyan people.” It has not formally recognized rebel forces as Libya’s new masters but has clearly abandoned Gaddafi.
The six-month-long battle to unseat the Libyan autocrat confronted China with a now recurrent quandary: how to balance its oft-stated but increasingly threadbare doctrine of non-interference in the affairs of other nations with its own economic and political self-interest.
“Gaddafi criticized China and did not respect China, but there was still economic cooperation between China and Libya,” said Yin Gang, a researcher with the West Asian and African Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Now that Gaddafi has lost control, Yin added, China will accept whatever new order emerges in his place.
China’s Commerce Ministry has already called on post-Gaddafi Libyan leaders to “protect the interests and rights of Chinese investors.” The plea followed a warning from an official with the rebels’ oil company that China and Russia could lose out in petroleum deals under a new Libyan government because they had shown little support for the anti-Gaddafi rebellion — a stance that in China’s case reflected the tension at the heart of its diplomacy.
Throughout the uprising, Beijing voiced wariness of the West’s intentions and worried about the fate of Libyan contracts that it has valued at $18.8 billion. But it also proved unwilling to go to the mat for Gaddafi. It acquiesced in a U.N. resolution in March that endorsed the use of force, abstaining in a crucial vote that opened the way for intervention by NATO.