Jamaicans must read China’s record, not just its lips

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By: Andrew Lumsden, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

On May 26, 2015, Li Keqiang, the Premier of the People’s Republic of China spoke before the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC). He urged greater economic cooperation between Latin American and Caribbean nations and Beijing. Since the opening of the 21st century, China has exponentially increased its direct investment in the developing world, and now the Chinese treasure ship has landed on the island of Jamaica. In the wake of slow economic growth, increasing debt, and declining infrastructure, Kingston has eagerly engaged with Chinese companies. The government bills its engagement with China as a chance to improve infrastructure, create jobs, and stimulate economic growth on the island. The government, however, demonstrates no clear understanding of China’s record in previous dealings with developing nations, specifically sub-Saharan Africa, and the socio-economic and environmental consequences brought on by engagement with China.

In recent years, Jamaica has deepened its relationship with China. In August 2012, during Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller’s visit to Beijing, Chinese Head of State Xi Jinping announced that Jamaica had become his country’s top trading partner in the Caribbean. State-run Chinese enterprises have also undertaken major infrastructure development projects on the island. A convention center, bridges, roads, and, most notably, the Highway 2000 North-South Link, which connects the north coast city of Ocho Rios to the capital, Kingston, are among some of these projects. China’s state-run China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), which is constructing the link, is scheduled to pay the entire $610 million USD project cost.[1] CHEC, which has been sanctioned by the World Bank, the United States, and the Asian Development Bank for corruption and fraud, has also been contracted by the Jamaican government for a number of public works projects across the country.[2] The Chinese government has also provided millions in loans to Jamaica, which, as of June 2015, is $24.7 billion USD in debt to China.[3]

Goat Islands Transshipping Port Plan

Since late 2013, the Jamaican government has controversially engaged in talks with the Chinese government to allow CHEC to build a deep-water transshipping port on Great Goat Island. Great Goat Island and its counterpart, Little Great Island, are part of the Portland Bight Protected Area, an ecologically sensitive area, which is home to a large population of critically endangered and endemic species of birds, fish, and reptiles. The protective zone was designated in 1999 to guard the region’s delicate ecosystem, which in addition to the fauna includes mangrove forests and coral reefs, which conceal and protect the eggs and larvae of the resident animals. The protected area is also home to a human population of about 50,000, which includes about a quarter of the island’s 16,000 fishermen. The majority of households in the protected area live at or below the poverty line, and the livelihoods of many of the region’s residents rely on access to fishing.

In a statement to Parliament on February 25, 2014, Dr. Omar Davies, Jamaica’s transport, works and housing minister, outlined CHEC’s plan for construction of the port. The project will involve “dredging and land reclamation activities” as well as the “construction of a coal-fired electricity generation plant.”[4] Experts, however, warn the project could have severe consequences for the region’s denizens, both human and non-human. Dr. Ann Sutton, ecological consultant for the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation warned that “the livelihoods of thousands of people will be lost. Residents will no longer be able to supplement their diets by fishing. Those people will not benefit from the proposed hub.”[5] The livelihoods of local residents would be severely disturbed because the project would likely lead to the complete devastation of fish, conch, and lobster populations.[6] Environmental experts in Jamaica have urged the government to reconsider the use of the Goat Islands site with an eye to protect the island’s environmental treasures.

Lack of Transparency and Concerns over Jamaican Sovereignty

The government, on the other hand, argues that the port will be a great benefit to Jamaica. Dr. Davies has asserted in a statement delivered before Parliament that in addition to economic profit and development, the port will provide “opportunities for employment, technical skills training, and knowledge transfer.”[10] The government predicts that the project will create 2,000 jobs during the initial construction phase and 10,000 when the port is in full operation. Likely in response to project opposition, Dr. Davies warned that “even if Jamaica did not pursue the CHEC proposal, that company is likely to implement the project elsewhere in the region.”

There are also apprehensions regarding Chinese neo-colonialist tendencies. This issue is prominent throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where China has significantly stepped up investment in recent years. Jamaicans—both the government and members of the populace—should look to the experiences of African countries to more accurately weigh the costs and benefits of deeper engagement with China.

Chinese hiring practices in Africa and Jamaica

The Jamaican government has promised that the port project would create jobs for Jamaicans. However, cases in Africa suggest that this claim may need more scrutiny. In his chapter China’s African Relations and the Balance with Western Powers, Suisheng Zhao, director of the University of Denver’s Center for China–U.S. Cooperation explains, “Chinese companies have tended to keep local hiring to a minimum,” preferring instead to bring in cheap labor from China.[11] Zhao cites Angola as an example, where Chinese companies hire 70 to 80 percent of their labor force directly from China. It is worth noting that China’s foreign investment may not actually be meant to provide meaningful employment to locals. In 2009, Zhao Zhihai, a researcher with the Zhangjiakou Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Heibei Province near Beijing, proposed before the National People’s Congress, China’s nominal legislature, that sending Chinese laborers to Africa could provide about 100 million jobs and solve the problem of unemployment in China.[12] While these ideas were not publically adopted by the Chinese government, the presence of such ideas in Chinese political discourse, as well as China’s trend of importing labor from home and restricting local hiring, should be cause for concern for those looking to Chinese investment as a solution to unemployment—in Jamaica and elsewhere.

Jamaican Government’s Response to Criticism of Chinese Investment

In his Parliamentary address, Dr. Davies assured that ratios between the number of local and foreign workers would be negotiated beforehand for both the Highway 2000 project and the Goat Islands port. In 2013, Labour Minister Derrick Kellier denied claims that unfair hiring was being practiced in Jamaica, insisting that “qualified and skilled Jamaicans are always given preference over foreigners.” Kellier also claimed that Chinese workers are only brought in to do advanced technical tasks, when Jamaican workers are not sufficiently qualified. [13] However, the Joint Industrial Council (JIC), the coalition of building and construction workers’ unions, has called the government’s comments “egregious and misleading.” The JIC explains that photographic and video evidence exists showing Chinese workers doing “common labourers’ work.” The JIC also says it is “simply misleading” that currently unemployed Jamaican craftsmen are not at least as qualified to do the requisite tasks Chinese workers are being brought in to do.[14] Opposition leader Andrew Holness also weighed in, commenting that the government has “brushed aside” the issue of Chinese being brought in to do common jobs instead of Jamaicans. Holness added that the Prime Minister and the government are “under an illusion.” [15] The government has denied that there is any problem with the hiring practices and has condemned any criticism of the Chinese. Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller responded to concern over hiring practices by saying that continued discussion of this issue could send the message, “Do not invest in Jamaica” to the Chinese and added that anyone critical of China should first “show their level of investment in Jamaica.”[16] Dr. Davies also urged against criticism of the Chinese, saying “Don’t let us descend into this whole thing about Chinese coming and ‘thiefing’ jobs.” Davies added that Chinese investment provides “opportunity” for Jamaica, and while Jamaica needs the investment, “[the Chinese] are under no obligation to come.”[17]

Jamaican Government’s Fierce Support for China

In addition to defending Chinese investment, the government also continually lauds Chinese workers—sometimes at the expense of Jamaicans. Labour Minister Kellier said, “The culture of the Chinese is a little different from the culture of the Jamaican worker,” adding that, while a Jamaican engineer encountering a wheelbarrow on a worksite would “walk around it,” a Chinese engineer would “take it up and move it.”[18] In 2004, Omar Davies, then finance minister, went so far as to say, “I do not expect no black man to work like that,” referring to the speed with which Chinese workers completed a construction project after starting late. [19] In 2013, Davies also urged Jamaicans not to criticize the Chinese, because “there is nothing unique about Jamaica which would say that this is the only place that they can invest.”[20] Even though China’s record in Africa, and now increasingly in Jamaica, suggests that its companies have little intention of providing employment to locals, the government has so far demonstrated that it has prioritized pleasing China over securing meaningful employment for Jamaicans. Jamaican workers and unions must continue to remain vigilant and make sure that working-class Jamaicans are the ones benefitting most from the Chinese investment in the country.

Abuse and Mistreatment of African Workers by Chinese Companies

Jamaicans should also take China’s record of poor treatment of workers into account. Locals working for Chinese companies throughout Africa have reported being paid less than their Chinese counterparts and being victims of physical abuse by their Chinese supervisors. In a January 2012 report by The Guardian, African construction workers building a university in Zimbabwe near Harare, the capital, recounted their tales of abuse. One carpenter reported that “beatings happen very often… They ill-treat you and, if you make a mistake, they beat you up.” Another reported, “I saw some men beaten up yesterday… They beat him up and he was fired.” Another reported, “The Chinese eat off plates, then give us the leftovers.” [21] Whenever complaints are made, the Chinese bosses reportedly reply that the workers should appreciate that the Chinese have come to assist them. Chinese managers also opened fire on Zambian miners protesting low and unequal wages. In 2006, six were shot by their managers and another 13 in 2010.[22] In 2014, construction workers in Mozambique employed by China Road and Bridge Corporation, an associate of CHEC, reported beatings, verbal abuse, arbitrary dismissals, and arbitrarily withheld wages. One worker explained that they were not “respected as human beings.”[23]

Conflicts Between CHEC and Jamaican Workers

The labor issue in Africa should not seem too far removed for Jamaicans. Jamaican workers and unions have already had conflicts with Chinese firms operating on the island. Chinese-run Pan-Caribbean Sugar Company bought three Jamaican state-run sugar factories in 2010 and promptly laid off over 100 security guards, sparking protests. The company also cut the jobs of nearly 300 other workers, calling the moves “restructuring.”[24] Jamaican workers and unions also sparred with CHEC in 2014 when workers went on strike, protesting pay rate discrepancies and poor working conditions.[25] Highway workers decried CHEC’s decision not to pay the 16 percent end-of-project bonus unionized workers are entitled to under an agreement made by the JIC, which companies of all other foreign countries operating in Jamaica have adhered to.[26] The workers also complained of poor working conditions and no documentation of their salaries.[27] The company also refused to recognize the rights of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and the National Workers Union to represent Jamaican workers on CHEC’s Highway 2000 North-South Link project, in violation of the JIC agreement, which allows the two unions to represent Jamaican construction workers on all projects. CHEC half-heartedly relented only after a weeklong strike.[28] The issue of workers’ representation, however, went unresolved.[29] In contrast to Africa, workers and their unions in Jamaica have hitherto been very proactive in making certain Chinese companies operating in Jamaica adhere to labor standards and respect workers’ rights. However, while the workers and their unions must continue their efforts to protect workers’ rights, they will also need to pressure their government, which so far has taken a very conciliatory attitude toward China rather than acting in the interests of Jamaican workers.

Impact of Chinese Investment on Domestic Politics in Africa

Chinese activity in Africa has also shown that deeper engagement with China could have serious ramifications for domestic politics in Jamaica. China’s meddling in local African politics has become more invasive in recent years. The clearest example of this is in the 2006 presidential election in Zambia. Candidate Michael Sata ran against incumbent president, Levy Mwanawasa. Sata ran on a firmly anti-China campaign, launching “repeated verbal attacks on Chinese investors.” Sata criticized the mining of Zambian copper by Chinese companies, their use of Chinese workers instead of locals, and the flooding of the local market with cheap products from China. Sata also vowed to establish relations with Taiwan. China’s communist government sees Taiwan as a rogue province and requires all countries wishing to have relations with it to sever all ties with Taiwan. Sata became popular among Zambians, promising “lower taxes, more jobs, and more money in your pockets.”[30] In response, Li Baodong, the Chinese ambassador, threatened that China would sever diplomatic relations with Zambia if Sata won the election and that Chinese investments in Zambian “mining, construction and tourism” would be “put on hold.”[31] Sata lost the 2006 election, but was elected president in 2011 with a noticeably warmer attitude towards China. It is difficult to claim that China’s threats led directly to Sata’s defeat in 2006; however, the mere fact that Chinese officials would involve themselves in a foreign country’s democratic process warrants concern. However beneficial China’s loans, grants, and infrastructural development projects may appear, the Jamaican people must keep in mind what would happen to these investments should they one day decide to elect a government China does not find agreeable.

Economic Contraction in China

The meteoric economic growth which has taken place in China over the past decade is often what allures the leaders and people of developing nations and encourages them to trust China’s designs and cast their lots with what is often billed as the next superpower. However, evidence suggests the days of exploding economic growth in China may have come to an end. Diana Choyleva, the head of research and chief economist at Lombard Street Research Limited, explains in an interview with The Epoch Times the economic problems China is facing. Choyleva explains that China’s economic growth has seen a rapid decline, growing at a rate of less than 5 percent this year, compared with average growth rates between 8 and 10 percent in the previous d, at the expense of locals. Most importantly, however, economic slowdown in China would almost certainly lead the government to pursue far more extractive and predatory relationships with developing countries. China will put more focus on how much capital it can generate and resources it can extract from their dealings with developing nations; China will also be less willing to contribute to local economies. Signs of this are already present in Africa. John Mahama, Ghana’s president, noted that the Chinese are now “looking more at projects that have the potential to repay over time.” Ghana has also seen delays in the commencement of Chinese infrastructure projects, as well as delays in the full payment of loans promised by the Chinese. [32]

In his ECLAC speech, Premier Li promised that a deeper relationship between China and the Latin American and Caribbean region will lead to development “in such a way that everyone wins.” Ultimately, the truth is China’s state run companies are working to ensure that above all, China wins. Despite their many assertions to the contrary, evidence suggests China’s goals will not help people in the developing world; rather, China seeks to expand its global influence through “soft power,” presenting itself as a friendly alternative partner to the West. Jamaicans and people and governments across the developing world should pay more attention to China’s record rather than its words. It promises to create jobs, yet it imports workers from home and abuses locals. It promises non-interference, yet it tries to dictate which countries can and cannot be recognized and is not above using its investments as leverage to meddle in domestic affairs to secure its interests. Li Keqiang said China will partner with Latin American and Caribbean nations to create “a more beautiful world,” yet China’s industries show no concern for the environment in Jamaica, in Africa or at home. [33]

None of this is to say Chinese investment and Jamaica’s partnership with China are inherently negative. However, the focus for Jamaicans and their government must not be on appeasing China. The focus must be on ordinary, hard-working Jamaicans and all agreements and projects must take into account that they definitively, not hypothetically, will be affected. Jamaicans should remember there are alternatives to achieve economic growth apart from Chinese investment. Environmentalists have suggested eco-tourism as a better use for the Goat Islands than the shipping port. Studies conducted by international environmental research groups, such as Niras-Fraenkel Ltd (NFL), a UK-based port and marine engineering consultancy, have found alternative sites for the port. NFL’s analysis found that constructing the port at Macarry Bay in Clarendon, Bowden in St. Thomas or Kingston Harbour, would be both financially cheaper and significantly less environmentally damaging.[34] Jamaicans should continue to re-approach the export of bauxite, sugar, and fruit, all of which contributed to Jamaica’s strong economy during the 1960s—interestingly enough, a time when China was in a chaotic state during the Cultural Revolution. While Jamaica may need foreign investment, it does not need China more than it needs to protect its people and environment.

By: Andrew Lumsden, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.

Featured Photo: Jamaican and Chinese flags and boy on Port Maria Beach. From: http://pixabay.com/en/china-people-s-republic-of-china-162389/; http://pixabay.com/en/jamaica-port-maria-boat-boy-sand-14029/; http://pixabay.com/en/photos/?q=jamaica+flag&image_type=&cat=&order=. Compiled by: Andrew Lumsden.

[1] http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/lead-stories/20150603/china-owns-almost-half-jamaicas-debt-foreign-governments

[2] http://www.checlatin.com/index.php/jamaica/projects/

[3] http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/lead-stories/20150603/china-owns-almost-half-jamaicas-debt-foreign-governments

[4] http://savegoatislands.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Statement_to_Parliament_Omar_Davies_Update_on_Portland_Bight_Project_25Feb2014.pdf

[5] http://www.jamaicancaves.org/portland-bight-press-release.htm

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Goat-Islands–A-mistake-we-must-not-make_16502748

[9] ibid

[10]   http://savegoatislands.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Statement_to_Parliament_Omar_Davies_Update_on_Portland_Bight_Project_25Feb2014.pdf

[11] Zhao, Suisheng. “China’s African Relations and the Balance with Western Powers.” In China and the European Union in Africa: Partners Or Competitors?, 61-80. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2011.

[12] http://www.ipsnews.net/2009/11/china-latest-africa-foray-altruism-or-hegemony/

[13] http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Chinese-not-given-jobs-over-J-can-workers–says-Kellier_15004031

[14] http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Industrial-Council-slaps-Govt-on-Chinese-workers-issue_15012471

[15] http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Holness–Gov-t-must-pay-attention-to-Chinese-workers-issue_15046933#poll

[16] http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130911/lead/lead1.html

[17] ibid

[18] http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Chinese-not-given-jobs-over-J-can-workers–says-Kellier_15004031

[19] http://old.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20040217/news/news4.html

[20] http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130911/lead/lead1.html

[21] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jan/02/china-zimbabwe-workers-abuse

[22] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204618704576642392413811456

[23] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2014/01/mozambicans-claim-abuse-chinese-employers-20141944057360930.html

[24] http://rjrnewsonline.com/local/unrest-at-three-main-sugar-factories; http://jamaica-gleaner.com/power/46682

[25] http://jamaica-gleaner.com/power/51920;

[26] http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/latestnews/North-South-highway-strike-awaits-CHEC-s-decision-on-bargaining-rights

[27] http://rjrnewsonline.com/local/workers-on-north-south-link-of-highway-2000-now-on-strike; http://jamaica-gleaner.com/power/51920

[28] http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/latestnews/UPDATE–Striking-China-Harbour-workers-return-to-work

[29] ibid

[30] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/5378726.stm

[31] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d6d5d176-3d0a-11db-8239-0000779e2340.html#axzz3cDSh0wgu

[32] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303647204579545813194873656

[33] http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/China-bets-on-strategic-ties-with-the-Caribbean; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2562001/China-pillaging-Africa-raw-materials-like-old-colonialists-says-chimp-expert-Jane-Goodall.html; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/25/china-toxic-air-pollution-nuclear-winter-scientists

[34] http://savegoatislands.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10\\/CSF_Jamaica_Alternate_Port_Locations_Oct2014.pdf