Wednesday, 17th September 2014
The Consul General of Sri Lanka in Shanghai, Hasanthi Dissanayake will end her tenure on 15 September and be returning to the Ministry of External Affairs in Colombo.
Shanghai Daily reporter Li Xinran held an exclusive interview with her before her departure.
Following are excerpts:
Q: SriLankan Airlines have started direct flights linking Beijing and Shanghai with their Sri Lanka counterparts, Colombo and Hambantota. Almost at the same time, more and more Chinese are spending their holidays on the beautiful island. Do you have any advice for Chinese travellers?
A: It’s an enchanting island, only 10 times bigger than Shanghai but with lots to see, archaeological, cultural and natural heritage. Most of all, the experience of interacting with Sri Lankans who are well known for their hospitality, blue skies during the day, starry nights, springs by the side of small roads in the mountains from which you can drink… It makes me homesick!
Awareness of Sri Lanka is growing rapidly in Shanghai with frequent promotional activities and there is a tremendous increase of tourists originating not just from Shanghai, but from the cities of Hangzhou, Ningbo, Nanjing, etc. I foresee a huge growth of Chinese tourists visiting Sri Lanka with the rapid increase of per capita income of Chinese in these cities.
Q: Bilateral ties between China and Sri Lanka have been strengthened in the past several years, especially in the economic field. Apart from cooperation between the two governments, do you have any advice for Chinese investors who have started or plan to launch their businesses in Sri Lanka?
A: Already there is Chinese investment in Sri Lanka. Mostly in infrastructure development and there is also investment in manufacturing industries, which includes a coal power plant, a new international port in southern Sri Lanka, an international airport and several highways and railways. We welcome investment in other sectors, especially with the rapid increase of Chinese tourists, investments are welcome in the developing hotel industry to cater to the Chinese market.
Q: China has joined Bangladesh, India and Myanmar with plans to build an economic corridor for greater integration of trade and investment among the four countries. What do you think of the plan?
A: The BCIM is a very useful initiative directly focused on economic cooperation. In fact, recently Shen Weihua, Vice Chairman of Shanghai Municipal Commission for Commerce met me to discuss further strengthening bilateral trade and investment following the visit of Sri Lankan Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa to Shanghai in July, and to introduce the ‘One Belt One Route’ initiative.
Sri Lanka is the first country in South Asia to accept this initiative and already a working group is in place in this regard. In fact, upon my return I would be a part of this working group too.
The initiative will also be good for the Sri Lankan ports, especially for the Hambantota Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, which is very close to the international sea route and located in a prime position to act as a hub for South Asia and link to Africa and the Middle East.
This port, together with the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, can contribute to an increase in industries and tourism in the South East, a very dry area, as well as the East, an area which was devastated during the civil conflict. It will bring livelihood opportunities for people in the two areas. So we are really looking forward to this initiative, because it’s a blessing.
Q: You have completed your tenure in Shanghai and are set to leave. What has impressed you most about this city and its people?
A: I’m leaving Shanghai on September 16. I’ve been here for three years and two months and it is the first time I served as a head of mission. Previously, I have served in Tokyo, Stockholm and Rome. I’d say that I enjoyed my tenure here.
There were many challenges. One was because as I do not speak Chinese. But I have managed to learn a smattering of Chinese. I have attended a Chinese course. As I know Japanese, I guess I understand writing more.
I was able to build a good network, including with lots of Chinese, in spite of the language barrier. I also had a lot of support from the Sri Lankan community in Shanghai and adjoining provinces as well as other expats.
Another challenge was on the environment side – air pollution. However, challenges are what keep me going and meeting people, making friends, keeping in touch with all these people are things that I have always liked.
I was impressed by Shanghai’s greenery, development and systems to maintain the cleanliness of the city. But having studied archaeology and with my passion for old things, every time I noticed an old building come down, I felt sad.
I was able to organise and support many Sri Lankan promotional activities during my tenure despite having a small staff of five persons. I must mention the support I had from my staff, especially my attaché, Anjana Ileperuma and the Sri Lankan community who volunteered their spare time.
Q: The joint mega promotional campaign ‘Sri Lanka Shines in Shanghai’ was held in China for the second time. As what you said at the event in Pudong, “Over a long history, China and Sri Lanka increasingly strengthened their friendship.” How do you appraise the culture and business exchange between the two countries?
A: ‘Sri Lanka Shines in Shanghai’ was organised by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau together with the Consulate General of Sri Lanka in Shanghai and supported by many other Sri Lankan governmental as well as private sector entities. It was quite successful as there was much media coverage as well as much publicity. There was also a rapid increase in inquiries and actual tourists visiting Sri Lanka as well.
Sri Lanka and China became very close in 1952 with the signing of the Rubber Rice Pact at a time when China was facing a lot of problems; at that time Sri Lanka was a small country which had just got independence, which was in 1948.
Soon after, in 1957, we established diplomatic relations, and since then there have been a lot of exchanges including in the cultural sphere.
In fact, China donated the biggest conference hall in Sri Lanka – Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall at the time of famous Madam Sirimavo R.D. Bandaranaike, the first female Prime Minister in the world.
Let me tell you about my China connections which goes back to my childhood. My father was in the Sri Lanka China Friendship Society for 30 years since the 1950s. So I grew up knowing a lot about China. My parents have visited China a few times and we also had many Chinese gifts including beautiful paintings and embroidery. If you go to my parents’ house even today, it has more Chinese things than I have in my residence in Shanghai.
I knew Chinese history, read translations of Lu Xun and Ba Jin. In fact, when I took the foreign service exam, there were several questions about China and I guess being able to answer them well was perhaps the very reason that I am here today.
When I was in grade 8, I translated some English versions of Chinese storybooks into Sinhala. One book is titled ‘How did the rabbit’s tail get shorter?’ It was published in Beijing. I have promised the China Welfare Institute (the Soong Ching Ling Foundation) to do free translations of Chinese children’s stories from English to Sinhala. The project is also for my four-year-old daughter who is here with me in Shanghai.
Q: Sri Lanka is known as ‘the Pearl of the Indian Ocean’. What do you think is Sri Lanka’s future role in the international community?
A: Sri Lanka has played a big role during the time of the Non-Aligned Movement. It still has the potential and is playing an effective role in many more international organisations. However, as there are many organisations than in the 70s in the world and there are an overwhelming number of media covering these, what Sri Lanka does and can do does not necessarily get wide coverage.
At a different level Sri Lanka is making its mark for its highly-qualified professionals. If you take the percentage of the population of Sri Lanka and the number of people working in global Fortune 500 companies or other top companies around the world, it’s probably higher than many other countries. Our people have come a long way. I hope some of them eventually come back to Sri Lanka to support the development process. Courtesy www.shanghaidaily.com.