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Need for transparent, rational debate on Chinese investments

CLAUDE ROBINSON

Sunday, March 09, 2014    

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The proposal to locate a Chinese trans-shipment port and logistics hub facility on the Goat Islands in the protected Portland Bight area of St Catherine has generated heated debate about finding the balance between economic development and environmental protection.

Government has been gung-ho about the benefits to be derived from the US$1.5 billion investment and a potential 10,000 jobs. Many environmentalists and other critics say yes to the investment but no to the location. They recite the potential harm to the area rich in bio-diversity and suggest other suitable locations in the vicinity.

While both sides cannot even agree on how to engage the debate meaningfully, a new wrinkle was introduced last week by one of the country's leading scientists who worried that discussion of the project was being shrouded by increasing anti-Chinese sentiments that could create conditions for violence against Jamaica's Chinese community as happened previously in our history.

Professor Anthony Chen, a Jamaican of Chinese descent, who has been honoured nationally and internationally as an authority on climate change and who has served on the UN climate change panel which received the Nobel Prize some years ago, suggested that race was behind some of the opposition to the Chinese-financed facility.

Making his inaugural presidential address at the official launch of the Chinese Cultural Association of Jamaica, Professor Chen referred to anti-Chinese riots of 1918 and 1965 and warned there could be a repeat.

"There are chances of it happening again, especially since many more stores are opened in various parts of Jamaica by new immigrants from China.... There is no secret that a substantial number of persons in Jamaica have made antagonistic comments, both in the media and in private conversations, about China's involvement in Jamaica, especially with the announcement of the proposed Goat Islands project," he said. I have heard similar talk.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in Jamaica in 1854 as indentured labourers to replace enslaved Africans, because the English colonialists wanted a new source of cheap labour for the sugar estates. Others came later on three-year contracts.

Historians tell us that there was tension from early as the newly freed blacks saw the Chinese labourers as competition for the available low-wage jobs on the estates.

At the end of their contracts many of the Chinese set up retail shops in rural towns and villages. These would become hugely successful.

Key to their success was extending credit to customers who had steady jobs or small holdings with a reliable source of income; they seemed to be at the shop and available for business 24/7; and goods were sold in quantities that the majority of their customers could afford.

But there was resentment from other business interests who, by 1905, had successfully petitioned the colonial administration to restrict Chinese immigration. And there was resentment at community level.

That's part of the background to the 1918 incident as recounted in Howard Johnson's, The anti-Chinese Riots of 1918, published in Caribbean Quarterly, September 1982.

Busted love triangle triggers violence

The story is that a Chinese shopkeeper in the community of Ewarton, St Catherine, Fong Sue, closed his shop on a Sunday afternoon and left a Creole female shop assistant, Caroline Lindo, in charge, with the stated intention to return the following day. Those were the days when Chinese shopkeepers lived 'back-a-shop' (behind) or 'up-a-shop' (upstairs).

But Fong Sue returned late that Sunday night to find a policeman from the Ewarton station, Acting Corporal McDonald, in "an intimate embrace" with Fong Sue's beloved Caroline. In the delicate language of a century ago, the newspaper account reported that the acting corporal was "outside of his uniform".

It appears that Fong Sue's early return was not accidental, because he was quickly able to round up some other Chinese men and gave the acting corporal a sound beating, made easier because the hapless officer was "outside of his uniform".

Whether out of shame or because of injury, the acting corporal did not return to the Ewarton station for two days, and his absence sparked a rumour that Fong Sue and his friends had beaten the policeman to death. Actually, we are told by historian Johnson, he had spent the time in hiding.

One version of the rumour was that the policeman had gone to the premises, not in search of love on a Sunday evening with Caroline, but to reprimand Fong Sue for operating his business on a Sunday and to warn him for prosecution. Yeah, right!

Whatever the reason for the beating of the acting corporal, it triggered an attack on Chinese property and people by the Monday afternoon as an angry mob descended on and looted four Chinese-owned shops in the town.

Clearly, anti-Chinese sentiments must have been widespread as the riots quickly spread from Ewarton to towns and villages in Clarendon, St Mary and St Ann until it was brought under control by the police three days later.

"Because of the pre-existing tension between the Creoles and the Chinese, little encouragement was needed to spur on the riots. Essentially, the Creoles wanted to chase the Chinese merchants out of their communities in order to eliminate the competition; however, they were not successful in their efforts." The Chinese population grew, as did their success in commerce.

The 1938 uprising by the black working class against the inequities of colonial Jamaica saw attacks against the property of persons of Syrian, Jewish and Chinese ancestry who were an integral part of the control of the distributive trade controlled by the middle stratum of society.

Finally, the violence of 1965 was triggered by an incident on August 28 when an employee of a Chinese-owned store in Kingston reported to police that three Chinese brothers beat her at the store; an angry crowd surrounded the store, and one member of the crowd was shot by a Chinese.

After days of looting and burning of Chinese stores in the downtown Kingston business district and sporadic violence, at least eight people were reportedly killed including one person shot by a Chinese trader defending his shop.

Fast-forward to the present. Another wave of Chinese immigrants have become the most visible retailers in many towns across Jamaica, and there are the occasional stories of tension between store owners, customers and with employees.

In addition, some of the new immigrants have been the targets of criminals as they reportedly keep large sums of cash to stay below the radar of Jamaican customs and tax authorities. I have heard people say they deserve it for not registering their businesses and for operating outside of the formal banking system.

These developments are taking place in a new global context of China (again) rising as a world power with the potential to rival the American-European determination of how the world works and how power is distributed.

In this context Western media, with its global reach and influence, plays on fears that China will become the colonial master and dominate Africa, Latin American and the Caribbean as Europe and America did in the past.

How do we respond? First, our Government and our people must avoid getting caught up in a new version of the cold war. Jamaica, since Michael Manley established diplomatic relations with China, has developed principled relations with Beijing.

Second, Jamaica has few investment options and has to create conditions to attract foreign investment.

But, very importantly, our Government needs to be smart and understand that investors — Chinese or otherwise — are not here primarily for our benefit. They are here because it makes sense for them, and they will seek to maximise their advantage and opportunity.

For us, the important question must be: Is it in the best interest of the Jamaican people? That's not a question for the Government alone to determine. The search for answers requires open, transparent debate. That includes rational discussion about the newest wave of Chinese investors.

When times are hard and people are stressed, it does not take much to trigger violent incidents; the risk can be minimised if we all try to raise the level of debate, focusing on the national interest.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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