Sunday, January 15, 2012

The China Syndrome

So it’s New Year’s Day 2012, and I decide to counter the effects of the Old Year’s Night drinking with the time-honoured tradition of some Chinese food at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. About halfway into the plate of mixed fried rice, a rakish looking Indian man in his late twenties walks in holding a two year old child, and proceeds to open the door leading behind the counter and hands the child to the young Chinese woman.

From the conversation, that follows, I glean that the rake, Rakesh, is the father and the Chinese woman behind the counter speaking broken English in a half Creole-half Chinese lilt is the mother. An Afro-Guyanese man comes in with box of children’s clothes and tries to sell some items to the only other customers in there, a bedraggled couple with two small children sharing two boxes of food. From the black lettering at the side of cardboard box, I learn that whatever it contained was MADE IN CHINA; judging from the bright colours, and quirky animal designs on the clothing it contains, I’m guessing so are the itinerant vendor’s goods.

What I take away from that little bit of social pantomime are two things. The first is the perhaps false sense of a new beginning, a reboot from the factious ethnic divisions of the elections concluded simply a month prior. It also planted the seed in my head about the impact of the two Asian giants – China and India – on this tiny swathe of land in South America, at the opposite side of the globe.

At least in terms of its basic paradigm, I believe that Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld theorem provides a basic analytical framework for contextualising the impact of China and India in Guyana, primarily the new migrations from the East, mirroring in a way but yet a far cry from the vehicle of indentureship the better part of two centuries ago. To use Barber’s terminology, if seems as if we are caught between the grindstones of not one globalization but several, the McWorlds of Western hegemony and Eastern expansionisms; even as we are being torn apart by the tribalism (Jihad) that has traditionally impacted upon our society.

An added dynamic to Barber’s theorem that may be peculiar to the local context however is that that tribalism is also increasingly interwoven, due to cultural and historical circumstance, into the fabric of Eastern globalization. It is most apparent with regard to Guyana’s Indo-Guyanese community which has not only enjoyed a two decades long political and cultural dominance nationally, but which has employed that wealth and political control to actuate the cultural and economic linkages with India and the Indian Diaspora that a generation ago had only dreamed, a phenomenon evidenced as much by the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award conferred upon former President Bharrat Jagdeo by the Indian government, as it is by the obscene acreage of land leased for an even more obscene price by the Jagdeo administration to an Indian coffee mogul. The Queens Atlantic deal, also facilitated by the Jagdeo/PPP administration, is also underwritten by considerable (if silent) investment by Indian nationals.

In fact, what was quickly becoming a disproportionate Indian (national) presence in Georgetown’s central business district has only recently been checked by a necessarily more powerful economic phenomenon, Guyana’s own China Syndrome. Over the past three or four years, Regent Street has seen an influx of Chinese (national) owned businesses, selling everything from appliances to trinkets to household items at prices that have undercut even the legendary cheapness of Indian goods.

The Chinese presence in Guyana has traditionally been inscrutable and insular but nevertheless inordinately influential. We can simply consider the impact of the most ubiquitous manifestation of the Chinese in Guyana, the cuisine – Chinese restaurants come and go, the owners change hands without the average customer being aware; yet were you to extract or somehow shut down every single such restaurant in Guyana, there would be considerable social upheaval. In contrast, there are a grand total of two Indian restaurants in Guyana – the small Taj and the recently opened Maharaja Palace on Sheriff Street.

Today that insularity and self-sufficiency is quickly changing. From the smaller stores along Regent and Robb Street to medium sized entities like New Thriving Restaurant or Jason Wang’s China Trading, to major players like Haier and Jialing, the Chinese economic presence in Guyana is increasingly apparent.

Guyanese of Chinese heritage are apparently now establishing some of the same types of ‘Motherland’ linkages that their Indian counterparts have. When Haier was recently launched in Guyana in September of last year, Chinese-Guyanese businessman, Brian James (incidentally also a close friend of Jagdeo) was named as the company’s local partner; I have reason to believe that another Guyanese businessman of Chinese descent, Brian Yong, is also involved in the venture. While this column was planned over two weeks ago, a story published in today’s issue of Stabroek News is arguably vindicatory of the general thesis – an article on page 17 of the paper’s print edition (accessible here, subscription required), quotes owner of Celina’s Atlantic Resort, Bernard Yhun, protesting a former article claiming that his establishment has been bought by a Chinese businessman. According to the more recent article,

“Questioned about the Chinese male who last month identified himself as Mr. Hong and had told Stabroek News staff that his boss had acquired the business, along with the visible presence of scores of Chinese nationals on the property, Yhun said, ‘The reporter who was there did not understand the Chinese man. That is my family. My father is Chinese and his family is helping me with contracting and labour works to save cost.”

In short, as Chinese restaurants are no longer the isolated reservations of the Chinese presence in Guyana, as China’s continues its excursion into the region, (and there is no sign of abatement), we can expect a fundamental shift in not just the economy of Guyana but corollary things such as demographics and as a consequence the political environment. The owners of New Thriving Restaurant – Xiao Guang Zhao and Che Jian Ping – are no longer simply Chinese investors in Guyana’s economy, but are now naturalized Guyanese citizens. An article by Simon Tomero, published in the April 10, 2011 edition of the New York Times, about the Chinese presence in neighbouring Suriname could work equally well as a part sketch, part projection of the Chinese presence in Guyana. According the article, Chinese immigrants (legal and illegal) account for some 10 percent of Suriname’s population.

The question is, how do we handle China? In my opinion, it’s not that we should feel unduly threatened by China’s economic presence in the region – so far it has been generally benign, as opposed to the predatory activity that has been associated with Chinese involvement in natural resource extraction in Africa. We should also consider, for example, that even the mighty United States, at ideological odds with China for the greater part of a century, is not immune from China’s economic influence – according to Forbes, China held some $1.4 trillion (roughly a quarter) of US foreign debt as of October last year.

At the Third China-CARICOM Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum held in Trinidad in September of last year, then President Jagdeo suggested the opportunity – once trade disparity issues were addressed – of strategic engagement of Chinese capital in regional development, while cooperating with China for mutual leverage in policy formulation in international agencies, particularly the IFIs.

In my view, what growing economies (and as a culturally-inclined person I use this definition grudgingly) such as ours need to do first of all is to establish a baseline percentage of the patrimony we are willing to sacrifice as necessary for development and in order to strategise our negotiation machinery – both nationally and within the contexts of the ACP, CARICOM and the emerging UNASUR – accordingly. Almost everything is quantifiable, even decision-making, once we have a fairly stable, reproducible, non-arbitrary value attached – for example, if investment policy X yields a real income of Y over time period of Z, then we can – against the backdrop of GDP times [Y] growth for example – assign a value of A to that investment policy. If we put that baseline of national patrimony at, say, 80 percent or a more realistic 70 percent, it’s a starting point of negotiation for engaging external entities in toto – 5 percent CARICOM; 5 percent IFIs; 5 percent EU/US; 5 percent India/China; 5 percent ACP; 5 percent ‘other’.

From that foundation, we can start to craft a holistic policy for how we engage China, as opposed to what seems at present to be an ad hoc engagement (ironically under Jagdeo’s regime) as evidenced by the secretive airport renovation deal with the dubiously principled China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC); what was ostensibly an open bid for the provision of netbooks under the ambitious One Laptop Per Family (OLPF) now miraculously morphed into a long-term public-private partnership arrangement with Haier, something which skews, or at least raises fair-trade concerns about, the company’s commercial presence; and, significantly, the planned dedication of a channel to China’s English-language CCTV broadcast even as Guyana’s Broadcast Legislation and corollary press freedom issues remain stagnant or unresolved.

While I’ve concerned myself in this article to engaging China on the premise of its expansion and how that expansion impacts upon Guyana, the overall engagement with this power also presents tremendous opportunity for Guyanese business, particularly when it comes to intellectual property services. I was watching a BBC News item the other day on the protests caused by a delay of the launch of the iPhone 4S in Beijing – while, yes, Apple’s flagship cellular device has sold largely on the basis of the innovation of its hardware, it is how that hardware interacts with the copyrighted software applications (i.e. intellectual property) designed for it which represents its primary lure. Indeed, I believe that IP (internet-based in particular) products remain CARICOM’s best bet for overcoming what the former president highlighted as the key factor in the trade disparity between China and the Region – the lack of at least a partial bilateral free trade regime between CARICOM and the Asian giant.

In closing, in a related comment, Jagdeo’s appointment last year of writer, Professor David Dabydeen, a more than competent literary academic granted, as Guyana’s ambassador to China even as Dabydeen still holds the post of Guyana’s permanent representative to UNESCO – while recalling former Charge D’Affaires to Beijing, Choo Ann Yin – was baffling to say the least. From all reports, not only is Choo a more than competent young career diplomat, but she has the additional advantages of being of Chinese heritage and versed in the language.

I should probably put a disclaimer here stating I’ve met Choo once and briefly, while (despite my public criticisms of his associations with the regime) Dabydeen makes for an excellent drinking and intellectual conversation partner whenever he’s in Guyana, and I don’t believe that his tenure as liaison to UNESCO has been lacking in any way; that notwithstanding, if President Donald Ramotar is serious about crafting a proper China engagement strategy, it should probably with start with, as a basic prerequisite, deploying Choo back to Beijing first as an aide to Dabydeen but with the ultimate view of promoting her to an ambassadorship.

Next week, I’m going to tackle the hard topic of “Race and Wealth in Guyana” – hackles shall be raised, accusations shall fly, but the important thing is, debate is going to be stirred. Peace out.

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