My Gleaner column of August 30 provoked quite an intense response on Facebook although what I tried to do was suggest in the mildest of terms that perhaps there were other ways to view the burgeoning Caribbean relationship with China than the hackneyed one of ‘colonialism’, a word much bandied about today. While there are superficial resemblances to traditional colonialism as we know it, there are more important differences, and to my mind focusing on the differences rather than similarities, is what is called for in this instance. But who asked me to say so? You would have thought I was advocating the return of colonialism as one Bruce Gilley has just done in the esteemed journal Third World Quarterly. In a follow-up post I’ll go further into the rather comical attack launched on me as well as responses to Gilley’s article. For now here is my column:
The subject of colonialism is with us again, raised this time by burgeoning Chinese investment in Jamaica and the Caribbean. With that investment has come a transfusion of Chinese personnel into the bloodstream of the Jamaican body politic, something that is causing widespread concern and discomfort.
Among the complaints is the fact that the Chinese insist on using their own expertise, whether it’s labour, architects, roadwork companies or otherwise. Because of this they’ve been able to deliver in record time on several projects that would have taken twice as long, had local contractors and labour been used. A local developer who has worked with Chinese firms as well as local contractors points out that of the four cranes seen at construction sites in Kingston, none are owned by local firms, which makes it impossible to use local companies to execute large projects.
The same developer also challenged the myth of the hard-working Chinese worker vs the lazy Jamaican worker, saying that Chinese workers had the same tendency to slack off and take it easy when left unsupervised. What made the difference according to him was the monitoring and management of the workers, and here Chinese companies were far more efficient than Jamaican ones, ensuring that deliverables ran to schedule and were up to global standards.
Relatedly as Richard Bernal, Pro Vice Chancellor of Global Affairs at the University of the West Indies, pointed out in an RJR interview it is par for the course when countries give you developmental monies or aid for them to specify that the expertise required must be hired from the donor country. The strings attached can take different forms. For instance European aid nowadays comes attached to certain conditionalities demanding compliance with European norms on governance and human rights.
According to an article on inquirer.net by Randy David, “There is no such thing as free aid. What there is is a country’s option to choose from a menu of available means with which to develop its economy and raise the quality of life of its people. All these available means carry some costs, and consequences — some economic, some political, and some environmental. When a country accepts tons of aid from another country, it most likely also accepts certain tacit expectations on the conduct of its foreign relations.”
Chinese aid to African countries comes with the expectation that in any international conflict the beneficiaries of their aid will support the Chinese position. Perhaps this is also the reason for Chinese interest in the Caribbean, for each island state here carries a vote at the UN regardless of its size or population, something the Hispanic Caribbean has always resented. Countries such as the Dominican Republic and Cuba, both with exponentially larger populations compared to Dominica or St Kitts, still have only one vote in the UN, the same vote the smaller countries have.
Who says curry goat politics is not a factor in international relations? I give you a handout, you hand me your vote in return. This is a tried and true tactic of foreign diplomacy.
According to Bernal, whose book Dragon in the Caribbean examines China’s relationship with the region, it is essential that Caribbean governments develop an informed and strategic approach to dealing with the new superpower. The wealth of experience gained through decades of diplomatic relations with countries in the West will be of little use in dealing with China, and the Caribbean would do well to realize the uniqueness of the ancient civilization through an in-depth study of its history, culture, politics and economic development.
“The Chinese are very new at colonizing anybody,” says artist Bryan McFarlane, who maintains a studio in Beijing and is married to a Chinese citizen. “So to some extent they are very awkward when they go into other people’s countries, they’re new at this. It’s a very delicate road we’re trodding and there’s an opportunity to build a relationship with the Chinese rather than treating them as adversaries. They’re not coming with the same mentality as the British and the Americans even though they come here to prosper, to find jobs for their people, like every other country that has power, has done.”
Bernal too, points out that the Chinese are new at capitalism, they’re learning as they go along, and as a culture they’re not used to thinking in the short term, their fore-sighting going way beyond four or five year electoral cycles. The Chinese approach to investment is collaborative rather than extractive, though ultimately they too are interested in profits. Thus, says Bernal, “The temptation to see China as a villain, intent on raping the resources of the developing countries as a new type of imperialism or neo-colonialism is largely fuelled by racial and cultural prejudice and must be resisted. On the other hand the relationship with China ought not to be viewed as a panacea with a steady flow of investment from a bottomless reservoir.”
Learning to benefit from feeding the dragon is practically the only option available to the Caribbean today, so let’s leave old laments by the wayside and leverage our way to a better future.