Columns

If not the Chinese, who?

Raulston
Nembhard

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

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Controversy persists regarding Chinese investments in Jamaica. A great deal of the controversy is driven by a misunderstanding of what the Chinese are about and the pragmatic and shrewd approach they bring to their economic thrust in the world.

Their economic pragmatism has been evident in Jamaica ever since they came here as indentured servants. I once had a conversation with a rural gentleman who lamented the Chinese taking over Jamaica, but who soon went on to praise the Chinese owners of a mini mart in his district. He was impressed by how they were able to place daily staples like rice, sugar and cheese into small parcels, thus making them available to more people at a reasonable price.

In another anecdote I recall a conversation that the late and renowned Wilmot “Motty” Perkins had with a caller who said something along these lines: “Mr Perkins, di Chiney dem can wuk yuh see. One Chiney man can do five summady wuk.” That may elicit a smile, but its significance cannot be overlooked. It underscores the legendary work ethic for which the Chinese are known, and which many Jamaicans secretly admire.

At this time in our economic development, the Chinese presence as a dominant force in our economy has become more evident and palpable. In all our criticism of them there are some things about which we should be abundantly clear. Firstly, Chinese investors did not invite themselves here; we sought them out. Secondly, they are not here to do us a favour. They are here as prudent investors who will be concerned, as any investor would be, about their return on investment. They, like any other, will look at every opportunity in this regard. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, they are the only significant players in town who seem willing to invest billions of dollars in our beleaguered economy.

As such, and as any great power, they are in the business of peddling influence. Their global footprint can be seen on every continent. They are the only global power that seems willing to aggressively invest State resources into developing countries. They have shrewdly managed their own economy to the extent that they now sit on almost US$3 trillion in reserves. They have deployed portions of their vast wealth to develop their own social and economic infrastructure to the extent that hundreds of millions of Chinese have moved from poverty into the middle class. In fact, it is the emerging Chinese middle class that may yet prove the greatest challenge and opportunity to the still-centralised political directorate in China.

Jamaica has been a direct beneficiary of the deployment of Chinese global wealth. And their present investment is immense. The reopening of the bauxite plant in Nain, St Elizabeth, and their work on the country's highway road networks are just a few examples. And there is more to come with the building out of the free zone facility in Clarendon and the Caymanas investment park. Their commitment to build hotel rooms and residential housing solutions along the north coast highway are indicative projects that will place the country on a solid growth path. Whichever way you look at it, their presence in Jamaica is a win-win, not a win-lose or lose-lose proposition.

But there are caveats to investment that any sovereign nation must be mindful of. One of these is what Opposition spokesman Peter Bunting and others have raised concerning the treatment of Jamaican workers within the context of the nation's labour laws. We are a nation of laws, and all investors, foreign and domestic, must conform to and obey the laws of the country. The labour ministry, and the Government by extension, must see to it that fair and just best practices are observed by everyone.

There is no sense lamenting Chinese depredation when the effective organs of the State are found sleeping at the switch. Proper care must be exercised to ensure that Jamaican businesses and workers are not marginalised in the process because we are so hungry to get anything that the Chinese may throw at us. There must be the insistence on the transfer of technology and knowledge, where necessary, to the locals.

Also, their developmental projects must be environmentally sound. I would not countenance, for example, their building of a coal plant in Nain or its surroundings. Neither would I countenance any desecration of the almost sacred and pristine environs of the Cockpit Country in an effort to mine bauxite.

One does not see the Chinese deliberately setting out to break the laws, but if the enforcement of the laws is lax, if there are no penalties for their infractions, then you can expect people to squeeze through any loophole they can. Where is the Government in the investigation of worker complaints that come to its attention? Bashing the Chinese as if they are mere interlopers seeking to colonise the country may win tribal political points, but it is foolhardy and dangerous.

The truth is that the Chinese are here to stay, and they seem comfortable with their presence here. There is no other country that I know of that is willing to do what the Chinese are doing in Jamaica. Former United States Ambassador to Jamaica, Luis Moreno, used to boast of the US$1 billion of investments that he was able to attract to Jamaica. But that is insignificant compared to the multibillions that the Chinese are presently investing and the many other billions they will in the future.

Let us face it. At this point in our economic development, if it is not the Chinese, then who? The beleaguered US President Donald Trump, who is not able in almost eight months to get any far-reaching legislation enacted? America is deeply mired in debt - much of it owed to the Chinese. The country has experienced anaemic economic growth averaging fewer than two per cent since the 2008 financial crisis. Since the US has been playing its fiddle, the Chinese have been quietly, and not too quietly, winning friends and influencing countries around the world. In time to come, this will certainly tilt the geopolitical balance in its favour. Then there is the European Union, but its members are still grappling with the fallout from Brexit and their own sets of complex economic problems. Interestingly, the Chinese are heavily invested in Greece, a member of the EU, to the chagrin of member states such as Germany.

We need to get real, and cool down the kind of anti-Chinese rhetoric being spewed by people who should know better. I know I am sounding like a public relations consultant for the Chinese, but I think we need to put things in their proper perspective. We have a golden opportunity to partner with a country that seems to genuinely like us as a people, quite apart from what they can gain from investing in the country.

There is nothing to suggest that Jamaicans and the Chinese cannot co-exist in harmony as we seek the prosperity of our nation. We have done so for a very long time. Loose and almost xenophobic rhetoric should not be encouraged. Those who are disposed to go in this direction must see the error of their ways and turn in a new direction. Such rhetoric does not only poison public discourse, but may create the kind of ethnic animosity against the Chinese and any other ethnicity, for that matter, that may spill into violence. This would be regrettable, indeed. The question I would like those who are vehemently opposed to the Chinese presence in Jamaica to answers is: At this time of our economic development, if not the Chinese, who?

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or stead6655@aol.com.

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