4.2 Working with China

China, a long march to arrive

To build a relationship with China, it was first of all necessary to show patience and discernment. Then it was necessary to find the right person who could open the door of access to the sub-continent. This long march of reciprocal approach and withdrawal was made possible thanks to exceptional personalities such as Umar Said, an Indonesian political refugee in Paris.

A providential mediator

Umar Said's story is far from commonplace... Having been editor in chief of an Indonesian daily newspaper during the 1960s as well as treasurer of the Journalists' Association of Indonesia and Secretary of the Afro-Asian journalists, he was obliged to leave his homeland following the coup d'etat by Suharto. He then took refuge in China for seven years before coming to France. To meet his needs as well as those of other Indonesian political exiles, CCFD assisted him to open a cooperative restaurant in Paris. Some time later, he met Sergio who had recently been employed by CCFD.

The many contacts that Umar had made in China, South Korea and elsewhere enabled CCFD, under Sergio's leadership, to launch precious partnership relations with persons who at first seemed very distant from the orientations of an NGO. These contacts also helped promote financial support for development projects in various countries, particularly in China.

I first met Sergio towards the end of 1985. The Indonesia1 restaurant had launched its activities towards the end of December 1982 thanks to the support of Menotti Bottazzi and José Osaba2. I also knew Philippe Farine3 to whom I had proposed that he join the Support Committee for Indonesian Political Prisoners. He had immediately accepted. When my wife finally joined me in 1978 after we had been separated for 13 years during which she had no news from, Philippe arranged dinner at his house with his two daughters at rue Daumesnil.

At the time of the coup d'etat in Indonesia4, in 1965, I had been taking part in an international journalists' conference in Chile. I had left Indonesia two weeks before the Suharto putsch and being unable to return home I had requested refugee status in China. At the time, I was working as editor in chief of the economics magazine Ekonomi Nasional, as well as being treasurer of the Indonesian Journalists' Association. I was also the Finance Secretary for the Afro-Asian Journalists Association. To counteract the USA and the USSR, the association had been sympathetic to China.

Refugee in China

I was thus a “temporary refugee” in China although I had not requested political asylum. China also took part in the Afro-Asian Journalists Association. Sukarno5 was close to China. I had often travelled with him, particularly to the Philippines, Cambodia… Moreover, my wife had always kept the medal that Prince Sihanouk had given her. Mao and Sukarno were very close. The latter knew that the generals were working against him but he thought he could control them. Moreover, the president supported the Indonesian Communist Party.

From 1958, the USA had wanted to overthrow Sukarno. The Bandung Conference in 1955 with the participation of the “non-aligned (Nasser, Tito, Nehru, Nyerere, Sukarno etc.) was a historic moment for many peoples. It had enabled people from various nations and races to come together. So the 1965 coup d'etat was a hard blow for all of us. Suharto was considered as loyal to Sukarno but he was influenced by the generals manipulated by the US. Sukarno stayed in power from 1945 to 1965 and he died in 1970 aged 70.

After leaving Chile, I went to Algeria with the job of preparing the Second International Conference of the Afro-Asian Journalists Association. The first conference took place in Jakarta, Indonesia and it was Africa's turn to host the second. Five African countries were members of the association: Algeria, Mali, Guinea Conakry, South Africa, represented by the PAC6, and Tanzania. I learnt of the couple in Indonesia upon my arrival in Algeria. My magazine as well as five others were banned by Suharto. All my colleagues were arrested. I then contacted the Indonesian Embassy in Algiers who confirmed the closure of the magazine and the imprisonment of my colleagues.

An Indonesian delegation was leaving for China for the celebration of the 1 October. So I decided to join the group invited to China. I then continued to work here under the direction of the Secretary General who was the former Indonesian ambassador in China who had resigned from his post. For seven years, from 1965 to 1973, I was Secretariat head of the Afro-Asian Journalists Association, the association founded by Sukarno, with its headquarters in Jakarta.

Thanks to Jose Osaba, my son was able to receive a scholarship from CCFD. In 1976, I took part in a CCFD national meeting in Nice. For me, a communist, it was a very important discovery to see the commitment of Catholics. I realised that our approach towards them was erroneous!

CCFD makes contact with China

Then, one day, Sergio said to me: “Umar, you have many contacts in China... CCFD already works in North Korea7. We also want to work directly in China because it has a fifth of the Earth's people. You must have some contacts there through the Journalists Association”. In 1986, Sergio therefore asked me to take part in a mission to North Korea. We both stopped in Beijing on the way and we met the organisation CAFIU8, an association for promoting understanding and brotherhood between peoples with the objective of preserving peace in the world.

Relations between CCFD and CAFIU were created thanks to the good offices of He Xi Quan, who was a Chinese Communist Party cadre. I knew him personally because he represented China at WFDY)9. The Journalists Association had direct relations with the State Council which depended on the Cabinet government directed by Chou En-lai, who was then Prime Minister. I was also received on several occasions by Chou En-lai.

Sergio then had the idea of inviting the Chinese to visit France for a get to know encounter for two weeks in November 1987. It was an extremely significant initiative. When I later went to China with Armand Lecerf, then the CCFD projects director, we were very well received despite the fact that CAFIU had very few staff. We were astonished to be driven around in a spacious limousine! I had the opportunity to visit China three or four times with CCFD. In 198, Sergio asked me to represent CCFD at a major UNESCO conference there. I took as a mark of his esteem and confidence.

I have French friends, including Sergio and three other people who are close, but none can be compared with Sergio. In the political field, we had nuanced positions and some differences but we always had the same orientation. What Sergio really thought of China and North Korea remained an enigma for me. He was a very warm person but also very discreet.

Sergio also spoked to me about his visit to Romania during the time of Ceaucescu and he also spoke of Vietnam. He spoke of the things he had seen, the behaviour of certain cadres, their rigidity but without making any political or ideological judgment. He stayed reserved. I was always impressed by his approach and tried to understand it even when we were not of the same opinion.

For me, Sergio was a reference, a thermometer as well as an enigma. A man whose capacity to reach out to and understand people I admired deeply. On 26 October 2009 I celebrated my 81st birthday and I asked myself how to perpetuate the things one has achieved... We need examples!

It was during these trips that I got to know Sergio better. I was able to see how he behaved, how he encountered all kinds of people. My relations with Sergio became much closer after our trip to North Korea, and our mutual confidence grew with each trip. We laughed together at the weird things in that country, strange things that still continue... In spite of our differences, we had a common concern: care for the well-being of people. The statue of Kim Il Sung made us laugh as well as the fanaticism of our guide. Sergio said that we should work with the University of Wonsan because through such a relationship we could hope to assist the people.

Same thing in China. We noticed many bizarre things but also appreciated the sincerity and honesty of certain people who worked for the Communist Party and for the people. We appreciated He Xi Quan, adjunct director of CAFIU, an exemplary cadre. We admired his sincere and honest manner, his respect for others. I also remember Zhu Lingling, the CAFIU interpreter, who also respected He Xi Quan. So many people who were in no way corrupt.

I am proud to have been one of the best friends of Sergio. As part of this friendship, as a comrade of arms, a very great and strong mutual confidence developed between us. It allowed us to deal with some complex and sometimes risky problems. Although he was younger than me, Sergio taught me many things, particularly to do the most and the best for other human beings, from wherever they came.

Sergio has gone but the greatness of his soul remains for the long term in the heart and spirit of many people who appreciated what he has done over his decades of service to humankind in many countries of the world.

Rejecting the logic of the blocs

Thus, thanks to the contacts developed by Umar Said during his forced exile in China and the perspicacity and initiative of Sergio, CCFD was able to develop lasting relations with the communist Middle Kingdom of Mao. Who else would have been able to take such a risk during the 1980s? It was not evident at all at the time for a Catholic NGO to claim to develop links with China and to support development projects there. And yet on the other hand this initiative enabled the Chinese Church to emerge from its isolation. Sergio had the reflected audacity and the long term policy vision.

Former CCFD General-Secretary Claude Baerhel recalls this story of CCFD. CAFIU and CCFD were two organisations from completely different political and cultural worlds. But both had the reciprocal desire to know and understand each other, and to work together for the development of the Chinese people despite the risks and the reigning prejudices.

It was CCFD which took the initiative in 1986 with a very novel approach for an international solidarity organisation (ISO) accustomed to financing development projects. As Sergio recalled during his October 1992 mission: “We have never had the ambition or the pretension to offer development financial assistance to this continent. China has no need of us to succeed in its economic development.” However, he added: “What happens in a corner of the world that represents one fifth of the planet cannot leave an ISO like CCFD indifferent.”

China was evolving, changing greatly and rapidly. For CCFD, it was fundamental to try to understand and know China better from the interior, with its local actors, on the basis of projects for the local development of the most disadvantaged people. The evolution of the Chinese giant interested but also worried the Asian partners of CCFD, in Indonesia, in Vietnam and in the Philippines...

This is what explains why the CCFD-CAFIU partnership would be opened up to other Asian partners. During his missions, Sergio was often accompanied by partners from other Asian countries whom he would invite to discover China, which would have been impossible without the support of CCFD.

The CCFD-CAFIU relationship was based on multiple visits of both parties. Umar Said has already related the story of the first mission that Sergio led in 1986 and which laid the foundations for the future.

In 1990, when a CAFIU delegation to CCFD arrived in France, the Chinese organisation invited CCFD president, Rene Valette to come to China. In 1992, secretary-general Bernard Holzer also made a visit. And during the same year, Sergio, together with a member of the CCFD National Committee, a representative of SIDI10 and some Asian partners also visited. Then there was the great assembly “Terre d'Avenir' (Earth of the Future) held by CCFD at Bourget with the participation of an important CAFIU delegation including Bishop Fu Tieshan, bishop of Beijing and a member of the CAFIU Board of Directors. Finally, there were frequent visits by Sergio to China (once or twice a year), including in 1993 with Marc Berger, director of the Projects Department, and in return the frequent visits of Chinese delegations to the CCFD network.

Privileging South-South relations

The visits to China from Asian partners were an opportunity to build South-South links for the first time between local Chinese authorities and the representatives of Asian NGOs belonging to civil society in their own countries. It was a great discovery on both sides.

Thus, we can see in the CAFIU-CCFD relationship the elements that always characterised the conception of development of CCFD and Sergio. For the latter, development consisted first of all in building links, relationships, enabling the understanding and respect between people at all levels of responsibility. This was the essential mission of CCFD to be present, without discrimination or prejudgment in particular contexts such as China. To work for development involves both supporting small projects as in the province of An Hui or in the canton of Yanging, at the service of disadvantaged peoples. And at the same time, through this solidarity to discover another face of China. This also involved building links to understand the nature of a country-continent whose evolution would be determinative for neighbouring countries as well as for the rest of the world.

Undoubtedly Sergio contributed to make China known to the CCFD network of activists and to its member movements. It was a China different from that which is sometimes described in certain journalistic reports. Both Bernard Holzer and Sergio had a deep awareness of the importance of these issues in the partnership relationship. This is why from the beginning of 1985 an envelope of one million francs was allocated for financing projects in China.

This envelope would be renewed once used, eventually coming to a total of €640,000. Two kinds of projects were financed in priority:

  • Projects targeting disadvantaged people in enclaves or affected by natural disasters and responding to basic human rights, e.g. education (informal education, farmer schools), health (medical aid,hospitals), rehabilitation after floods...
  • Projects that facilitated understanding, communication, exchange, opening to others, e.g. reciprocal visits of Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino partners, training scholarships in France, England and the Philippines; building an exchange network; a means of entering into the logic of the Cold War that predominated during that period.

A “relay” role

This cooperation was based on paying particular attention to the relations between Churches, namely the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Sergio had regular contacts with both and he played the role of “relay” in which he excelled.

It is difficult to summarise such a partnership relationship in which the qualitative and relational aspect played such an important role. However, several indicate allow us to think that it was positive, e.g. the testimonies of those who took part in that relationship, former scholarship holders, former partners who all recognised the enrichment that this relationship had provided; field visits which always showed the relevance and viability of the activities established with disadvantaged groups and local authorities...

The partnership with CAFIU belongs to this category of exceptional relations that CCFD was able to establish thanks people of the quality of Sergio. It can also be compared with the relations that CCFD has developed with countries such as North Korea, Vietnam or Cuba. It is based on a fundamental principle of rejecting the logic of blocs. And it forcefully expresses the universal character of solidarity and respect for peoples and cultures.

An eternal friendship

In the relations between CCFD and China via CAFIU, she played an irreplaceable role. First because she took on the role of interpreter between French and Chinese and secondly because she slowly took on responsibility for the successful implementation of projects in China supported by CCFD. Her name is Lingling Zhu and she first came to France in 1987-88 where she had studied social sciences for one year at the IESL (Lyon Social Studies Institute).

In 1991-92, she studied French NGOs at the Institut catholique de Paris. Her intelligence and her sensibility enabled her to understand people from different cultures. She also quickly grasped Sergio's motivations in his solidarity work and the search for dialogue with China.

When I sit down in front of the computer and think back on these memories it takes me back to 1986, the time of my first meeting with Sergio. He had come to Beijing with Umar Said, another great friend who had helped CCFD to establish relations with CAFIU after a short stay in North Korea.

As a project officer, Sergio had truly incarnated the values of CCFD and the French Church through his involvements and in a personal manner. I would like to share all that I have received from him over the last twenty-five years.

Solidarity... It is not just granting a favour. I remember the first time that Sergio explained the word to me. I completely agreed with him: solidarity is first of all a relationship of equality, it is giving but also receiving. Thanks to this principle, at CAFIU we never felt any superiority on the part of CCFD.

Sharing... It means learning from one another. During his first trip to China, a mysterious country in the eyes of Westerners, he looked, listened, reflected... With great curiosity but also with great respect. I remember very well that in order to make known the different cultures to him, I had taken him to visit the Forbidden City and had explained why the Chinese often used the words “harmonious”, “supreme”. He told me in all sincerity: “We Westerners believe ourselves to be masters of the planet but with respect to Chinese and Asian civilisation which date from more than 5000 years, we have much to learn.” It was our first meeting and it was very pleasant, unforgettable. And this friendship lasted twenty-five years. It will remain eternal...

Development... It is not just giving. During the whole period of our cooperation, we followed the same principle: instead of giving a fish to the poor farmers, we taught them to fish. We are convinced that it is the best way to help local people to develop. And thus development becomes sustainable.

“Hot” countries

In the eyes of partners, Sergio was more than a friend, he was a friend with whom one could discuss everything. And his qualities can be summarised as follows:

Courage... The countries in which Sergio took charge were rather “hot” countries. Before China, he had already worked in Vietnam and in North Korea. What was the image of these communist countries in the eyes of Westerners, above all Catholic believers? We could all imagine. I know that he experienced “pressure” from within CCFD on one hand and that he also suffered from “misunderstanding” on the part of partners on the other hand. Because in the Asian tradition it is said that “pancakes never fall from the sky!”, and some badly intentioned people saw “inadmissible objectives” behind the various projects. But in fact, it was with his own convictions that Sergio advanced on the way towards mutual understanding.

Respect for others... During his cooperation work with China, he always insisted on self-determination of partners. Instead of telling them what needed to be done, he patiently listened and respected their suggestions. He often said: “When we decide ourselves to do something, we do it well. But if someone obliges us to do it, the result is always bad.” Projects in China focused on education, formation, hygiene and infrastructure... And all of them achieved significant results.

Wisdom... Sergio had a lot of humour, he had the art of speaking and listening. He always had learning at heart. Knowing the various religions and cultures was the basis of all his work. Learning languages was his way of exchanging. Smiling was his way of communicating. He was a true “popular diplomat” in the eyes of partners and he must be a true “missionary” in the eyes of Catholics.

CCFD contributed to the development of China

When one looks back after twenty years of cooperation with China, CCFD has brought its own contribution to Chinese development and well achieved its objective. It was the first French development NGO to work in my country.

Over the course of thirty years of opening up to the exterior, the number of poor Chinese farmers has dropped from 250 million to 21.48 million, a drop of 228.52 million people. CCFD has indeed made a contribution. In the villages where CCFD supported projects, many farmers knew that it was CCFD even if they did not know a word of English or French.

CCFD was the first French Catholic organisation to make contact with the Chinese Church. It succeeded in supporting a Catholic printing works in Shanghai which is still operating. Naturally, it also obtained grants from Germany, Italy and other countries... The number of Chinese Catholic believers has greatly increased. And didn't the Shanghai printery supported by CCFD play a significant role? The answer is clearly yes! Sergio had also succeeded in inviting the bishop of Beijing, Bishop Fu Tieshan to France to take part in the Terre d'Avenir (Earth of the Future) event. On that occasion, he also had a private meeting with Cardinal Etchegaray11.

2009 was a sad year for me. In March, I lost He Liansheng, my former director at CAFIU, whom most of our friends at CCFD had known. And in July I lost another great friend, Sergio. They were both great friends and they were nearly the same age when they left us because of the same illness. Life is sometimes inexplicable.

Nevertheless, I think that we all owe much to Sergio. He gave us the opportunity to reflect. We must now look back on what we experienced together, take a calm moment to hear another “us” from the inside, because he gave us the opportunity to make contact again with our old friends. What reassures me is that Sergio and I had exchanged several emails during July 2009.

I would also like to profit from this testimony to thank CCFD and the friends of CCFD to have granted me the opportunity to benefit from two long stays in France. This helped me to know French civilisation much better as well as the Catholic religion even if I am not a believer. These experiences helped me to understand and to love others and to develop my own moral values.


1 The Indonesia restaurant was initially conceived to assist Indonesian political refugees to find work in France. It is a cooperative enterprise based on the principle of solidary and alternative economics.

2 Former CCFD project officer for Asia.

3 Philippe Farine was the first lay president of CCFD from 1968 to 1977.

4 After the coup d’Etat, the Indonesian army launched a bloody campaign of repression against communist activists and sympathisers. Within a few months, 200,000 Indonesians were killed.

5 Sukarno was the father of Indonesian independence and he was president from 1945 to 1965.

6 Pan African Congress, which was considered to be close to the Chinese government.

7 CCFD had links with North Korea through UNESCO and financed scholarships for North Korean students.

8 Chinese Association For International Understanding.

9 World Federation of Democratic Youth, directed by Zhou Enlai.

10 SIDI (International Solidarity for Development and Investment), a company founded by CCFD in 1983 to extend its work in the economic field.

11 Former bishop of Marseille, now a cardinal and emissary of the Secretary of State of the Holy See for crisis zones. zones en crise.