Thursday, July 12, 2018

An Empire and its nervous periphery

My article An Empire and its nervous periphery appeared last week in the Edit Page of The Pioneer

Here is the link...

China has been expanding its boundaries to fulfil its dream of becoming the world’s most powerful nation. But the picture is not rosy. Resentment among the best of China’s friends is growing

Since the new Emperor sat on the throne in Beijing in 2012, the Middle Kingdom has steadily extended its influence in the periphery of the Empire. The CPC proclaims today: “The great rejuvenation of Chinese nation is an unstoppable historical trend that won’t be diverted by the will of any individual country or person.” The CPC has a dream: For its 100 years in 2049, it wants China to be the most powerful nation in the world. But if one looks at the Empire’s neighbourhood, all is not rosy and resentment has been created everywhere, even amongst China’s best ‘friends’.
Take Pakistan, whose friendship is deeper than oceans and sweeter than honey; according to The Tribune, the border trade with China through Khunjerab Pass resumed last week after a three month gap.  The reason? A traders’ strike against a Web-Based One Customs system newly introduced at the Pakistan-Xinjiang border. The newspaper explained: “The decision to end the strike took place during a meeting held in Gilgit under the supervision of the Army. Traders had blocked the strategic Karakoram Highway which is a part of the multibillion dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor project.” It is obvious that not everyone is delighted by the largesse of the all-weather sponsor, particularly  inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan and Baluchistan.
A similar phenomenon is happening elsewhere. Last month, The Washington Post published a long investigative piece on Sihanoukville, a new city of 90,000 inhabitants, which has been developed by China in Cambodia. The number of Chinese tourists doubled in a year to 120,000 in 2017, according to The Post: “Restaurants, banks, landlords, pawnshops, duty-free stores, supermarkets and hotels all display signs in Chinese. The Cambodian government has allowed extraordinary levels of Chinese investment...Thirty casinos have already been built, and 70 more are under construction.” The Blue Bay casino promotes itself as “one of the iconic projects of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.” The smallest studios start at $143,000, while the most prized apartments cost more than $500,000. The Post continued: “With the exception of those working in the hotels and casinos, most Cambodians, whose average income is $1,100 a year, are seeing little benefit from this investment. And resentment is mounting.” It is the pet project of Hun Sen, the Cambodian Prime Minister, who has been ruling for the past 34 years, “his willingness to be embraced by China is most evident,” said the US newspaper.
As a result, serious tensions have appeared between the new landlords and the locals. As The Financial Times put it: “Cambodia is not alone in weighing the mixed blessings of Chinese investment, which elsewhere has been welcomed for its scale and relative lack of conditions attached. What is unusual about Sihanoukville’s transformation is that tension in the town has coalesced into a public backlash — unusual in a country where personal freedoms are fading.”
Vietnam, too, is caught between the generous Chinese investments and the nationalists’ demands to not bow to Beijing. The South China Morning Post reported: “Earlier this month...more than 1,000 workers went on strike at a Taiwanese shoe factory in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, blocking a highway.” The workers were singing: “We don’t want to give any of our land away to China, not even for one day.” They protested against their own Government’s plan to set up three new special economic zones where foreign companies (read China) would be granted decades-long leases. Later the protests swept across Vietnam.
The Hong Kong paper said: “Police shut down protests in urban centres, and at times clashed with demonstrators, including in Binh Thuan province near Ho Chi Minh City, where protesters burned police vehicles and defaced Government buildings.…Production stopped at multiple Chinese — and Taiwanese — owned factories across the south of the country.” Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered, holding up banners shouting: “I love my fatherland — don’t let China lease our land.”
Already last year, Forbes titled a report as  “Violent Protests Against Chinese ‘Colony’ In Sri Lanka Rage On.” In January 2017, as the first brick of a Southern Industrial Zone was laid in Hambantota, violent protests erupted in the new port. It left more than 10 people hospitalised and many others were sent to jail. According to an  economic newspaper: “A group of demonstrators led by Buddhist monks from nearby Amabalantota took to the streets as the opening ceremony of the industrial zone took place. However, these protesters were met by mobs of Government supporters, who reputedly attacked them with clubs and fists. The monk-led demonstrators fought back by throwing rocks. The police, meanwhile, found themselves in the middle of the fray, using water cannons and tear gas.”
The reason for the protests was the handing over of the port to the Chinese; “the perceived loss of autonomy to a foreign power as well as the potential land grab that could be necessary to build the 15,000-acre industrial zone.” One can wonder if Nepal has thought of this aspect of the Chinese ‘generosity’. Last month, Prime Minister KP Oli visited Beijing and told Xinhua that Nepal attached great value to its relationship with China “which has always respected its sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence”. During the visit, it was announced that China would build a railway connecting Tibet with Nepal. It was one of several bilateral deals signed during the Nepali Prime Minister’s visit. The rail link will connect the Tibetan city of Shigatse to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, via the border port of Kyirong. According to a Chinese official website, the two sides further signed 10 other agreements involving technology, transportation, infrastructure and political cooperation.
Nepal has also inked a $2.5 billion deal with China’s state-owned Gezhouba Group to build a hydropower facility in the west of the country. The China Daily quoted Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier, saying: “China would also like to work with Nepal to build a ‘cross-Himalayan connectivity network’ through aviation, trading ports, highways and telecommunications.”
It sounds good, especially in Kathmandu,  but as I was finishing writing this piece, a Twitter message came in saying, “A Chinese rubber factory in Talgar, Kazakhstan, burned by locals today.” Talgar is located some 20 km from Almaty, the Kazakh capital. Here too resentment is growing. The moral of the story: There is no free meal and a nation like Nepal will sooner or later realise this, even if the Chinese dishes are appetising to start with; in fact the Indian food may be less tasty, but it definitively leaves less hangovers.

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