By David Kitchnoge
The anti Chinese sentiments that exploded into pockets of looting in various centres around the nation must be properly analysed and appropriate actions taken to address it.
At the outset, let me say that the unrests were not acts of racism as some people would like us to believe. Any person from any country who has had the good fortune of engaging with Papua New Guineans at a personal level will tell you that we are not racists.
The riots were rather a manifestation of a complete collapse of our governance systems over the years. It was always bound to happen the very first time corrupt Papua New Guinean officials colluded with foreigners in breaking our laws. If this is not clear enough, then we will truly miss a great opportunity to seriously address corruption in our country.
There is no one to blame for our predicament. As one of my friends said, the people have vented their anger at PNG and it was unfortunate that the China man was in its path. But in saying that, I am not absolving the illegal Chinese immigrants of any wrong doing either. Yet instead of pointing fingers, we must focus on fighting the root cause of the problem to avoid such resentments in future. And while we look at addressing corruption and its detrimental effects on our country, there are a number of things we should not ignore about the relevance of China to PNG.
Firstly, there are many different people of Chinese origin in our country, and they differ mainly by time of immigration. Descendants of those who came to PNG before independence, or the ‘old Chinese’ as researcher James Chin calls them, are equal Papua New Guineans like the indigenous people ourselves. They continue to play major roles in the development of our country in the areas of politics, business, music and the arts. Who can ever forget the late Glen Low who wrote the beautiful uniting song Wan Kantri by the Barike Band?
Where PNG music would be today without the significant contributions made by Pacific Gold Studios and Chin H Meen, both PNG-Chinese owned businesses, is anybody’s guess. I purposely single out these two eminent PNG-Chinese businesses because everyday indigenous Papua New Guineans throughout our country can easily identify with them through music.
Off course there are those that make you feel like a crook every time you walk into their shops. The types that sit on high stools or are perched above some unsuspecting places just under the roofs and watch your every move. But I must admit they do it for a good reason too. A great majority of us have the tendency to be dishonest and walk out pocketing something from the shops, regardless of whether or not they are Chinese owned. The ones that caused the uproar, though, are the ‘poor’ ones that are running filthy ‘kai’ bars with very minimal capital investments. This lot must be the ‘new Chinese’, judging by their poor understanding of and engagement with the local people.
The second but most important thing to recognise about China is that it has emerged over the last few years as one of the world’s economic super powers. And it could not have asked for a better time to increase its dominance of the world. The global financial crisis has resulted in the shedding of substantial value by major listed companies around the globe, thereby creating a perfect opportunity for China to pounce. Their ambitious bid to take over nine mining assets of mining giant Rio Tinto in recent weeks is an example.
The Chinese domination of the world will mean an inevitable transmission of the Chinese ways of doing things including their values, morals and ethics to places and territories outside of their own. Although we have dealt with Chinese businesses before, they are no way near the size of the players that are now dominating the world. As such, I believe we do not have enough retrospective experience about their corporate behaviours, values and business ethics to appropriately engage with them. At the core of their corporate value systems is how they look at the human person in the context of business and profits.
Despite our limited engagements with Chinese corporations and, therefore, limited experience of their corporate behaviour, we do have the ability to read and learn about their activities in other places, especially in Africa where they are pouring in massive amounts of money. From the stories I have read, I seem to be hearing a consistent line of sentiments that although they are bringing in huge investments to those poor African nations, they have a tendency to ignore the host countries’ legal requirements. For example, Canadian based The Globe and Mail published an article titled “The dark underside of Chinese building boom” on Monday 22 June, that unearthed allegations of Chinese building companies operating in impoverished African countries such as Namibia and Malawi that disregard safety standards and pay their national employees well below the legislated minimum wage levels. The obvious effects of this are that people’s lives are put at risk while local competitors are being driven out of business through cost undercuts emanating from unfair national labour compensation.
Since the host countries are desperate for injection of foreign direct investment to help resurrect their ailing economies, the balance of power has swung in favour of Chinese businesses who do whatever they want, regardless of how illegal they may be, and get away with it. And there is no unlawful action that is more undignified than treating the human person as simply a factor of production without due regard to their well being.
It is exactly this element of desperation that really gets me nervous about us. There are commentators that say things about PNG that paint a picture of us as an economic wasteland that is in desperate need of foreign capital injection. While some of what they say are true, most are simply nonsense because these people do not have half an appreciation of our ways of life that have sustained us for generations.
We do have our challenges to properly integrate into the modern economy, but we can not afford to show similar levels of desperation with foreign investors, especially Chinese, as shown by our African brothers: lest we play ourselves into their hands. Knowing what we already know about them, albeit with very limited first hand experiences, we must tread with extreme caution when dealing with Chinese businesses that will be after raw materials from our country to quench their insatiable demands.
The government must recognise the global change of events and come up with appropriate policies and strategies that clearly define how we engage with the outside world. Surely we can not be content with the status quo because the balance of economic power is changing with the emergence of China, and India to a lesser extent. The government does appear to be aware of this shift in power globally as evidenced by the Prime Ministerial visit to China two months ago by our Sir Michael Somare.
But attracting Chinese investments is only one aspect of the serious relationship that is about to develop between our two countries. Do not believe for a moment that the Chinese will be here to help us develop our country. The investors are business people and economic opportunists who are inevitably driven by profit. So it is important that we must prepare ourselves for the unknown territory that lies ahead and put in place appropriate safeguards to protect our own citizens, in case of any unexpected adverse corporate behaviour. We must learn from the experiences of others elsewhere and ensure that we do not fall victims to the trap of economic desperation. PNG is a country with its own unique set of cultural, social and economic attributes and we must develop our modern economy at our own pace.
The best way to guard ourselves against the current forces of socio-economic demands is to ensure that the rule of law is respected in our country by everyone, both nationals and foreigners alike. As a protection mechanism, we must urgently fix up our governance systems and processes and insist that these be followed at all costs and without fear or favour. And all our dealings with foreigners must be done at complete arms length and at terms that are fair to our people.
But we will not achieve this if we do not rid ourselves of corruption first. Corruption strikes at the core of the recognition of and respect for the rule of law. So we must actively fight corruption and re-establish credibility in our lawful systems and processes, the observance of which will deliver us from oppression and lead us to economic prosperity in the long term.
In closing, the Chinese are not the enemy. We are our own worst enemies if we do not use the recent anti Chinese unrests as a good excuse to seriously address corruption.