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15 years of Forum Macao: A new breath of life

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Wed, 2nd May 2018
Stronger ties with the private sector, a reinforced attention to new forms of entrepreneurship, and a greater awareness of the expectations projected both by governments and businessmen. These are some of the new roads that the Forum Macao might tread in the future as it seeks to build on its successes.

A decade and a half after its inception, Forum Macao organised a conference to discuss its accomplishments during the last 15 years and to outline the institution’s strategies for the future. A future, Secretary-General Xu Yingzhen believes, that should go hand-in-hand with a stronger connection with the private sector, mainly with small and medium-sized enterprises willing to take advantage of the opportunities already created by the Forum.

For that to happen, a few changes are yet needed. The high-ranking representatives of the eight Portuguese-speaking countries and the former officials of the institution – among them several former secretary-generals and deputy secretary-generals – that took part on the seminar, held on 21 March in Macao, reached a common conclusion: Forum Macao made possible a series of important achievements, but it must necessarily improve and take on a more dynamic, active role to fulfil the expectations of its members.

“At 15, a person cannot yet be considered a grown-up. With an institution like this Forum, the same thing happens,” Xu explained, responding to suggestions and remarks made by those who took part in the seminar. “It’s quite natural that we can find both qualities and faults in a mechanism, that it’s not yet fully developed. We have to think, to analyse these remarks, in order to improve our work.”

One of the most common observations expressed at the March conference centred on what countries like Angola, Timor-Leste, Cabo Verde, and Guinea-Bissau see as the weak connection between the Forum, the Macao Trade and Investment Promotion Institute (IPIM), and the China-Portuguese-speaking Countries Co-operation and Development Fund.

Expectations and reality

Created in June 2013 to support development projects and investment in mainland China and the eight Portuguese-speaking countries that now participate in the Forum, the Fund has so far invested in only four projects: two in Brazil, one in Angola, and another in Mozambique.

Arcanjo da Silva, former minister of Development for Timor-Leste, now leads the country’s investment agency and it was as executive director of TradeInvest Timor-Leste that he took part on the conference. He emphasised the broad need for developing human resources in his country:

“To be able to conduct its work and face some challenges, the Timorese business community needs vocational and professional training. This happens within the private sector, but also in the public one. They are both important because they both give a fundamental contribution to the future of Timor-Leste,” he pointed out. “[We] would like Forum Macao to facilitate this process of professional capacity building in order to help our agents, whether they represent the public or the private sector, to improve their skill sets.”

Da Silva didn’t hide the fact that Díli places a great deal of expectations on Forum Macao, namely with the aim of toning down the country’s current dependence on oil industry revenues.

The very same remark was made by Agostinho André de Carvalho Fernandes, the representative of the Angolan Foreign Affairs Ministry in the Asia-Pacific Region. He said that the Forum’s efficiency cannot be accurately assessed without acknowledging the fundamental aspect of gaining access to funding. Angola is one of three countries – the other two being Brazil and Mozambique – that managed to obtain some financing from the Co-operation and Development Fund.

With their previous success and close ties – Angola is China’s second largest trade partner among the Forum member countries – he said that Angola might submit several other projects to the Fund’s appreciation in areas like the health sector, agribusiness, and the planning and construction of critical infrastructure.

The need for new funding procedures

“The fact that each of the eight members of the Forum has experienced and still has different paces of development should be taken into account by China,” said Ana Lima Barber.

As president of Cabo Verde TradeInvest, the trade and investment promotion agency of Cabo Verde, Barber believes that Forum Macao should focus on a different approach, one more attuned to the realities of small countries like Cabo Verde, Timor-Leste, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé and Príncipe:

“We expect a better approach to our private sector, one that can take into account our entrepreneurs. Our companies lack substantial size. We are talking about small and medium-sized enterprises, sometimes even micro-enterprises,” she explained.

Barber listed several areas – the agriculture and fishing industries among them – where the establishment of partnerships with foreign investors would be welcomed, although she recognised that the small Atlantic archipelago is at a disadvantage against similar proposals with wider margins of profitability.

“The amount of money that our companies need in terms of investment is probably too small for the way that China works and the criteria it establishes,” Barber alerted, adding that there are potential technical fixes to address this discrepancy: “We need to start looking to other kind of funding procedures, that may take into account the dimension of our enterprises. Funding procedures with a smaller ceiling, that may be more suitable for our own markets.”

Manuel Amante da Rosa, a Cabo Verdean diplomat who is a former deputy secretary-general of Forum Macao between 2008 and 2011, went a step further in the intervention he made in the seminar. Amante da Rosa, currently the Cabo Verdean ambassador to Italy, claimed that the Co-operation and Development Fund should “go back to its origins” and become more than a venture capital mechanism. “When the then prime-minister of China announced the creation of the Fund in 2010, the idea was precisely to revitalise the Forum.”

Bruno Jauad offered a slightly different perspective on the issue of the applications submitted to the Fund. The head of the Directorate General for Promotion of Private Investment (DGPIP) of Guinea-Bissau believes that an application not receiving the green light from the mechanism doesn’t necessarily mean that the project isn’t good enough.

Jauad, who has witnessed Forum Macao blossoming up, would like to see the Fund play a more active role, providing assistance to the countries and enterprises that believe they have something worthy to offer:

“The eligibility of the proposals needs to be a fundamental factor. We know that every project, every proposal, has its own specificity, but we have to be able to have the capacity to formulate projects as accurately as possible and this kind of task is something that we can’t do by ourselves,” Jauad told Macao Magazine. “China Development Bank, through the Forum or some other institutions, should make technical assistance available. That’s the only way our companies, our entrepreneurs, will be able to set up proposals that might convince the people responsible for the Fund’s management.”

The Guinean authorities, he revealed, will submit once again to the Fund’s appreciation, two major infrastructure projects: the construction of a deep water port in Buba, southwest of Bissau, and the Saltinho hydroelectric project on the Corubal River.

The latest project to obtain financing from the China-Portuguese-speaking Countries Co-operation and Development Fund marks the second successful application by Brazilian authorities. “It’s a project related to the production of energy, but this time in the hydroelectric sector,” revealed Ambassador Marcos Caramuru de Paiva, on the sidelines of the 13th Ordinary Meeting of the Permanent Secretariat of Forum Macao, held on 22 March.

The Brazilian ambassador to China said that, if his country managed to have two different projects financed by the Fund, it is because they offer guarantees of profitability as well as a good rate of return in terms of investment. Caramuru endorsed the idea that the Fund should remain a business-intended mechanism and not merely a platform for official development assistance: “I don’t think that it is fair to claim that the challenges and the problems start with the attribution of resources. It’s a two-way street. We need financial resources, it’s true, but the projects submitted for evaluation also need to have some quality,” he argued. “We are not talking about development aid. We are talking about investment, and when we are talking about investment, we have to be ready for some challenges.”

The apparent success of the Brazilian business approach within the Fund may be one of the reasons why Brasília decided to step up its involvement in the works of Forum Macao. These efforts include a new official responsible for following up the Forum activities, revealed Caramuru:

“We are stepping up a little the way we follow the Forum’s activities. From now on, we may have a representative. He won’t be in Macao. He will be someone from our Hong Kong consulate who will be in charge of working more closely with the Forum.”

The move is a clear response to the Forum’s request to have Brazil more involved in the activities of the organisation, taking into consideration that China is the country’s main trade partner.

A business-oriented platform

Jorge Costa Oliveira, former secretary of state for Internationalisation of Portugal, shares the same perspective as Ambassador Caramuru in what concerns the nature of the Fund:

“That money is not there to be spent on something that doesn’t make any sense. Nor is it there only to be used as a reference in risk management assessment operations. Fifteen years have passed and that’s time enough,” he asserted. “We should be able to give an account on how we can improve the way the Fund operates.”

At the request of Forum Macao, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has been commissioned to study the work the institution has been carrying out and present new targets and roads for the future. The most substantial one, believes Costa Oliveira, should be a change of focus:

“Many of the initiatives that have been promoted in the last few years have an institutional connotation. The partners of Forum Macao in many of the Portuguese-speaking countries are public entities and investment agencies,” he claimed. “What I proposed in this seminar is that the Forum should promote other kinds of events, focused on the private sector, in enterprises and business chambers and associations.”

Jorge Neto Valente, a lawyer and businessman who also serves as president of the Young Macanese Association, welcomes an eventual change of focus by Forum Macao if it will mean new opportunities for Macao’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

“Lately, we have been seeing the Forum granting a greater importance to small and medium-sized enterprises. That should be the focus,” Valente said. “If we only look at the numbers, a deal between a Chinese state company and a country like Angola or Brazil will probably involve an amount a thousand times larger than the values associated with projects led by SMEs, but if the Forum doesn’t start looking at these kinds of companies as suitable partners, the business economic system everybody wants to see will never flourish.”

While a stronger connection with the private sector would be welcomed by many, there remain several other domains in which Forum Macao must be able to position itself, given their economic and political relevance.

The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road – commonly known as the Belt and Road Initiative – offer a whole new range of opportunities for the members of institutions like Forum Macao, but these opportunities bring with them responsibilities to fulfil. One of the most compelling is to guarantee that local and national initiatives are properly articulated, stated Macao’s Secretary for Economy and Finance Leong Vai Tac in his intervention at the seminar:

“The Special Administrative Region government will – in accordance with the specific needs of the People’s Republic of China and having in mind its own advantages – strictly articulate the construction of the World Centre of Tourism and Leisure and the service platform for co-operation with the national Belt and Road strategy, contributing therefore to the fulfilment of the government’s actions,” he affirmed.

In his speech, Leong characterised the results obtained by Forum Macao during the last 15 years as “remarkable” and gave the guarantee that the Macao government will continue to actively support the Forum’s mission of building the service platform between China and the Portuguese-speaking countries.

“Satisfaction” was the word used by Sun Tong to describe his feelings regarding the work made by Forum Macao since its inception in 2003. The director-general of the Department of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao Affairs of the Ministry of Commerce expects the Forum to show more “energy and vitality,” but also praised the results already achieved by the institution, especially in recent years:

“The extent of the co-operation among the different countries that take part in the Forum reached new levels, especially after 2013, when, under the orientation of the Belt and Road Initiative, the co-operation between China and the Portuguese-speaking countries gained new soundness,” Sun Tong stated. “Forum Macao became a very relevant platform for co-operation between China and the Portuguese-speaking countries under the Belt and Road Initiative.”

He said that, as far as the vitality of the relationship between China and the Lusophone world is concerned, the numbers speak for themselves: direct investment from China in the Portuguese-speaking countries increased 90 fold during the last 15 years. The Portuguese-speaking countries, noted Sun, have invested as much as US$1 billion in the People’s Republic of China in the same period.

The numbers are impressive and so is the terrain already covered, said Guinean Ambassador Malam Sambú, the longest serving Portuguese-speaking diplomat in Beijing. But, he noted, the Portuguese-speaking countries will have to step up their commitment with the Macao platform if they want to take full advantage of some of the initiatives with which China proposes to change the world.

“The Portuguese-speaking countries need to show total commitment in order to face the challenges that are inherent to huge projects like the Belt and Road initiative, the improvement of our wealth generating capacity or the Guangdong–Hong Kong–Macao Greater Bay Area development project,” Sambú said. “With this in mind, the Portuguese-speaking countries wish to invest a greater importance in the expansion of Forum Macao. We will try to contribute to a higher level of organisation, as well as to make our representatives in the Permanent Secretariat more active and intervening. We will try to create the optimal conditions to improve the internal coordination mechanism in the future, always keeping in mind the Forum’s goals and purposes.”

The opinions and suggestions conveyed by members of the Forum won’t fall on deaf ears, assured Secretary-General Xu. She promised that the organisation will focus its attention on the needs and expectations of the private sector, despite making it quite clear that the Forum “never intervenes” on the approval procedures of the Co-operation and Development Fund:

“Most of those who took part in the seminar sustained that the Forum needs to have a stronger connection to the private sector. That is something that I fully agree with. In order to promote economic and commercial co-operation we need to mobilise private companies. We promise, therefore, new activities directed towards the business sector and we will transmit our support to the future Business Chamber between China and the Portuguese speaking-countries, which has not yet been created, but that should be constituted soon,” Xu announced.

The initiative to create Forum Macao originated with the Beijing government in 2003, with full support of the Portuguese-speaking countries. In the last few years, as the Forum has matured, China has shown clear signs that it would like to find new ways to make the institution more active.

In 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce appointed Ding Tian as the new deputy secretary-general of Forum Macao, and the year before the Ministry of Commerce appointed Xu Yingzhen as secretary-general of the institution. By strengthening its structure with higher-level personnel, the Chinese government has made clear to the eight Portuguese-speaking countries represented at Forum Macao that they should also rethink their respective approaches.

New prospects for Forum Macao

An external evaluation of the work of the Forum for Economic and Trade Co-operation between China and Portuguese-speaking countries (Macao) conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a prominent Chinese government think tank, should lead to a significant qualitative change in the Forum’s performance.

Xu Yingzhen,  Secretary-General

We focus our effort on provinces that really want to know the Portuguese-speaking countries.

Xu Yingzhen arrived Macao in June 2016, ready to face “major challenges.” Among them, the upcoming 5th Ministerial Conference of the Forum Macao, just four months away. The Forum’s new secretary-general would be responsible for organising the event, which gathered leaders from China and seven Portuguese language countries in Macao on 11–12 October of that year.

“After the ministerial conference many tasks [were assigned] to carry out the aims set by the ministers,” she said, recalling the action plan signed on that occasion.

A second challenge concerned a slight language barrier. Xu Yingzhen had studied Spanish language at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics and served as a Latin America trade advisor for the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, eventually working at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Chile. Today, she speaks Portuguese at conferences and meetings. 

Changes and admission of São Tomé and Príncipe

Forum Macao was founded in October 2003 with the aim of boosting economic and trade interchanges between China and the Portuguese language countries, utilising Macao as a bridge.

One of the tasks undertaken by Xu has been to promote the Portuguese language world in the interior of China. To that end, she has visited various Chinese regions since taking office, among them the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Hunan, Guangdong, and Shandong.

“I would say that Jiangsu is almost at the forefront of co-operation with the Portuguese language countries,” she said, noting that, since 2011, the eastern Chinese province has held an annual Summit for Commercial and Industrial Development of Jiangsu Province, Macao and Portuguese-speaking Countries. “We focus our effort on provinces that really want to get to know those countries,” she explained.

Xu added that the intention to regularly visit Portuguese language countries marks a new approach in the Permanent Secretariat’s work. “We want to have more contact with the countries, so they can get to know us well and we can learn their needs and interests.”

Among the changes seen at Forum Macao under her leadership is the admission of São Tomé and Príncipe in 2017, the year after it re-established diplomatic ties with China. “São Tomé and Príncipe still does not have an embassy in Beijing and this delegate [who represents the country in Forum Macao] is the first person the country has sent to work with our side,” she noted.

Different worlds

The secretary-general of Forum Macao explained that a lack of information and knowledge poses the biggest obstacle to successful relationships between entrepreneurs from China and countries where Portuguese is spoken. “It is the lack of channels to find partners and opportunities, besides policies and laws that are different,” she added.

Xu stressed that it is up to the Forum to counter that trend: “We organise seminars and meetings to offer a platform so that entrepreneurs from both sides can get to know each other. But specific deals have to be worked out by the businesspeople involved, not by the Forum; it only facilitates the opportunity for them to dialogue and find ways of working together.”

She admitted that in this mediation work the Forum “has already achieved some successes,” though much remains to be done. “Paths are made by walking and there’s still quite a way to go,” she affirmed.

Ding Tian, Deputy Secretary-General appointed by China

The future development of Forum Macao should actively integrate with the Belt and Road Initiative.

“I worked in three Portuguese-speaking countries for more than eight years and was for a long time involved in supporting African countries,” said Ding Tian, deputy secretary-general of Forum Macao. A fluent Portuguese speaker, he has lived in Cabo Verde, Brazil and Timor-Leste, and was linked to the central government’s Foreign Aid Department. He joined the Forum Macao team in January of last year, although he was involved in the creation of the co-operation mechanism 15 years ago.

Regarding the nature of his current work, he believes that trying to reconcile the interests of all the Portuguese language countries “is much more complex than [working] in bilateral relations,” a reference to his history of primarily bilateral economic and trade negotiations, “Comparing that experience to my current position [in a multilateral framework], one could say that the nature of the work is different,” he admitted.

Timor-Leste and other cases

Among the Portuguese language countries, he particularly likes to talk about Timor-Leste, where he lived for five years, working as the economic counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Díli. He believes that Timor-Leste has a lot of potential, and that part of the work he did at that legation served to promote the local investment environment for Chinese investors who visited the country.

The Timor-Leste Petroleum Fund is a major asset, said Ding. “Virtually every year its revenue tops US$2 billion. I left Timor-Leste in 2014 and at the time the fund was calculated at about US$16 billion,” he recalled, emphasising that the country “has money and projects.”

Asked about problems Chinese entrepreneurs face when trying to access the market in Timor-Leste, Ding noted the country’s “weak infrastructure,” which ends up imposing higher business costs and risks. His experience in the Portuguese language world has also revealed a number of issues that make it hard for Chinese entrepreneurs to do business in those countries. General problems like visas and duties or labour taxes, he said, along with other hurdles such as profit transfer back to the country of origin.

Belt and Road

“Forum Macao’s future development should actively integrate with the Belt and Road Initiative,” said Ding, referring to the project China launched in 2013, meant to reactivate through infrastructure construction the trade corridor that once linked East and West.

He believes that, “from a macro perspective,” the project can be seen as “a concept to guide future work,” stressing that it is also a “contribution from China to the world… It is an initiative for the rebirth of the Chinese, regional, Asian, and entire world’s economy.”

Rodrigo Brum, Deputy-Secretary General appointed by the Portuguese-speaking countries

By this strengthening of their joint action, the Portuguese language countries can benefit more.

Rodrigo Brum replaced Vicente Manuel as deputy secretary-general (appointed by the Portuguese-speaking countries) in September 2017. Born in Mozambique, Brum was already familiar with Macao, where he worked in the economics sector in the 1990s.

“Obviously, it’s not a simple job,” he said of his new position. “Relations are very good at the level of the Permanent Secretariat, but we are in an organisation that has a support office distinct from that secretariat.”

Brum earned a degree in company management and organisation from the Institute of Economics at the Technical University of Lisbon, and has held prominent positions in various companies. Regarding his work at Forum Macao, this Portuguese economist said “it is no easy task” to reconcile the “different ambitions and problems” of the member countries. “The Forum is concerned with multilateral relations, complementing the bilateral relationships with China,” Brum explained, “and that’s a major challenge.”

Brum noted that Forum Macao is the most important economic and trade co-operation entity for the Portuguese-speaking countries. He nevertheless called attention to the different levels of development and size of the countries represented.

“The Portuguese language countries together represent a huge potential, as future markets with a population of speakers of the fourth-ranked world language” explained Brum, who holds that “by this strengthening of their joint action the Portuguese language countries can benefit more.”

External evaluation is “unquestionably important”

During the month when Brum took office at Forum Macao, a proposal was made and approved to conduct an external evaluation of the organisation in 2018. That initiative is “unquestionably important,” said Brum, and should lead to a “significant qualitative change” in Forum Macao’s performance.

“Such evaluations are meant to identify features from the past, eventual problems, and help determine future evolution. We hope it indicates important paths for us, that’s also true, because we are all aware that there’s still a long way to go. I think much has already been done and that maybe what’s been done could have been publicised better,” he said, highlighting that the evaluation should help enhance trade and investment ties.

All the Portuguese-speaking countries will be consulted during the evaluation. “The Permanent Secretariat will have two experts from each Forum Macao participant, on a committee of 20 experts being composed to follow the work,” he noted.

Echo Chan, Deputy Secretary-General appointed by the Macao SAR

Skilled personnel are indispensable elements for building the platform.

Echo Chan was the coordinator of the Support Office for the Permanent Secretariat of Forum Macao from March to November 2015. She returned to the organisation in early 2017 as deputy secretary-general appointed by the Macao government. She speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, Portuguese and English, and has served as executive director of the Management Board of the Macao Trade and Investment Promotion Institute (IPIM) and deputy coordinator of the Office for Preparation of the Chinese Traditional Medicine Science and Industrial Park.

More involvement of skilled personnel and young people

Chan believes that for Macao to assert itself as a platform for co-operation between China and Portuguese-speaking countries, the younger generations have to get involved. “Skilled personnel are indispensable for building the platform,” said Chan, reiterating to Macao Magazine the importance of training more high-quality bilingual professionals.

Forum Macao wants to continue involving Portuguese language students from Macao and abroad in the organisation’s voluntary work or activities, specifically in the ministerial conference, the cultural week focusing on China and the Portuguese language countries or the Macao International Trade and Investment Fair, where they can work as translators, she explained.

Financial sector with local characteristics

The concept of financial sector development with local characteristics appeared for the first time in the presentation of the Macao government’s action lines for governance in 2016.

Chan holds that promotion of this sector, which Forum Macao is also responsible for, should support diversification of the local economy and “seek a development path different from the financial centres of adjacent regions,” referring to Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

The area of financial leasing, fortune management, and the established renminbi (RMB) clearing centre for Portuguese-speaking countries are currently considered the “main sectors” to develop, Chan explained.

And how can the development of that sector in Macao benefit enhanced relations between China and Portuguese language countries? “Macao, with its advantages associated with the ’one country, two systems’ principle, the free port and low taxes, can supply an open system environment to Chinese companies expanding their business abroad and to companies from Portuguese language countries seeking foreign investment.”

Note: Echo Chan will be replaced by Gloria Ung, Executive Director of the Macao Trade and Investment Promotion Institute, as of 2 May 2018.

TEXT Marco Carvalho & Catarina Domingues  
PHOTOS Forum Macao and António Sanmarful