Lu Junqing, the new Liu Jianjun?

September 6, 2011

第一财经日报 (First Financial Daily, part of the Southern Media Group) published an article (言木, 中非希望工程背后的卢俊卿父女发迹史, 18 August 2011) on Lu Junqing 卢俊卿 and his daughter Lu Xingyu 卢星宇, the twenty-something whose microblog has attracted so much attention that she has been, apparently, compared to Guo Meimei 郭美美, the suspected Red Cross worker who boasted of her affluent lifestyle.

Lu Junqing is the chairman of 世界杰出华商协会, a Hong Kong-registered company that styles itself the World Federation of Prominent Chinese Entrepreneurs. Lu Xingyu is the secretary-general of this federation’s Future Leaders Club and of the executive secretary of Project Hope Africa 非洲希望工程, a joint venture between the federation and China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) 中国青少年发展基金会. Lu pere is Project Hope Africa’s chairman.

Project Hope is one of contemporary China’s earliest and most famous charity projects. Launched in 1989, it collects donations to build and improve rural schools. Its early 1990s ad campaigns, featuring photos of poor children, are still well-known in China. In the 1990s, it successfully collected donations from Chinese businessmen overseas. CYDF, a government-organised “NGO,” was basically established to run Project Hope. (Interestingly, today, CYDF’s website appeared hacked — I wonder whether it’s anything to do with the Lu affair.)

Project Hope Africa was launched in 2010 with the goal to set up 1,000 schools in Africa. According to CYDF, as of now, it has received 31 million yuan from the World Federation (Lu Xingyu has personally donated 1 million) and has made arrangements to build 20 schools in Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, Burundi, and Rwanda. According to CYDF’s secretary-general, the schools will most likely be pre-assembled containers shipped to Africa, rather than constructed locally. In March this year, Xinhua reported that Project Hope Africa officially started with the signing of an agreement between CYDF and the Tanzanian government. The Chinese ambassador was present at the ceremony, at which Lu called Project Hope “China’s top charity brand” (中国的第一公益品牌).

The Federation’s list of advisors includes several retired high-level officials. A 3 August article about Lu Xingyu in the overseas edition of People’s Daily features a photo of her with several African presidents.

Lu Junqing was an official in Guangyuan, Sichuan, before venturing into entrepreneurship in 1995. Lu Xingyu is said to have graduated from California State, whereas Lu Junqing has degrees from Mianyang Teachers’ College and Priceton (sic) University, a U.S.-based institution that appears to specialise in delivering correspondence degrees in China. But the paper’s reporter has been unable to determine what kind of business Lu does, and whether he has anything to do with Africa.

One of Lu Junqing’s posts, apparently reposted on Qufeizhou.com, a forum for Chinese in Africa or wanting to go there, waxes lyrical about businessmen who donated (or pledged to donate) 15 million yuan to Project Hope Africa but “couldn’t bear to spend 40,000 yuan” (around 4,000 euro) on a business-class ticket to Africa, which sees as an example of modesty. “Actually, many people don’t understand how lovely we Chinese entrepreneurs are,” he concludes.

Of course, it is possible that this is simply a crude hoax, that CYDF has been taken for a ride (or just been too greedy) and the story is an example of the ephemeral celebrities produced by microblogs. But, as in the case of Liu Jianjun — who has recently resurfaced in Chinese media! — or the Lumbini project, I suspect that there is more to it. And why not? Surely 1,000 Chinese-sponsored schools in Africa is an idea that many would like. If not this time, then soon.

Thanks to Cao Ke for forwarding the story to Minjian International.

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The Lumbini project: a Chinese-developed scenic spot in Nepal?

July 19, 2011

Fellow (but alas, recently dormant) MqVU blogger Zhang Juan forwarded to me a post by Al-Jazeera’s China correspondent Melissa Chan. Chan writes that

China is leading a project worth $3bn to transform the small town into the premier place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the world.  Little Lumbini will have an airport, highway, hotels, convention centre, temples and a Buddhist university. That’s in addition to the installation of water, electricity and communication lines it currently lacks. (…)

(T)he project is worth almost 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. (…) The organization behind the project is called the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), a quasi-governmental non-governmental organisation. Its executive vice president, Xiao Wunan (…) holds a position at the National Development and Reform Commission (…) On Friday, APECF held a signing ceremony for the project with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). (…)

With the backing of the UN, Xiao has said he hopes Lumbini will bring together all three schools of the faith: the Mahayana as practised in China, Japan, and South Korea; the Hinayana as practiced in Southeast Asia; and Tibetan Buddhism. (…)

Lumbini will become a special development zone, similar to some of China’s successful zones such as Shenzhen, with preferential treatment, tax breaks and investment incentives.

Hu Yuandong of UNIDO, which will advise on the creation of the development zone, says the focus of the project is job creation, poverty alleviation and environmental protection.

Xiao has made clear that the $3bn investment is not coming from the Chinese government, but rather from various funds “around the world” – even from the Middle East.

Much of Chan’s post focuses on whether this project should be seen as a state-backed Chinese attempt to impose its interpretation on world Buddhism, aimed particularly to marginalize the Dalai Lama, who has not been allowed to visit Lumbini since the 1980s. (Nepal has been applying increasing pressure on Tibetan refugees, cracking down on protests several times since 2008.)

It is likely that the masterminds of the scheme are appealing to this line of thought, partly to gain support from the Chinese government. But I take this with a grain of salt: all Chinese special-zone projects, from the now-shuttered casino town at Boten in northern Laos to the East Africa Economic Development Zone and  the mega-investment in the Swedish town of Kalmar (which never materialised and was the subject of Ronja Yu’s documentary The Chinese are Coming to Town), include extravagant plans of modernization, none of which have yet materialized. Although UNIDO’s support for the zone is notable, it was also present in the case of Laos. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the whole thing turned out to be a bubble.

Nonetheless, the news is interesting in that it demonstrates the continuing appeal and versatility of the special zone model in China’s neighbourhood, as well as the rapidly expanding scale of Chinese tourism. As the growth of Golden Boten City, a special zone in northern Laos so far centred on gambling, ground to a halt this spring under Chinese government pressure and as its operator is likely to sell its holdings, questions have arisen about the future of the zone itself. Another gambling-centred zone in Laos, Golden Triangle, wants to reorient itself towards tourism. The Lumbini plan suggests that these plans may not be entirely unrealistic.

The Lumbini project is the first attempt to recreate China’s “scenic spot” model of tourism development abroad, targeting both Chinese and non-Chinese tourists and highlighting the entanglements of religion and tourism that characterise such developments in China. (One is reminded in particular of a recent megadevelopment in Shandong Province to create a kind of Confucius theme park centred on the sage’s birthpace.) While, to repeat, I do not think that the Chinese state is directly involved in this project as a way of squeezing the Dalai Lama, it does seem to constitute the propagation of a state-engineered sinocentric view of Buddhism beyond China’s borders, even if a market-driven one.