The small central African country of Gabon could soon have a new president with an unusual background: Jean Ping, a former diplomat and the son of a Chinese businessman who migrated to Gabon after working in a bicycle factory in France.
The former head of the African Union Commission declared himself the winner of a presidential poll held this weekend, calling on his rival, incumbent president Ali Bongo, to “acknowledge his defeat.” Ping’s statement is based on unofficial tallies. Official results are expected Aug. 30.
The election that could bring about the end to almost 50 years of rule by the Bongo family has been marked by questions about parentage and background. Critics have accused Bongo of being a Nigerian war orphan, adopted by his father, the late president Omar Bongo, and thus not Gabonese. Yet, few have paid attention to Ping’s mixed background.
Ping’s father, Cheng Zhiping, left his hometown of Wenzhou in southeastern China for France in the 1920s where he took up work in a Peugeot bicycle factory, according to Ping. Cheng later moved to Gabon’s Fernan-Vaz region, along the country’s Atlantic coast, and worked as a forestry operator. He met and married Ping’s mother, Germaine Anina, and Ping was born and raised in Gabon. He adopted part of his father’s name as his surname. (His full Chinese name is 让平 or Rangping.)
“This cultural mix had a profound impact on my childhood. Looking different—as the son of a Chinese immigrant and Gabonese mother—provided me an early awareness of the world around me and made me more open-minded,” he told Quartz.
Ping, described as quiet and little-known within his country, may have more of a following overseas. News of Ping’s candidacy has spread to his father’s home province of Zhejiang. A profile of Ping in a local paper circulated the microblog (link in Chinese) Weibo this weekend with users rallying in support of his bid and expressing admiration for the wiliness of a Wenzhou businessman to have sired a potential African president.
“If he’s elected, it will strengthen the relationship between China and Gabon,” one user said. Another wrote, “Chinese people make the best politicians.” Others noted that his full name, Jean Ping, sounds similar to their president’s given name, Jinping, as in Xi Jinping.
Although Gabon supplies oil to China and Sino-Gabonese trade is around $745 million a year, Chinese companies haven’t always had an easy time in the country. A long-running feud between the state-owned enterprise Sinopec and the Gabonese government over an oil field ended only when Sinopec paid a $400 million settlement in 2014. Gabonese protesters also stopped the development of an iron ore deposit, contracted to a Chinese consortium in 2006, because the terms were unfair.
Asked how he would approach Gabon’s relationship to China, Ping answered vaguely. ”The Gabonese people understand that their next leader must strengthen our cooperation with all international partners and allies if we are to build a safe and prosperous Gabon,” he said.