Sri Lanka: “We Want China to Overcome This Challenge Soon.” —An Interview with K.K. Yoganaadan, chargé d’affaires of the Sri Lankan Embassy in China
It has been well over a month since the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Sweeping across the whole country, the outbreak has affected countless people and all sectors thus far, causing wide international concern. In this process, China has received support from many countries and international organizations.
Recently, China Pictorial met with Chargé d’affaires of the Sri Lankan Embassy in China, K.K. Yoganaadan, to talk about measures that were implemented by the country to constrain the virus from spreading, how the outbreak has affected the tourism industry, and the future of trade and economic relations with Beijing.
China Pictorial：Facing the outbreak of coronavirus, what do you care about most?
K.K. Yoganaadan：First of all, I want to express Sri Lanka’s solidarity with the government and the people of China at this challenging time of the COVID-19 outbreak. We express our deepest sympathies to the families of the victims of the novel coronavirus. We also express our appreciation for the tireless work that has been undertaken by the Chinese medical staff and others to treat the infected people and to control and contain the spread of the virus. Sri Lanka is a close and friendly country to China. We want China to overcome this challenge soon, with friends all over the world. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, we advised (people of Sri Lanka) to avoid becoming infected. We hope that friends in China will take all the possible precautionary measures to avoid infection.
CP: What do you think about the control measures that China has taken?
K.K. Yoganaadan: We have been witnessing the control measures that the Chinese government has taken to control the virus. Especially if we look at Wuhan City, its lockdown and the sacrifices the people are making are commendable. The people in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, and specially the medical staff, are making efforts to effectively control the spread of the virus. We have seen hospitals built by the Chinese government within days. When the outbreak occurred, nobody was expecting it, and nobody was prepared to face this challenge. But we have seen the Chinese government, together with 59 million people in Hubei Province including 11 million people in Wuhan with thousands of foreigners, have taken swift and effective measures to address those issues, taking the people who are infected to the hospitals and treating them. I am highly impressed by the measures that have been taken by Chinese government to control the situation.
CP: What precaution measure does your embassy follow? Did anyone go back to Sri Lanka?
K.K. Yoganaadan: We follow the precautionary information given by the local health authorities and the World Health Organization. We wear masks and instruct everyone to be careful when they go out, use disinfectants and take other precautionary measures given to the local population as well as the diplomats and foreigners. All our staff remains in Beijing. No one returned to Sri Lanka.
CP: How many students from Sri Lanka study in China? Did you advise them to leave?
K.K. Yoganaadan: There were 2,400 Sri Lankan students staying in China before the outbreak, many of them went back home for holidays when the outbreak occurred. Thus, when the outbreak started, we had around 864 Sri Lanka students staying in China, and about 33 people, students and their family members, in Wuhan City. The students who stayed in Wuhan wanted to go back to Sri Lanka. We also have received requests from their parents to facilitate their return. We explored several possibilities to take them back. In the end, we were be able to send all of them back by a Sri Lankan Airlines aircraft on February 4, 2020. They have been in quarantine at a designated facility. By now, all of them are clear and have gone back to their homes. None had any symptoms.
CP: What exchange activities were previously planned for this year and will there be any changes due to the current situation?
K.K. Yoganaadan: Actually, nothing has changed. However, due to the situation, a number of exchanges were postponed because we want to help our Chinese friends to concentrate on fighting the epidemic. We have groups of specialists who come to China every year to undergo training in agriculture and health sectors. But due to the outbreak, they are not coming in the near future.
CP: Economic relations between Sri Lanka and China have grown rapidly during the last decade. China has become a major partner of Sri Lanka. Chinese investment in Sri Lanka amounts to an estimated US$11 billion, including US$8 billion in the form of loans related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). How does the epidemic affect the BRI cooperation?
K.K. Yoganaadan: All the bilateral agreements and cooperation remain stable. Nothing has changed and nothing will change due to the COVID-19 outbreak. What happened is an unfortunate epidemic. We are confident that the precautionary measures taken by the Chinese government to control the epidemic will deliver positive results. The projects which are implemented in Sri Lanka with the support, assistance and cooperation of China will go ahead.
CP: On February 6th, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the new President of Sri Lanka, met with Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Cheng Xueyuan in Colombo. During the meeting, the President on behalf of the Sri Lankan government and people sent Ceylon black tea to China to support the fight against the epidemic. Does this mean that in recent years, the China-Sri Lanka tea trade was flourishing most?
K.K. Yoganaadan: The friendship between Sri Lanka and China has a long history. Both countries have stood with each other during challenging times. We wanted to help and support and to show our solidarity with our friends in China. We know that Chinese people love Sri Lankan tea. We thought that during this time of difficulty, it is appropriate to give some tea to the Chinese people. That is why President Gotabaya Rajapaksa met with the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo and handed him a symbolic batch of tea. We have received the consignment of tea in Beijing and we will hand it over to China’s Ministry of Commerce to give it to the people of Wuhan.
CP: Many countries have imposed travel bans on China. The outbreak also brought a shocking wave of anti-Asian racism. Do you think that some countries might use the current situation as an excuse to impose trade bans and other restrictions?
K.K. Yoganaadan: As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, we have not implemented any travel ban. Chinese people are welcome in Sri Lanka. Also, Sri Lankan Airlines continues to make regular flights to three cities in China — Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. We continue to issue visas to our Chinese friends. Since the outbreak, traveling numbers of Chinese people have dropped, because people want to stay inside since they want to control the epidemic and prevent the spread of the infection.
It is not fair to discriminate any nations due to an unexpected challenge. The epidemic can happen in any country. It just happened in China this time, and it is a challenging time for China. Thus, all of us have to unite to fight the virus and to help our friends in China, to encourage and help them find a solution.
CP: China is the second largest market for Sri Lanka tourism. How will the outbreak affect tourism in the future?
K.K. Yoganaadan: We hope Chinese people will continue to visit Sri Lanka. But as of now, since group tours have been canceled, many people who booked tickets to visit Sri Lanka have to postpone their visits. There will be a smaller number of people travelling during this outbreak. However, we expect, when the situation comes under control, people will love to go back to Sri Lanka, and we are ready to welcome them.
CP: What did you do to attract visitors? How many Chinese tourists visited Sri Lanka in the past few years?
K.K. Yoganaadan: We promote Sri Lanka as a unique place under eight themes: wildness, thrill, bliss, essence, festivity, science, heritage and pristine nature. Chinese tourists visit Sri Lanka for pleasure, vacation, visiting friends and relatives, business, MICE tourism and for official purposes. Flights from Beijing to Sri Lanka are about seven to eight hours. Before the outbreak, we actually planned promotional activities in a number of Chinese Provinces. But now we have to postpone them. When the situation comes back to normal, we will implement the initial plans. Also, we want to initiate closer cooperation with the China Railway to connect Sri Lankan Airlines flights and we hope it will attract more tourists. The people who live far from the airport need to take a train to get to the airport, and we hope to arrange it through discussion with China Railway. We will start discussions soon in this regard.
In 2018, over 260,000 Chinese tourists visited Sri Lanka. In 2019, the number came down due to the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka in April on Easter Sunday. We hope that in 2020 we will be able attract more Chinese travelers.