BEIJING, July 21 (Xinhua) -- Liu Guijin started his diplomatic career as a messenger in the 1970s, sending parcels between China and its embassies and consulates around the globe, including Africa.
He has since formed a personal tie with the continent. After some 40 years in diplomatic service, Liu acquired the status of the "go-to man" on African subjects in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).
In late June, the 76-year-old became a household name in China as he was among the 29 individuals receiving the highest honor in the Communist Party of China (CPC): the July 1 Medal.
Liu, the only person in the foreign service to receive the title, was honored for his outstanding contributions to promoting Sino-African friendship.
"The July 1 Medal is the collective honor of the diplomatic front," Liu told Xinhua. "I want to do more."
IN AND OUT OF AFRICA
In a career spanning 40 years, Liu visited almost every corner of Africa, promoting Sino-African friendship. He was once a counselor at the Chinese embassy in Ethiopia and ambassador to Zimbabwe and South Africa, respectively.
As the world's largest developing country, China has close ties with Africa, the continent with the largest number of developing countries.
"Both China and African countries are developing countries and they share similar historical experiences. This is what makes China-Africa relations close and solid," said Liu.
In 1981, Liu was stationed in Kenya, his first overseas posting. In the following five years, he only returned to China once on vacation. When he ended his tenure and returned home, his son had grown from a three-year-old to a second-grader. The pain of separation is common for many diplomats from older generations.
"Sometimes people only see the fancy side of diplomats, but not their sacrifice and dedication, which are key to foreign service work," Liu said.
Liu has an intense liking for Africa, committed to building "bridges" between China and the continent.
In May 1991, when he worked in Ethiopia, fanatical supporters of Mengistu Haile Mariam set fire to an ammunition depot following the collapse of his government, causing mass casualties.
Liu recalled his narrow escape during the chaos when a stray bullet hit his bedroom and fell right beside his pillow.
Though many embassy staff and Chinese experts left Addis Ababa amid the turbulence, Liu and several of his colleagues chose to stay, coping with food and water shortages and blackouts.
In 2001, Liu was appointed the Chinese ambassador to South Africa. During his stint, he had good ties with Nelson Mandela.
Liu recalled one of their close interactions: when he accompanied a visiting Chinese leader to Mandela's residence, the South African founding father was waiting in his courtyard and was very eager to talk about the epic Long March.
The Long March was CPC-led Red Army's 12,500-km trek in the 1930s, repelling more than 1 million enemy troops bent on pursuing it and eventually setting up a revolutionary base in northwest China, from where the CPC fought its way toward the national victory.
Mandela said while imprisoned on Robben Island in Cape Town, he was inspired by the stories of the Long March. Calling it a magnificent epic, Mandela regarded the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a long march.
Mandela said he was convinced that the victory of the Chinese revolution was great encouragement and support for nations under oppression, Liu said.
In China, the retirement age for diplomats like Liu is usually 60. In 2007, however, the 62-year-old diplomat was once again appointed the first special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, with an initial focus on the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region. He had helped diffuse several potential crises.
After the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against then Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan reacted strongly, threatening to expel peacekeepers and humanitarian experts. Liu immediately flew to Sudan, mediating successfully to avert any potential outbreak of conflict.
When China's assistance for Sudan's development faced a smear campaign, he chose to interact with journalists as much as possible to clarify the facts and rushed to countries concerned to mediate.
"At that time, I was convinced that I must let the international community notice China, hear China's voice and understand China's position," Liu recalled.
In 2000, the first ministerial conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was held in Beijing, which opened up a new era in their relations. Liu, then director-general of the Department of African Affairs at the MFA, made significant contributions to this cooperation platform.
Liu and his colleagues helped design a slew of measures, including reducing and eliminating Africa's debt to China as appropriate and further opening up the market to the continent.
Thanks to the joint efforts of China and African countries, follow-up mechanisms of FOCAC were then discussed and adopted, including holding a ministerial conference every three years.
Two decades into its establishment, the forum has become a new model for friendly cooperation and common development among developing countries. Under the framework, China has supported African countries in constructing over 6,000 km of railways and roads, respectively, nearly 20 ports, and over 80 large electric power facilities.
China-Africa trade soared by 20 times, and direct Chinese investment in the continent saw a 100-time surge from 20 years earlier.
"Now this forum has achieved fruitful results," said Liu.
Though retired, Liu would still read books and news about Africa at home, and he has high expectations for young diplomats.
Diplomats should have a wide range of knowledge, be disciplined and dedicate themselves to their country, according to Liu.
"Always feel the need to learn more so that you can better represent the country and its people to complete the mission," he said.