‘You dare to lie:’ Chinese ambassador to Nepal snaps at senior journalist over Pokhara loan claim

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New Delhi: Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Chen Song, verbally sparred with a Nepali editor over his claim that the actual interest rate for the loan given by a Chinese bank to the Pokhara airport was much higher than previously reported.
Song retorted on X with an angry post: “Worst lies that I ever saw. It is public information, yet you dare lie about it.” In a different post, Chen demanded an apology from journalist Gajendra Budhathoki and also from “whoever the people you represent”.
On 27 May, Budhathoki posted that he had the signed document of the $215.96 million loan agreement for the Pokhara International Airport, which shows the interest rate offered by the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank) as 5 percent, despite public reports of it being 2 percent.
The Pokhara airport, first envisioned in 1975, was finally completed and inaugurated on 1 January, 2023 – after a 50-year wait for the second most populous city of Nepal. The project was made possible due to the $215.96 million from the Exim Bank of China.
Opened to much fanfare, the airport has become emblematic of another of Beijing’s white-elephant development projects, saddling the local partner with high debt. There have been no international routes linked to the airport, for more than a year after it opened.
Another controversy surrounding the airport is whether it is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – the $1 trillion “project of the century” envisioned by Chinese President Xi Jinping to develop two transport routes connecting China to the world.
Navita Srikant, a geopolitical and security analyst and an India-Nepal relations observer, said when the airport was inaugurated on 1 January 2023, the Chinese ambassador had called it “the flagship project of the China-Nepal BRI cooperation”.
“He reiterated this a few months later, after the successful landing of an international flight. Last summer, however, the then Nepalese Foreign Minister, N.P. Saud denied the above-made Chinese assertions and assured in his Parliamentary address that no project under BRI has been implemented thus far,” Srikant said.
Srikant added: “This is a loss of image for China — they have been promoting the BRI for so long but their first project in Nepal did not get that tag.”
The perceived loss of image due to the difficulties faced by the project could be attributed to the Chinese ambassador’s public defensiveness regarding the Pokhara airport, explained Shivam Shekhawat, a junior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
Speaking to ThePrint, Shekhawat added that the airport failing to “achieve the kind of traffic that was envisioned” is something that matters for Chinese public diplomacy in Nepal.
In recent months, the Nepalese government has been trying to convert the loan for Pokhara airport into a grant, given that the project has not achieved its goals.
“During the recent nine-day trip of Nepali Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha to China, discussions included negotiations to convert a portion of the loan to Pokhara Airport as a grant. From 2026, Nepal has to start repaying the loan, including the interest,” explained Srikant.
Habitual offender
This is not the first time that Song has pushed the boundaries of acceptable actions by a diplomat in a foreign country. At a public event in September 2023, Song asserted that India’s “policy” towards Nepal was not “friendly” while adding that New Delhi’s ties are also “not so beneficial” to the country, according to media reports.
“This Twitter spat and use of undiplomatic language hints at a certain BRI-related anxiety of China in Nepal. However, there is a sense that Chinese ambassadors have habitually crossed diplomatic norms in Nepal. Even previously, the statement on India-Nepal trade crossed the line way too far,” Srikant told ThePrint.
“The defensiveness, however, is not proportionate to the response made by the ambassador in a public verbal spat. No country would be okay with an ambassador attempting to intimidate their journalists,” added Shekhawat.
In 2020, the then-Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqui, interfered in the affairs of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and attempted to keep the party united during the political split occurring at the time.

 

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