Blood, Faith & Fire

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Most of the time, it's just convenient to lump people together with a catch-all term like 'Asians'. But when tension spills over into rioting  - as it did last September in the Eastern Highlands and more widely in May 2009 - the victims are targeted on the basis of their race. There are enough nasty examples even from very recent history to warrant the attention of politicians - not just the big picture from Moresby but the small detail of how business is done at the grassroots.

One man who does care where Papua New Guinea's Asians come from is Graeme Smith, a political economist from the University of Technology, Sydney. Of the new migrants leaving their homes, most are ethnic Chinese and according to Smith's calculations, a very high percentage - maybe 90% - hail from one town in a coastal province of mainland China. That town is Fuqing [pronounced Foo-ching] in Fujian province, an area with a long history of transnational migration.

"I count it from when the first Fuqing guy decided he was going to put down roots, and that's 1991. When I'm talking about the majority of the new Chinese, I think of them as Fuqing people," he told Telinga Media last month. " I'm not including the people there for the Ramu mine project because I think they're a different category. I don't see them as migrants, I see them as temporary workers."

Fluent in Mandarin, the Sydney researcher used his language skills to interview migrant traders in Madang, Port Moresby and back in Fuqing itself.

"It's really a matter of networks so essentially people are migrating by word of mouth in that they hear there are economic opportunities from their fellow villagers," he explains. One reason why these migrants tend to be close-knit is that relatives will often leave together and over time bring new family members to run new shops as the business expands.

From Moresby to Madang, anyone with an opinion will claim that these new Chinese have become more numerous in the last decade. But no one can put reliable numbers to the influx, including Smith: "It's in the thousands but whether it's one thousand or ten thousand, I can't say."

Smith's inquiries suggest that those he interviewed don't see Papua New Guinea as the land of opportunity it once was. He believes the sharp rise in Chinese mainland migration peaked about two years ago and is now tapering off. And many are looking to the next destination.

But he acknowledges that some new Chinese are buying into established businesses which indicates they are not fly-by-night operators fleeing their debts. And they are buying them from the so-called old Chinese - PNG-born or long-term migrant families, some of whose members are PNG citizens. The old and the new are happy to do business with each other but they are by no mean 'one community'.

The old Chinese are condescending towards the new. Another scholar who has studied the Chinese in PNG, James Chin wrote in 2006: 'The group that the PNG Chinese detest most is the mainland Chinese, whom they characterise as "con men" and "uncivilised". The main reasons people give for this is that mainland Chinese have spoiled the previously good relationship between the Chinese community and PNG nationals.'

Graeme Smith broadly agrees with this statement but adds that mainlanders are aware of how that reputation was damaged.

"Most of them will firstly say 'there were too many of us all at once' and also they'll cite specific instances particularly related to gambling," he said. As a result, he says, those known to have been involved in importing gaming machines are looked down on by both the old and the new Chinese.

The influx of new traders from the late 1990s has drawn accusations of collusion between cashed-up entrepreneurs and greasy-fingered officials. As recently as last September, the national daily Post-Courier ran a front page story warning of an 'alien influx' of illegal migrants who were undocumented by government authorities. The investigation by PNG Customs linked some of them to criminal enterprises and confirmed that many, but not all, were from mainland China, the paper reported.

"I don't think people come in illegally, they become illegal, says Smith. "They'll come in sponsored by a company. They may work for that company at the beginning for a year or two. And then they will go and try and start their own business. And at that point they should then technically go in to the people who look after work permits - but they don't. Because it's expensive, and they think 'well I've already paid my money when I first arrived. Why should I pay more money just to change towns within PNG?' And that's usually when they become illegal."

For those such as the woman quoted at the start of this article, trying to pay school fees and make ends meet, it's easy to see how a visible presence of successful outsiders in large numbers could be threatening, even a source of humiliation. The fact that many may feel their lack of success and wealth is in part due to being out-competed by a distinct and apparently organised group of entrepreneurs increases that sense of being 'overrun' as remote leaders look the other way. 

But the riots referred to above are a combustible mix not only of feelings of resentment and injured national pride but also opportunistic motives and scapegoating. 

"I think there is an element of racial tension," Smith agrees.  "But also it's just a function of the way the structure of places like Goroka have changed. You do have a lot of people coming in from the countryside, a lot more people who are really struggling and they've got to have some kind of outlet. And what better than a riot and a chance to go shopping."

He notes that trading stores have long provided this outlet, sometimes without the racial element: "This happened in the seventies as well when the Chinese weren't running the stores in the highlands, when it was Papua New Guineans and they still ended up getting their stores torched."

Apart from an opportunity to go shopping, a number of small traders who supported the looting saw it as having a political element: an aggressive warning to elected leaders, if they cared to listen.

"They're a proxy for the way governance is going  - or not going - in PNG," says Smith. "People [are] taking their frustrations out on the easiest target - which is these shops."

These symbolic warnings in recent years have left behind physical and human wreckages from Dili to Nuku'alofa and back to Honiara. And once young men stand in awe of their own power, they may decide to sub-contract their services to political paymasters. With police already extorting from shop owners, the so-called spontaneous outbursts by settlement youths are ready to be transformed into political acts when the stakes are higher.

"The one thing all shopkeepers fear are elections. It's the worst time for them, in terms of robberies," Smith warns. "It's a time of greatest insecurity because they know they're used as a political football."


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