A view of the Marriot Hotel under construction from the Atlantic Ocean

The Evolving Guyana-China Relationship

(By Professor W. Andy Knight )

Last February I paid a courtesy visit to a number of diplomatic missions in Guyana and to CARICOM headquarters. This was my first visit to Guyana as Director of the Institute of International Relations (IIR), St Augustine campus of The University of the West Indies.

On the way to my hotel in Georgetown, I saw a crowd gathered next to the construction site for the Marriott Hotel. They seemed to be chanting “No Guyanese, No Chinese”. There was one sign held up by a protestor that read: “Our Government is selling us out to China.”

This issue of bringing in foreign Chinese labour, excluding local workers, for infrastructure projects in developing countries is something that has been dogging Chinese companies since the late 1970s when China embraced “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” and started on its road towards rapid modernisation.

There is no question that China has developed a special relationship with Guyana. Part of the reason for this is due to loyalty, solidarity and camaraderie. Another part of the reason has to do with pragmatic alliance politics. And a third part of the reason lies in China’s insatiable appetite for raw materials.

When the United Nations was established in 1945, China was a founding member of the organisation. But it was the Republic of China (ROC) under Chiang Kai-shek, which was formally recognised as the sole representative of the Chinese people within the multilateral organisation.

In 1949, Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – a communist regime which would represent all Chinese on the mainland. His hope was to quickly re-unite Taiwan with the rest of China. The United States and its allies initially opposed the admission of the PRC in the UN, and as a result, Taiwan (the ROC), retained official status as the China representative both in the UN Security Council and in the UN General Assembly.

But this was untenable. There was no way that Taiwan with a population at the time of 15 million Chinese could credibly represent mainland China with a population of close to a billion Chinese people. Guyana was one of the developing countries that voted to admit the PRC to the UN on 25 October 1971, thereby expelling Taiwan from the world body. And, Guyana has always supported the PRC’s one-China rule, unlike several of its Caribbean counterparts which continued to recognise Taiwan as a distinct and separate government from China.

In those early days, Guyana shared with China a commitment to socialism and a rejection of capitalism. Shared ideology was combined with the sense that both China and countries like Guyana – third world, developing countries – had much more in common than with countries of the Metropole (Europe/United States).

In fact, from 1949 the PRC adopted anti-colonial policies, and expressed solidarity with newly independent states, many of whom were members of the Group of 77. Although China was not a member of the G77, its support for these developing states was evident. However, since 1978, China has moved away from its rigid ideological commitment to Communism; embracing its own brand of capitalism (a controlled capitalism – capitalism with Chinese characteristics).

China, in its alliance with the BRICS, is now able to offer developing countries an alternative path to development that does not rely on the so-called Washington Consensus. And, it has emerged as a leading contender to replace the US as the world’s hegemonic power. In most economic categories, China ranks either second or third, and in some cases, it has overtaken the US. In terms of its overall economy, China (at US$9 trillion GDP) ranks 2nd to the US (at US$16.2 trillion GDP).

Between 1979 and 2005 China’s GDP has been growing at an annual rate of over 9%. While its economic growth has slowed in the past few years, it is still managing to maintain an annual growth rate of between 7.5 % and 8%. This makes it, still, the fastest growing large economy in the world.

China’s trade volume is approximately US$419.9 billion and it has now replaced Japan as the third largest trading nation on the planet. The US and Germany are the two countries ahead. China has trade ties with over 227 countries, including Guyana. It has huge foreign exchange reserves, and foreign investment in China is helping to drive its rapid economic development.

Today, China is an economic juggernaut with an insatiable appetite for raw materials to support its phenomenal economic growth. It needs Guyanese natural resources, as it does Trinidadian oil and gas. And, China is willing to support development in the Caribbean in exchange for access to those resources.

So, it is not difficult to see why Guyana would want to hitch its wagon to China. But in doing so, Guyana has to be careful not to be rolled over by the juggernaut. While the Chinese government is pursuing a more client-friendly approach to development in the Third World, its “peaceful rise” strategy is not entirely altruistic.

Yes, it is true that China does not intend to colonise foreign countries in the way the British and other European countries did in the 19th century – i.e. through invasion and occupation. But the relationship between China and Guyana is an asymmetric one. It is a relationship based on exploitation and exportation of Guyanese raw materials which will leave Guyanese in the same condition as they were under British rule – i.e., as hewers of wood and drawers of water, and in a state of dependency.

This will be the case, unless the Guyanese government insists on establishing certain conditions in its relationship with Chinese companies.

There is no question that Chinese companies try at every opportunity to bring in Chinese workers on projects in fellow-developing countries. But the empirical evidence shows that these companies are not always able to get away with such a plan.

The percentage of Chinese to local labour in many infrastructure projects across Africa shows that the governments of countries in which these projects are being undertaken can, in fact, ensure that local labour is utilised. In countries like Angola, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Zambia, Ghana, Mozambique, and Equatorial Guinea, the local labour used by Chinese companies far exceeds that of Chinese labour, in almost every case.

Chinese companies will provide a number of justifications for the utilisation of Chinese labour over local labour. They will argue that skilled labour and workers with highly specialised skills are difficult to find in the local setting. They will make the case that the technology being used is unknown to the local population. They will utilise the communications card to argue that it is much easier and quicker to complete projects when the lines of communication are clear.

Very few of the local workers will have a working knowledge of Mandarin or Cantonese. Chinese companies will find loopholes in local labour laws, or take advantage of the fact that local governments are just not enforcing local labour laws or work permits.

The most compelling argument that Chinese companies raise is that Chinese workers are generally more productive and more willing to work under harsh conditions than local workers. (To my mind if there was genuine training of local workers under Chinese tutelage, with gradual introduction of locals, enforced, there could be merit to such a modified approach.)

If China is really sincere about treating its fellow developing countries with the dignity and respect that its rhetoric allows, then it is important for the government of the PRC to rein in its multinational companies and instill in them the importance of following the labour laws of the governments in which they operate.

But the onus is also on the governments of countries like Guyana to: develop clear and unequivocal labour laws that put the local community first; ensure that its local workers are highly skilled and willing to be trained in the use of unfamiliar technologies; provide language training in Mandarin for workers and, particularly, for students; and, most importantly; insist on the development of a productive local labour force, perhaps trained under Chinese tutelage, while adhering to labour standards for both local and foreign workers.

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