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Remarkable encounter with Xi still fresh in memory

By WANG XIAODONG | China Daily | Updated: 2022-06-27 07:16
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Editor's Note: China Daily is publishing a series of stories reviewing President Xi Jinping's visits at home and abroad in the past decade, to showcase his vision for development in China and the world.

President Xi Jinping is welcomed by Denis Sassou Nguesso, then president of the Republic of Congo, at an airport in the country's capital Brazzaville on May 29, 2013. LAUDES MARTIAL MBON / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The encounter with President Xi Jinping happened nine years ago, but Arsene Bilongo's memories of it are so vivid that it could easily have been yesterday.

"The meeting-though very short-with President Xi was something that I'll remember for the rest of my life," Bilongo said in an interview in June. "I still keep photos of it in my laptop and see them often."

Bilongo was in his junior year of studies at the Confucius Institute at Marien Ngouabi University, in Brazzaville, the Republic of the Congo, when President Xi visited the country in March 2013. During the visit, the Chinese leader talked with students and teachers on the campus after unveiling the university's new library, built with China's help.

"I was watching a television program in a classroom of the institute when I saw President Xi arrive, accompanied by the president of the Republic of the Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, and other officials and university teachers," Bilongo said in Chinese.

Bilongo, who also goes by the Chinese name Liu Tao, said he had been aware that the visit was drawing near, but as Xi walked toward him and began to address him he became nervous.

"I thought, 'Oh my god. This is President Xi, and this isn't a dream.' I was so excited that at first I could barely speak."

Xi expressed interest in the TV program Bilongo was watching and asked what it was about, Bilongo recalled. He told Xi that the documentary, in Chinese, was about the development of railways in China.

He then told Xi he was interested in Chinese language and culture and hoped to study in China.

"My Chinese wasn't that fluent then, so I said very little," Bilongo said. "But President Xi listened carefully with interest and kept smiling."

Xi's schedule was very tight, and the chat may have lasted less than two minutes, Bilongo said.

The visit was broadcast on local television that night, Bilongo said, and he became a celebrity at the university.

Wang Yongkang, president of the Confucius Institute at Marien Ngouabi University, who was also on hand that day, said in June that Xi also talked with another Congolese student studying Chinese and a Congolese teacher teaching Chinese at the institute.

"The Congolese teacher, whose Chinese name is Ai Jia, told President Xi that she studied Chinese at a university in Hangzhou, and President Xi smiled and responded that he once also worked in the city," Wang said.

Xi encouraged the students to keep studying Chinese to make contributions to the friendship between China and the Republic of the Congo, he said.

Xi also said the Republic of the Congo is a beautiful country with friendly and hospitable people, and that he would return if the opportunity arose, he added.

"Some people may think as the president of a big country, President Xi may look full of authority, but in reality he looked very amiable. The atmosphere was lively and relaxed," Wang said.

Earlier Xi attended the opening ceremony of the China-Republic of Congo Friendship Hospital in Brazzaville, the capital.

With his wife, Peng Liyuan, Xi met members of a medical assistance team sent by China and thanked them for their work.

Medical assistance to Africa is a hard, but glorious task, and generations of Chinese have provided medical services to Africans, which has won high praise for China, Xi said.

While visiting the Republic of the Congo, Xi also delivered a speech to the country's Parliament in which he spoke warmly of the friendship between the two countries and expressed hope for China and Africa to work more closely together.

Armand Moyikoua, rector of Marien Ngouabi University, recently told People's Daily that it was an exciting speech, during which Xi also quoted a line from a poem by an African poet that expresses optimism for the progress and victory of Africa.

The poem resonated with the audience in the Parliament, and "hearing this, all people, including me, stood up with excitement, and the hall was full of thunderlike applause", Moyikoua said.

In his speech, Xi thanked the government of the Republic of the Congo and its people for helping build a primary school in Qinghai province.

The Sino-Congolese Friendship Primary School was built, with a donation from the government of the Republic of the Congo, in Chindu county of the Yushu Tibetan autonomous prefecture after a series of strong earthquakes rocked the prefecture in April 2010. The school was completed in July 2012. Its students wrote a letter of thanks to Republic of the Congo President Sassou Nguesso after it opened.

"On behalf of the students, I would like to express sincere gratitude to the government of the Republic of the Congo and the people," Xi said in his speech.

In the Republic of the Congo, symbols of friendship between the two countries are ubiquitous, including the National No 1 Highway, China-Republic of Congo Friendship Hospital and the new Parliament building, which are among the fruits of the two countries' collaboration since diplomatic relations were established in 1964.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, China has provided help, including vaccines, to the Republic of the Congo and many other African countries.

China is the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines globally.

In November, while addressing the opening ceremony of the eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Dakar, Senegal, President Xi announced that China would provide an additional 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Africa.

Within two months, a new shipment of the Chinese vaccines arrived in Brazzaville.

Moyikoua told People's Daily that China and the Republic of the Congo have been working together closely to fight COVID-19 since the pandemic started, and China has been the first country to provide anti-pandemic materials and COVID-19 vaccines to the Republic of the Congo. This has demonstrated the deep friendship between the two countries, he said.

Three months after meeting Xi, Bilongo won a scholarship to study Chinese at the University of Jinan, Shandong province.

When he graduated from Marien Ngouabi University, he attended the University of Jinan for a second time to study Chinese. In 2018 he started working at a Chinese oil company in the Republic of the Congo and is now a manager.

"Studying Chinese has given me a lot of opportunities," he said. "It gave me a chance to meet President Xi and study in China and later find employment with a Chinese company."

Many of his classmates in the Confucius Institute also got jobs, for example as translators, with Chinese companies in the Republic of the Congo, he said.

In its first year in 2013, the Confucius Institute at Marien Ngouabi University had nearly 200 students, and in both 2018 and 2019, the number of new school registrations reached 1,000, Wang said.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number has fallen to about 600 students in each of the past two years, he said.

The institute has set up more than 20 Chinese teaching centers in primary and middle schools across the Republic of the Congo, training about 10,000 locals every year. More than 120 students from the institute have studied on scholarships at universities in China, he said.

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