The article I wrote on December 20, in which I recalled the time when I was chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, aroused great interest. It is for this reason I now write on the 45th anniversary of the establishment of relations between China and Malta.
The contribution I gave, small as it may be, to strengthen the relations between the two countries gives me satisfaction.
In 1969 when as a parliamentary reporter for the General Workers’ Union newspapers, I was sitting in the press box, Dom Mintoff, then leader of the Opposition, called me to his office in Parliament. With a somewhat stern voice that reminded me of my father, he asked me: “What’s this I hear that you are fond of the Russians?”
At the time Western Europe looked with suspicion at Mintoff and the Labour Party. Many of us in the party believed there was a right-wing conspiracy of local conservatives backed by American and Western European elements, to keep Mintoff and Labour out of power.
It was therefore natural for me and other young and inexperienced members of the Labour Youth League, to look with sympathy towards the Soviet Union. After all it was an influential force in the Non-Aligned Movement, which supported the Labour Party.
I answered back: “With whom do you expect me to be friends, the Americans?’’
The Chinese gave Mintoff a welcome larger than they gave Nixon. They wanted to convey a message to the West
Mintoff, as usual did not mince his words. “Don’t be stupid. Look towards China,’’ he said.
These words surprised and astonished me and I almost forgot them until June 1971 when Mintoff was elected to power.
A meeting I had with Richard Gibson, the well-known left wing journalist and author who was in Malta to write for the magazine Tuesday was crucial.
“I just came back to Malta from Tanzania and Zambia,” he told me. “Thousands of Chinese workers are helping Tanzania and Zambia to build the Tanzam Railway to enable these two countries to export their products. White South Africa, practising apartheid, is strangling these two countries by blocking their exports of coffee and other products.’’
That is why, I said to myself, Mintoff told me two years ago to look towards China.
Richard urged me to set up a Malta-China friendship association and gave me the contact details of SACU, the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. I found the support of Charles Mizzi, who was the news editor of the union’s newspapers. He was the first president of the Malta-China Friendship Society, while I was elected general secretary.
I never looked back. I became a close friend of the Chinese and devoured books about China written by Edgar Snow and other western and Chinese authors. I have visited China more than 50 times and established a network of contacts with influential government circles and the private sector.
On October 25, 1971, Albania’s motion to recognise the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal China was passed as General Assembly Resolution 2758.
Still when, on January 31, 1972 the Maltese ambassador to Rome, Carmel Mallia presented his credentials to the Chinese ambassador there, Mintoff ruffled a lot of features in the West. Malta had to break its relations with Taiwan.
On February 24 that year US President Nixon landed in China. The ink on the British-Maltese defence agreement signed by Lord Carrington and Mintoff had barely dried when on March 31, a month after Nixon’s visit, Mintoff became the first Prime Minister from Western Europe to visit China.
The Chinese gave Mintoff a welcome larger than they gave Nixon. They wanted to convey a message to the West.
Mintoff signed various agreements with China, which together with help from Gaddafi’s Libya, paved the way for Malta to transform its economy and to close the British military base on March 31, 1979.
That is why I never lost my affection for China and Libya. They fulfilled my dream as a young aspiring politician who believed that Malta must, after thousands of years serving as the bastion of war, transform itself into an instrument of peace.
I strongly believed Malta could never do this until it closed the British military base and become neutral and non-aligned. A top politician in China once asked me: “Why do you love China so much?”
“Because I love Malta more,’’ I answered.
In 1982, when I no longer formed part of the cabinet, Mintoff offered me the post of chairman of the monitoring board of the Freeport project. There were hundreds of Chinese workers from the Shanghai Construction company working along thousands of Maltese workers.
It was the largest construction project that Malta had undertaken. I knew very little about construction but when Mintoff gave you an appointment it meant he had faith in you. I could not let him down. I worked day and night, sometimes for 18 hours at a stretch, often even on Sundays.
I am indebted to Victor Galea, a brilliant civil servant from Mosta who was the chairman of the Kalaxlokk Company, one of three Maltese companies that worked on this massive project. Mintoff trusted him completely and whenever I got stuck with a problem, he was always there to guide and advise.
It was under my chairmanship that in early 1987, then President Agatha Barbara opened the first phase of the project before the Nationalist Party gained power.
The Maltese workers were very dedicated. The Chinese workers imparted on me their honesty, integrity and hard work.
The Chinese may date you many times but they do not marry easily. Malta was an exception. I may be wrong, but under Labour the Chinese have a marriage of love while under Nationalist governments they have a marriage of convenience.
Witness the win-win agreement entered into by China and Malta that saved Enemalta from bankruptcy and enabled Shanghai Electric to penetrate the European market.
The event which I consider to be the highlight of my political career was when in May 1979 as a Labour MP, I had informed Mintoff that I was visiting China. He gave me the task to present the Medal of the Republic to the wife of Xu Huizhong, a 42-year-old lathe engineer from Shanghai Port Machinery Factory. In 1974, Xu was accidentally killed when he was hit by a large crane nut while working on the construction of the 300,000-ton Red China Dock.
The medal had been awarded to theChinese ambassador to Malta, a month earlier, by President Anton Buttigieg. It was the first time that the medal was awarded posthumously.
I will never forget the sadness I saw on his wife’s face when I pinned the medal on her chest in an impressive ceremony attended by 3,000 people.
The young Clifford Borg Marks, Malta’s chargé d’affaires in China, spoke perfectChinese and translated the speech I madein Maltese.
During that visit Mintoff arranged a meeting for me with Chinese minister Kang Bio who would later hold the influential post of minster of defence. His private secretary was Xi Jinping, the present leader of China.
I still visit the tomb of Mr Xu every year at the Addolorata Cemetery. Twenty-seven years later, in May 2006, I revisited his family.
His wife had died but his son Xu Tongquin, now 50 years old, hugged me warmly and cried when he remembered the presentation ceremony of 1979.
I gave him the news that a street in Paola was named after his father.
‘’ Your hair is now white,” he told me with an emotional voice, “but you still remember my father. Thank you.”
The Shanghai Daily reported my visit to the Xu family with the title ‘ A tragedy brings two people together’. The Oriental Morning Post carried a full-page article.
Reno Calleja is president of the Malta-China Friendship Society.