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PNG’s colonial construct is under threat

The new breed of Chinese trading in PNG

'Operating with cash only, ignoring company or goods-and-services tax obligations, importing goods through sometimes unorthodox channels....the Fujian businesses have been unbeatable competition at the bottom end of the consumer market'

Chinese business in PNG
"Periodically, mobs attack and ransack Chinese stores in PNG towns, as they also have in Honiara, the Solomon Islands capital"

| The Monthly | Extract

MELBOURNE - Who should Australia believe about China’s business and strategic interests in Papua New Guinea?

Aiambak, 469 kilometres up the Fly River from the Torres Strait, is on the frontier of China’s contemporary reach into the wider world.

A tiny settlement on the far western side of Papua New Guinea, it’s little more than a wharf, a collection of storage containers, and some ramshackle corrugated-iron buildings serving a hinterland of scattered Papuan villages.

A store run by two men from China’s coastal province of Fujian was the only retail outlet in town, selling the usual range of tinned fish, bully beef, rice, unbranded knives and hardware, outboard fuel, and bright blouses and football jumpers.

Earlier this year the Chinese and Papuans collided violently. The storekeepers made the mistake of dismissing claims for payment from local men for work done to help them.

A robbery by five men followed, in which one of the Chinese men died from a slash with a machete-like bush knife.

The robbers fled up country. Then, from settlements and towns around the region, fellow storekeepers from Fujian got together and organised retribution.

According to local sources, they sponsored a police operation in a chartered helicopter. The police surprised their targets, shooting all five dead.

Bryan Kramer, who recently held the police and justice portfolios in the PNG government, is not surprised.

“We had a similar one here in Madang two years ago,” he says. “Police officers on the payroll of Chinese businesses.”

Two young men from the Rai Coast had held up a Chinese-run store. Police had allegedly found them, taken them to the store for a beating, then back to the police station for further beating, resulting in one man’s death.

“The police never took any charges, obviously because they were involved,” Kramer says.

Unlike the Aiambak case, at least so far, the Madang death in custody eventually got noticed.

A revered former Madang MP and tourism entrepreneur, the late Peter Barter, backed the dead man’s family for an inquiry, which looks set to proceed via the topmost court.

If this happens, it suggests that the law and regulations are finally closing in on the most visible and contentious component of China’s presence in the South Pacific nation.

It is what Australian National University researcher Peter Connolly has heard referred to by a PNG businessman as ‘Wild West mercantilism’.

But this change is yet to reach outposts such as Aiambak.

The wave of people coming to PNG from Fujian – whether jumping tourist and business visas, smuggled in aboard logging ships or fishing boats, no one can be sure how – has occurred over the past three decades.

They have since spread out across Papua New Guinea, to work at stores and kai (fast food) bars across towns big and small. It’s a similar picture in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Operating with cash only, ignoring company or goods-and-services tax obligations, importing goods through sometimes unorthodox channels and sourced directly from factories and wholesalers in China, the Fujian businesses have been unbeatable competition at the bottom end of the consumer market.

There had been two earlier waves of Chinese migration.

The first came between the late 19th century and World War II. Because of the White Australia immigration policy applied during Australian administration of PNG, entry for Chinese women was made difficult.

Many of the Chinese men married local women, and sent their children to Catholic boarding schools in Queensland.

The second wave arrived between 1945 and the 1960s, in many cases via what is now Malaysia and Singapore. They spoke the dialects of southern China at home, and English and Tok Pisin for business.

They too became quite Australianised before PNG’s independence in 1975.

Unless they had already moved up the chain into specialised trading, light manufacturing and food processing – as is the case with Sandra Lau, owner of the Tropicana group – they found the third wave from Fujian taking their business from under them.

Paul Barker, director of the Institute of National Affairs (a Port Moresby–based, industry-funded think tank), recalls one member of a long-established Chinese business family explaining why she had closed what had been the biggest supermarket in Madang.

“There are two major problems for business in Madang,” she told him. “One is the raskols [criminal gangs], two is the new Chinese.

The new Chinese have only two words of English: ‘How much?’ It applies to anyone who arrives on their doorsteps, whether it’s the raskol gangs or the customs officers, or the police.”

“Most likely they’re undercutting the import duty, not declaring income for GST, they’re not paying company tax,” says Kramer, the current Madang MP. “So you can’t compete because they’re already 40 to 50% up.”

The other side of the coin is the sheer risk taken by the Fujianese.

Downstream on the Fly River from Aiambak, at a small settlement called Obo, is another Chinese store, run by a man of about 40 who stood by its door with a baseball cap pulled down over his face and a surgical mask over the lower part.

He was not anxious to talk, but said he’d been there on his own for eight years, leaving his family in China.

Periodically, mobs attack and ransack Chinese stores in PNG towns, as they also have in Honiara, the Solomon Islands capital.

“When Chinese businesses are accused of not paying taxes or minimum wages they will say, ‘But we are paying, just in a different form: MPs, parties, customs officers’, and so on,” says Barker. “They are vulnerable because they set up their businesses via the back door.”

The full article by Hamish McDonald appears in the September issue of The Monthly


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Chris Overland

I suppose that if the RPNGC was not both corrupted and inefficient the Chinese traders might have sufficient confidence in the system to not adopt some of the extrajudicial measures referred to in this article.

This is not to excuse or justify what was done but once people believe that either the system is broken or loaded against them then these sorts of activities begin to proliferate.

The level of corruption in PNG is such that public confidence in state institutions and services has clearly been degraded very significantly.

This reflects the dismal failure of a succession of governments to effectively clamp down on corruption and malfeasance that is all too obvious to all.

The reason for this appears to be that many, perhaps most, members of parliament see their election as winning a lottery, whereby they have 5 years to enrich themselves and their supporters before they have to re-enter the election lottery.

Thus the task of suppressing corruption becomes exponentially harder and the likelihood of success vanishingly remote.

Unless and until the winner takes all mentality evident amongst MPs is changed or suppressed, then I expect that the situation referred to in this article will persist if not grow worse.

Corruption is an insidious cancer on the social, economic and political fabric of the nation that will have to be stamped out if PNG is ever to reach its true potential.

A useful first step would be to establish an independent, powerful and well funded Independent Commission Against Corruption, a significantly beefed up Auditor General's office and an 'Untouchables' style Police Branch devoted solely to rooting out and destroying corruption in the RPNGC.

Australia has had to go down a similar path owing to the untrustworthiness of far too many of its political class and their hangers on.

The soon to be established Federal Integrity Commission will hopefully have the very broad remit and considerable powers required to ensure that the public can have confidence in the honesty and integrity of the processes of government, starting at the very top of the decision making pyramid, being Ministers and their key advisers.

Paul Oates

It's difficult for younger people to get their head around the fact that it doesn't have to be this way and there are times that we lapuns remember when it wasn't.

Apparently, the fact is that no one in government wants to know is rather obvious but only when you know enough to make the connection.

Education is unfortunately lacking in teaching history and those teaching need to be supported in their efforts to do what they can.

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