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Too many Chinese workers: Is the response racist?

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Chinese workers labour round the clock delivering projects on time and within budget, unlike workers in many other parts of the world. Yet, where ever the Chinese have undertaken projects, there has been an element of resentment by sections of local populations. Is this resentment a form of racism or xenophobia?{{more}} Or, is it that the terms of foreign aid have not been explained sufficiently?

These are the questions this commentary will explore.

But, first, I return to two issues raised in my last commentary entitled: “Let the People Speak”. I said that only 9 of the 14 independent Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries would be attending a China-Caribbean Economic Forum in Port-of-Spain. The 5 other countries would not attend because they recognise Taiwan as a legitimate state – something that China disputes vigorously.

Since the commentary was written, I have learned that the Chinese government extended an invitation to all 14 independent CARICOM countries. This is a grand gesture by China, if only because it would have allowed CARICOM countries to engage China collectively at the Forum. However, it is unlikely that the 5 countries would attend for fear of upsetting Taiwan. In any event, it is difficult to see how China would have pursued any possible economic projects that might have arisen in the 5 Taiwan-linked countries. It is most unlikely that the Chinese government would have blessed projects in countries that insisted on maintaining the Taiwan connection.

In opening the door for the Taiwan-5 to attend the Port-of-Spain Economic Forum, China may have been doing nothing more than showcasing the opportunities that switching from Taiwan to China might provide. Nonetheless, it is to China’s credit that it did not exclude the Taiwan-5 from the Forum. In this sense, China treated the countries of CARICOM as the “Community” they claim to be.

Hopefully, the Forum will lead to a joint foreign policy approach to China by the 9 CARICOM countries that could result in a negotiated long-term trade, aid and investment treaty. It would be in the interest of the CARICOM countries to do so collectively. They could bargain with China much more effectively together than each of them now does individually.

Of course, this would require an effective regional co-ordination body, something that would have to be set-up for the 9, because, even if the CARICOM Secretariat could overcome its weakness as a co-ordinator for regional projects, the costs could not come out of a budget to which the Taiwan-5 contribute.

Despite all this, it would be very beneficial if the Chinese-9 in CARICOM would explore with China the possibility of a long-term treaty arrangement for trade, aid and investment that other CARICOM countries could join when and if they wished to do so.

The second matter that arises from my last commentary was the observation that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in China require a link to a government institution in order to qualify for charitable status, without which they could not survive. A senior Chinese official in the Caribbean region told me: “We might hope them not to go furiously against the government; however, we don’t expect them to be government-akin or affiliated. That would be too tall an order nowadays, even for China, wouldn’t it?”. In the interest of accuracy, I have requested official clarification of whether or not Chinese law mandates that NGOs require a link to a government institution to qualify for charitable status.

Turning now to the use of Chinese labour on Chinese projects that are funded by grants or loans, my previous commentary recognised that there is unquestionably more than a little grumbling about the predominant use of Chinese workers in a number of countries in which China is executing projects.

A response from a former international public servant of Caribbean origin was as follows: “Why are we grumbling? Foreign aid is strategic, not philanthropic. Is Chinese labour on projects any different from the “technical assistance” that comes with USAID, CIDA, DFID, EU and Bretton Woods development programmes? Why should the China development assistance model be different from the Anglo-Saxon’s? It is racist to complain about Chinese labour accompanying Chinese money.”

The correspondent went on to say that “in 2004 the World Bank admitted that on average US$20 billion or 40 per cent of the global aid budget returned to the donors as ‘technical assistance’ provided by their consultants, and Action Aid (UK) calculated that 47 per cent of global aid was “phantom”. Recently, in analysing where aid money goes, two scholars on Caribbean affairs reported that “consultants have to be imported from the donor countries and this, in turn, can cost as much as 75 per cent of the total cost of the project”.

The point is that a significant portion of money used for aid usually goes back to donors. The justification for this is that the recipient gets the benefit of the aid, whether it is in the form of a road, a bridge or training while, at the same time, the donor creates jobs or an export opportunity for companies within its own country.

Incidentally, this is the argument used by the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamala Persad-Bissessar, when she sought to link aid, from her government to hurricane-affected St Lucia and St. Vincent, to the supply of goods and services by Trinidad and Tobago companies.

So, the conclusion would seem to be that countries which want gifts from others should not be concerned with the labour (in the form of workers or consultants) that delivers it. Singling out Chinese is not only unfair, it smacks of racism.

However, the matter of loans does take on a different complexion. Loans have to be repaid. In this connection, local communities have a right to expect that projects, funded by loans, should provide employment for a significant number of qualified local workers, particularly at times, such as now, of high unemployment. That argument is not racist, whoever it applies to; it is sensible in the context of relations between the lender and the borrower, and stability within the borrowing country.

(The writer is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat)

Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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