Telling Right From Wrong Kongkong

The Chinese Riots in the Solomon Islands: "Go Home Stupid Waku"

When we tear our hair out over Chinese corruption these days, we need to be a little more specific. Kongkong seems to refer to everyone who’s ai slip these days, and for people who get touchy about being glommed together and stereotyped, this can be hypocritical.

It is common nowadays to hear people caveat the old Chinese when they slam the new. Not our Chinese, they say, but the new ones—they’re the enemy. We love our own Chinese; they’re our music business, our construction business, our supermarkets, and even our Members of Parliament. So many fled south when the Kina dropped in the nineties, but they still have a romantic presence across PNG.

The Chinese have been in Papua New Guinea for over 120 years, and some of our most prominent citizens descend from this first wave. The Tams of Rabaul, the Paks and Chans of New Ireland, the Cheggs of Madang, the Kuis and Chows of Lae, the Seetos of Port Moresby, just to name a few, are all old guard Chinese PNG families, no longer in-married, they’re largely assimilated and in some cases hardly recognizable as Chinese at all.

Today’s new Malaysian Chinese, for example, are the Rimbunan Hijau Group, and they’re from Malaysia, mainly Borneo (or Sarawak, to be specific) as well as Indonesia and Singapore. After fifteen years of Rimbunan Hijau’s strategic efflorescence in PNG, chain-sawing through forests everywhere, they now have a mosque and the largest private home in the capital city. RH very strategically established a national newspaper (taking a page from classical colonialism), and opened retail stores in Port Moresby. Lest anyone doubt the power RH wields in high offices, you need only observe that every criticism of their logging operations attracts equally vehement defense from government quarters, usually reducing critics to ‘NGO ideologues’ even as the international press is far more scathing than domestic reportage.

Then there are the new People’s Republic Chinese, an entirely different breed again. Suddenly these newcomers made RH interlopers look like indigenes, bringing in all their dubiously work-permitted troops at once. When the government of China broke ground on its Ramu-Nickel project in Madang, under a generous tax holiday and in a deal that allows them to retain the entire output of the mine, people finally began to balk. What RH could get away with in remote corners of remote provinces was one thing, but here open-cut mining and submarine tailing disposal without an environmental plan and no consultation with the greater impact area of Madang, quickly brought Asian resentment to a head. What happened to our constitution people started to ask. What about the laws of the land? Rhonda Nadile, a Labour Department executive, freely admitted that labour laws are circumvented at Ramu Nickel because of the project’s importance.

Some might say the Chinese are really ciphers for the growing anger at the national government, all the provincial and national leaders who’d obviously rolled over for the Ramu mine and lined their pockets for Chinese businesses in Moresby. While PNG workers at MCC were living in tents with open pit toilets, more than a few national politicians were enjoying new cars, homes and sweethearts earned by their compatriot’s sweat and tears.

The person who lost the most in the bargain was Sir Michael Somare, because for many in PNG, the Ramu Nickel deal, and the way he scoffed at anti-Chinese rioters as opportunists and complainers, was the last nail in the coffin of the Grand Chief’s reputation. What happened to that proud Melanesian statesman who refused to remove his shoes for the Australian Customs officials? He looks more like an old mandarin with bound feet these days.

The last wave of mainland Chinese are the riffraff who have come through the cracks, arriving as dependents or temporary businesspeople, and morphing into trade store operators, gamblers, club owners and market stall sellers everywhere. Before we get too sympathetic at these battlers in their kai bars, let’s recall that this group has also brought with them the Chinese Triads. Like smuggling Satan into Sunday School—we were wide open to this, and completely unprepared.

Back in 2005, a blogger called ‘Merchant’ on a Chinese-community web site explained Port Moresby to another Singaporean Chinese who was interested in coming to work in Port Moresby:

“[T]here is a small Singaporean community [in Port Moresby]. Many are in fact Malaysians with Singapore company credentials…The local Towkay is someone called Ting Tan who owns a chain of department stores and comes originally from a place called Kelang in Malaysia. He is localised having already married locally. His shops may be a starting point for you. The people at Rimbunan Hijau who constantly eat at a place called Fu Gui (a Chinese stall type restaurant) could be the other point of call… The Yacht club is perhaps a good place to meet some of the international community. But even there the Whites tend to keep aloof and to themselves whilst the Chinese are compelled to do the same to an extent.”

But more telling than this description of ethnic enclaves is the advice he has for the prospective Moresbyite:

“You should have a car, as public transport is not only dangerous but also unreliable and virtually non-existent to civilized standards. A maid is something you will have to sort out once there. They too have to be checked out. They are patently inefficient, averse to work and dishonest. I know it sounds terribly racist and alarmist but that’s a fact and don’t wait to experience it before having to learn.”

Fortunately, a few other Port Moresby-based Chinese voiced disapproval at his assessments, and one pointed response came from a respondent called ‘Meriasples’:

“Merchant, if you are so negative and racist, I wonder why you came to PNG? To make money, as a businessman or through the “high risk allowance” you asked from you employer?”

This is the heart of PNG’s simmering unrest: to be called uncivilized, lazy and dishonest by people who appear to have arrived illegally, assume Papua New Guineans are an easy touch, and are earning ‘hardship pay’ to live at the highest echelons of Port Moresby society.

Another blogger, elsewhere, tells a different story:

“I was going through the immigration at Cairns in 2004 as a Chinese about my age presented with a PNG Passport. He was asked to provide alternative identity like a birth certificate he refused exclaiming that he was a Papua New Guinean. So the female officer asked him where he was born because his passport had been issued post Independence. The guy became quite angry saying he would not answer her, so she held the passport for me to see and asked if I could pronounce the birthplace which was Lombrum, but the guy could not say where he was born or where Lombrum was and in a rage he turned at me and said that I could not tell him where the place was. I just smirked and said Manus Island. The chap flew off the handle and they called the police in and locked him in the detention area, the lass thanked me for my co-operation, but I was quietly pleased that he had been caught out and there needs to be more of it in PNG.”

The old and new Chinese have generally separate orbits, although some bleed between new Singaporeans and old Chinese can be found every evening at the Golden Bowl in Port Moresby, for example, where friends and relatives share noodles and Cantonese gossip about what they all have in common: Brisbane.

Then last year the news arrives like an epidemic: the mafia were amongst us. The new Chinese, far form being economic refugees, were predatory imperialists, PNG’s brand new cash economy suddenly their manifest destiny. Media reports from the Solomons tipped us off that Chinese mafia there had arrived from Port Moresby, where they were running a prostitution ring that serviced (guess what?), Malaysian logging camps.

Asian prostitution is nothing new, and not restricted to the Chinese. PNG politicians have been caught importing Indonesian girls in from Vanimo, and a thriving sex trade at Filipino tuna boats has been operating for years now.

In November last year 104 illegal Chinese mine workers were arrested in immigration and labour raids. At the end of the year, a minister in the Solomon Islands, Clement Rojumana, was arrested over his alleged role in the corrupt granting of citizenship certificates to Chinese. In Fiji it is estimated that 7000 illegal Chinese had entered in the past two years—a number surpassed only by PNG, where some estimates say there are 20,000 mainland, Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean Chinese in residence.

This year The Melbourne Age told us these Triads had infiltrated and corrupted the highest levels of PNG’s police force. Sixteen senior PNG policemen were implicated with Chinese residents in PNG on charges of people smuggling, money laundering, prostitution, illegal gambling, fraud and theft. It appeared that PNG might be used as stopover point in smuggling Chinese to Australia. Then Ben Kimisopa himself was quoted as saying: “Chinese mafia have bought off officials throughout the system…they are operating illegal businesses, they are siphoning money out, corrupting government officials, colluding with police and making attempts to kill officials as well.”

One Police Officer told AAP reporter Ilya Gridneff that the Chinese presence in the force is all-pervasive. “It’s not just the police but everywhere along the chain, if they weren’t able to get in, then police wouldn’t be able to take their bribes,” he said. “If it is this bad now, imagine in five years time.”

But again, they cannot be painted with one brush. Gridneff gives us the Hollywood twist to the tale of the Chinese mafia:

A former Chinese dissident gets deported and growing anti-Chinese violence breaks out while the power of the local Asian mafia rises amid claims of widespread police corruption. It sounds like a plot for a Hollywood action thriller, but it’s just a slice of everyday life in Papua New Guinea. The opening scenes would show former Chinese government dissident Gu Kai being forced awake from his sleep and taken from his Port Moresby home, beaten by police, blindfolded, then taken hostage and driven to the outskirts of town. In a hotel room he is beaten again, forced to sign affidavits accusing the PNG police commissioner of corruption and when he refuses, the beatings continue. Next morning police and immigration department officials take the luggage-less, passport-less, battered and bruised man to the airport and deport him to Hong Kong. Allegations arise that behind the deportation is a mysterious mainland Chinese woman who was previously deported for alleged Asian mafia dealings.

The plot thickens as it reveals some Chinese businesses may have financially contributed to the “operational costs” involved for those police to expel Gu Kai. Gu Kai was not just one of the thousands of “new Chinese” suspected of illegally living and working in PNG, he was also a vocal critic and vehement campaigner against corruption and alleged Chinese businesses’ illegal activities and illegal workers. And he was believed to be a police, tax office and National Intelligence Organisation informant. But other PNG officials say Gu Kai was simply protecting his own illegal interests, speaking out to stifle his competition.

Chief Superintendent Sam Bonner, the Police force’s legal officer, is said to have perverted the course of justice last year by interfering with an investigation into illegal gambling in Port Moresby. Mr Bonner tried to halt a raid on a venue housing pokie-like horse-racing machines owned by alleged crime figure Albert Khoo, who was said to have at least four police on his payroll.

National Gaming Board chairman Nat Koleala told The Melbourne Age that gangs had placed a $700,000 contract on his head for speaking out against illegal gaming. After several bomb threats, a hand grenade was thrown at the house of his registrar.

But even if we were to ferret out the Triads, we’d still be left with the Chinese government. The developing world has welcomed China’s sales pitch of easy credit and no structural reform strings attached. As a result, there are new roads, power plants and telecommunications networks across Africa, all financed by low-interest loans from the Chinese Government’s Exim Bank.

Increasingly, though, this deal seems to come with its own catch. Sharon LaFraniere and John Grobler of The New York Times tell us:

“China’s aid must be used to buy goods or services from companies, many of them state-controlled, that Chinese officials select themselves. Competitive bidding by the borrowing nation is discouraged, and China pulls a veil over vital data like project costs, loan terms and repayment conditions. Even the dollar amount of loans offered as foreign aid is treated as a state secret. Anticorruption crusaders complain that secrecy invites corruption, and that corruption debases foreign assistance.”

“China is using this financing to buy the loyalty of the political elite,” said Harry Roque, a University of the Philippines law professor who is challenging the legality of Chinese-financed projects in the Philippines. “It is a very effective tool of soft diplomacy. But it is bad for the citizens who have to repay these loans for graft-ridden contracts.”

In fact, such secrecy runs counter to international norms for foreign assistance. In a part of the world prone to corruption and poor governance, it also raises questions about who actually benefits from China’s projects. The answers, international development specialists say, are hidden from public view.

“…our enterprises must conform to international rules when running business, must be open and transparent, should go through a bidding process for big projects and forbid inappropriate deals and reject corruption and kickbacks,” Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, told a group of Chinese businessmen in Zambia in 2006.

But China has no specific law against bribing foreign officials.

It is too simplistic to say that this ‘Look East’ trend is an ideological flick of the head away from looking South. It’s really about greed, and arguably about the last days of an elder statesman anxious to leave his stamp across the country before retiring to soft pillows and foot bathes for the rest of his days. Forests are being recklessly logged, feeder roads cutting swathes bigger than interstate highways just to reach areas that will harvest more hardwood, in the name of palm oil, resource extraction and a hasty idea of ‘urbanization’—which appears to be constituted of little more than noodle stalls and knick knack stores, with no plumbing or waste disposal plans. As one Globe and Mail reporter recently described it:

“Chinese engineers landed in Papua New Guinea in 2006 to inspect their latest mineral acquisition, they faced an arduous journey through the tropical wilderness. They drove over crumbling roads to the Ramu River, then found natives with dugout canoes to paddle them upstream. Next, they hired another team of locals with machetes to slash a rough trail for eight hours through the steamy jungle, dodging poisonous snakes and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. “It was terrible,” recalls Wang Chun, the chief engineer. “You couldn’t breathe.” Today, less than three years later, a series of small Chinatowns has emerged in the jungle — complete with Chinese food, Chinese satellite television channels and crews of Chinese migrant labourers living in cheap dormitory huts. Where once was wilderness, you find the workers of China Metallurgical Group Corp., toiling seven days a week and chattering about their families back home in Beijing and Sichuan. It hasn’t been easy.”

It certainly hasn’t.

But I have to say, in conclusion, that we’re bringing some of this on ourselves. EMTV tonight reported that the new parliamentary commission established to explore the causes of anti-Asian violence has pushed back its hearings until November, largely for lack of travel pays. So they’re asking for K3 million to get the job done. Tell me, have we been so spoiled by handouts that our MPs cannot travel affordably any longer? Hotel rooms, hire cars, per diems and big meals—all to listen to the grassroots’ complaints. These are the prospective clientele of RH’s big hotel-casino complex now breaking ground in Port Moresby. They are hardly likely to hear the real causes of anti-Asian ire.


This article was written by Nancy Sullivan and was published on her blog, Nineteen Years and Counting in Papua New Guinea.

~ by Tavurvur on October 12, 2009.

One Response to “Telling Right From Wrong Kongkong”

  1. This is a difficult issue.All Chinese are not the same and to think so is rascism.however I always need to watch myself in PNG because I so often walk into a trade store and see an Asian boss meri scowling at the national work staff…almost without fail.I walk away feeling why are you here if you hate the locals so much.There are loop holes in PNG bisnis practices and there are those ready to take advantage of it..and many of these are Asian businesses but there are also PNG politicians colluding.Great Article this.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: