Beijing raises profile as Tonga rebuilds after riots

Monday, April 30, 2012
By Madeleine Coorey, AFP

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga--Jason Ng wasn't living in Tonga in 2006 when riots, which had Chinese-owned small businesses among their targets, left eight people dead and the center of the capital Nuku'alofa a smoldering ruin.

While the violence is long gone and much of the capital rebuilt, life remains tough for Chinese entrepreneurs and Ng doesn't see himself staying in the tiny Polynesian kingdom long-term.

“Now it's very hard for Chinese people to make business here,” he told AFP from his restaurant across from the Chinese embassy, where the national flag flew at half mast in memory of the late king of Tonga George Tupou V.

The restaurant is not the only business Ng's Fujian-born family owns in the Pacific island nation. They also run a sea cucumber processing operation in the center of town.

Despite the family ties, Ng said he would consider moving elsewhere in the Pacific — to Samoa or the Solomon Islands — if he could secure the correct fishing license.

While he feels safe in Tonga and the situation has improved for Chinese businesses since the 2006 unrest, he has been robbed three times since arriving in 2009 and has had cargo ready for export stolen from the docks.

“You complain but no results, that's a big problem here,” he said.

The streets of downtown Nuku'alofa have undergone a US$69 million makeover since the riots in which young Tongans set fire to buildings and looted stores, destroying much of the central business district and prompting New Zealand and Australia to send in troops.

The Nov. 16 unrest, sparked by fears that moves to reform the country's then semi-feudal political system were progressing too slowly, saw more than 300 Chinese flee the country in fear.

Kalafi Moala, publisher of the Taimi 'O Tonga newspaper, said while Chinese businesses were hit, he does not believe the violence stemmed from racial motivation but was a “drunken party that got out of hand.”

“I think it was just unfortunate that the Chinese got affected because the Chinese are a major part of building up Tonga's economy,” he told AFP.

“Personally I cannot imagine what we would do without the Chinese. The money they've brought in, the businesses they have provided ... it's lifted our street economy to a different level.”

Pacific states are important to Beijing with six recognizing Taiwan and the rest China.

Official ties have permitted thousands of Chinese immigrants to settle in the Pacific islands, running grocery stores, restaurants and other small businesses.

The numbers are not huge, but the influx has often caused friction.

China has been heavily involved in helping Tonga get back on its feet since the unrest, loaning money to reconstruct Nuku'alofa's streets and buildings.

Beijing's influence is seen elsewhere, with China reportedly paying for the chartered flight which brought the late king's body back to his tiny country for his ornate state funeral after he died suddenly in Hong Kong last month.

“China's diplomatic efforts are becoming more apparent,” in Tonga and elsewhere in the Pacific, said Derek Brien, who heads the Pacific Institute of Public Policy.

He said a small poll conducted by the institute in 2011 found that China was generally seen as an important and valued international relationship for island states, but at the same time Chinese migration was resented.

“In terms of the question of something like: 'Which is the most valued international partner to your country?' China often out-polled say Australia or New Zealand,” Brien said.

“At the same time, in the press there is a lot of backlash against the rise of China's immigration.

“So there's this disconnect between a perception that China aid, China diplomacy, is good and better than say Australia and New Zealand because the Chinese aid and development comes without strings attached to it.

“And yet there is this backlash going on about the rise in migration. It's something we need to understand more.”

Ng, originally from Fuzhou City, doesn't think the robberies he suffered were racially motivated in a poor country heavily reliant on foreign aid and remittances from Tongans working overseas.

“They don't care who you are, where you come from, because they don't have income. They just stay at home and wait for money from overseas,” he said.

“There's no work for them. They don't know how to plan their future.”

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