China, Libya's fair-weather friend

CNN Asia Business Analyst, Libya, Ramy Inocencio
August 23rd, 2011

Hong Kong, China (CNN) – When the going gets rough, China gets going. After six months of attempted neutrality between Moammar Gadhafi loyalists and rebel forces, Beijing now appears to have chosen sides. This, as the end-game seemingly nears for Libya’s leader of 42 years, whose hold on power wanes by the day.

A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry now says the country “respects the choice of the Libyan people” and wants “to play a positive role in rebuilding Libya”.

The translation? Beijing thinks Moammar Gadhafi is about to be booted out and it’s switching allegiance to the folks that may eventually run the country.

Looking at this move through the prism of an oil-sprinkled lens, Beijing’s motivation comes into focus a bit more. China is the world’s second largest consumer of oil after the U.S. And Libya, at peak production, was pumping out a total of 1.5 million barrels a day. And 11% of that went where? You guessed it - China.

Since the conflict in Libya started in mid-February, that oil production has all but dried up. With the potential dawn of a new peace, it stands to reason that China wants to be best positioned with Libya’s leaders, whoever they turn out to be. Ah China, you fair-weathered - albeit very logical - friend.

From political to social reaction, our crack team of producers trolled Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. They found Libya is one of the top ten most popular topics on the website today. And they range the gamut: comments of support for Gadhafi’s fall, of criticism for Western attacks on Libya and of sarcasm of Beijing’s own motivations. Here are some that best reflect the diversity of opinion:

@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.”

And Chinese netizens also had their say on Gadhafi’s fate in an online poll. The question:
“What do you think will happen to Gadhafi?” The answer: 60% of the users (940 out of 1577) think he’ll “be captured alive and judged in court in Libya”.

Time will tell. We all watch together to see what happens in Libya. Will Moammar Gadhafi be the next African leader caught up and washed away in the Arab Spring?

Our crack team of producers, Helena Hong in Beijing and Nini Suet in Hong Kong, helped with those Weibo tweets.