“ . . . If Belizeans do not do something and rather quickly, we will have no country left for us….” from “The Asian Bukut” by Neri O. Briceño in AMANDALA, 12 August, 2017
Those of us who think that there is nothing amiss with Chinese immigration and overarching influence in Belize which, to my mind, portends a far graver danger than even the spectre of Guatemala – are living in a bubble that will burst in the fullness of time. And, critics like Neri Briceño are neither racist or paranoid, nor alarmist. The present dynamics in international relations, especially as it concerns Belize, with its tiny population, easily exploitable natural resources, strategic location and an inefficient, shortsighted, ignorant, but conceited and hopelessly corrupt political class, are full of foreboding for its future.
Almost 200 odd years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte warned: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” Nothing lasts forever, and empires and superpowers come and go – Greece, Rome, Spain, Britain, the USSR; and the US now in decline. Barring an unforeseeable incident, the 21st century is Asia’s, with China, the “sleeping giant,” fully awake and leading the charge as the world’s newest superpower on the block.
We have seen how the 2008 financial crisis badly affected the American model of liberal capitalism and limited government. And, today America literally has a bull in its China shop trampling and thrashing everything and everyone around, with powerful enablers cheering the current political, social and eventual economic self-harm. America no longer carries a universal message that offers a clarity of vision for the world. Nor does China, but that’s a different story for another date!
We have also witnessed the US bankrupting itself for years on military adventurism, neglecting infrastructure and properly educating its people, with wealth diverted into a huge military-industrial complex. What remains of this wealth is now concentrated within a tiny, self-serving elite, with a vain sense of self-entitlement. Now, China has won the manufacturing war and is the US’s second largest banker, after Japan, though with the coming of Donald Trump, a wily China has reduced its holdings by 20 per cent. It also knows that in the eventuality of a trade war it can sell its debt on the public market, create higher interest rates and inflation for the US, and chronic instability in that nation’s financial institutions.
China and its people must always be credited with possessing the long view. China has tightened the noose around Hong Kong, despite the enshrinement in 1997 of the one country, two systems and laws principle that ought to have lasted up to 2047. Recently, China formally renounced the historical 1984 Sino-British joint declaration – the basis on which control of Hong Kong by the British had been relinquished. This clearly shows that China’s official declarations cannot be trusted, irrespective of whether they concern Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South-China Sea, or investment in Britain’s nuclear industry, and other business interests.
As at 2017, there is only one China, but two governments. One goes by the name of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and is based on the Mainland and is supposedly communist. The other describes itself as the Republic of China (ROC), is capitalist, and since 1949 has resided off the coast of the Mainland on the overcrowded island of Taiwan. More than 173 nations recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of China. Barely 20, consisting of minuscule, far-flung islands and relatively small states like Belize, recognize the ROC. Despite the dwindling of diplomatic recognition, a large number of states, including the PRC government, conduct vibrant trade relations with the tiny, but fairly prosperous Taiwan.
Notwithstanding this, and despite the ROC’s military muscle, the PRC government of Mainland China regards Taiwan as a “renegade province”; and will never allow it to declare Independence. Therefore, it is only a matter of time when China, with its superpower status in the offing, unites its “renegade province” to the rest of the nation as it has done with Hong Kong. Those Taiwanese Chinese unable to tolerate PRC absolutisms will emigrate in large numbers. And, will sensibly rationalize that a country with a large expanse of land, strategically located, easily exploitable natural resources, a small population, and a weak, politically unsophisticated government, will be theirs for the taking. Naturally, the Guatemalan threat would evaporate into thin air, as the new owners of the estate possess a far superior economic and military capability, as well as key diplomatic networks that Guatemala could never dream of.
Taiwan’s politicians each day continue to see China’s ambitions in its adventurism in the South China Sea, the calculated ambivalence in respect of North Korea and the recent spat with India. Then there is the current launch of the PRC’s pragmatic project – the modern Silk Road – into Europe, Central and Eastern Europe in particular, and the bold attempts to create new export markets for Hong Kong and Beijing businesses, as the Chinese economy slows down. They know the PRC’s strategy is to enhance Chinese connectivity across Eurasia, the Indian Ocean, Asia’s Far East and Africa. And, a farsighted China, unlike the West which contemptuously regards Africa as unredeemable and a basket-case, recognizes that Africa is the continent of the future. Hence, China’s main reason, notwithstanding its need for Africa’s rich resources, is to coordinate its African policies along an Afro-Eurasian coalescence.
A corollary to all this is the Chinese, and particularly in the Taiwanese case, issue of expansion or Lebensraum. Taiwan is an extremely densely populated place. On a visit to Taipei some years ago I was confronted by an overwhelming, almost claustrophobic, plethora of overcrowded living areas, and phalanxes of high rise flats that were small, cramped, and overpriced. To my amazement, much needed land was obtained by dynamiting and hollowing out some of the surrounding mountains. Yet, Taiwan has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates, and an ageing population, though not as distressing as Europe’s and Japan’s. Around 15 per cent of Taiwan’s 23 million people are over the age of 65. Young Taiwanese who travel abroad to study, pursue their careers, or engage in business, tend to remain abroad. Nor can Taiwan compete in terms of salaries to attract and retain them like Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and other key East Asian powerhouses. With a PRC takeover, these people will probably neither return nor remain. Even now, the Taiwanese market is feeling the heat from the Mainland, particularly in respect of small to medium sized businesses, thus convincing the Taiwanese to expand abroad.
Chinese immigration to Belize is not new and dates back to the mid-19th century, when like immigrants from the most impoverished regions of India, the Chinese arrived in Belize, Guyana and the British Caribbean islands as indentured servants. However, with the advent in 1986 of Belize’s poorly planned and regulated citizenship-by-investment programme, costing up to $50,000 by 1997 for each person and even more for “under the table” transactions, with revenues that never entered Belize’s treasury, thousands of mainly Hong Kong Chinese entered Belize. Most of those now living in the country are from the Guangdong area which borders Hong Kong and Macau, the gambling paradise of the Chinese. And, there are, of course, their siblings from Taiwan, who now own Belizean passports and permanent residencies. These represent valid “insurance policies” when the PRC takes over and forcefully repulses any challenge to central government from the more liberal and cosmopolitan Taiwanese. Those in Taiwan who find PRC rule repressive or onerous will then vote with their feet.
In Belize, the Chinese constitute just about 1 per cent of Belize’s approximately 350,000 strong population. Yet this tiny community owns and controls large swathes of land and 10 per cent of Belize’s GDP, which in 2016 was $1.7 billion USD. In a relatively short period, the Chinese have managed to control the food, beverage and retail sectors of Belize’s economy. These include fast foods outlets, restaurants, pubs, hotels, supermarkets, event centres, petrol stations, and the ubiquitous and heavily barricaded “mom and pop” corner shops selling decidedly inferior and past-sell-by-date food items.
As an aside – the Belizean Embassy in Taiwan is the ONLY embassy in Belize’s entire galaxy of embassies and consulates that is authorized to issue temporary Belizean passports. That was my personal experience when I needed to apply for a Belizean temporary passport, not too long ago, for one of my children whose Belizean passport had expired and who needed to travel urgently. Not even the Belize High Commission in Britain – the Belizean Embassy nearest to Nigeria, where I reside – could issue my son a temporary Belizean passport! I had to apply directly to the people in Taipei, and the passport later came to me from Taipei.
It would be a mistake to adduce that the reasons for Chinese overwhelming prosperity and influence in Belize are because they are more united than other ethnic groups, are more diligent and resourceful, or possess superior business acumen. For the Chinese are not less corrupt, venal, unscrupulous or thieving than whites, Arabs, Jews, Indians, Latinos, and Africans, or their local lawyer-politician facilitators who have brilliantly mismanaged Belize for the greater part of the last four decades.
It must be clearly understood that the Chinese, more than most ethnic groups in Belize, have untrammelled access to superior sources of finance via a number of avenues. These include the Hong Kong stock exchange, an effective network of Chinese financial brokers, Belize’s commercial banks, which seem rather partial to them, the sale of Belizean passports, permanent residencies and visas in which local and international Chinese immigration brokers make the most money from the sales as against their Belizean accomplices, and the national scam called the boledo lottery. In the case of this lottery, Chinese influence coincides with the mercurial interests of their well-connected UDP partners. All this, then, propels them to invest their profits into bigger investments and businesses, most of which are not even located in Belize, but in larger and more diverse economies.
(To be continued in next Tuesday’s issue of Amandala.)