Go tell a Chinaman with a pony tail – II

Tuesday, 14 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A reader who had read the column entitled ‘Go tell a Chinaman with a pony tail’ published on 2 February 2010 has sent me some additional facts of interest which I had omitted.

The first is that each and every town in Sri Lanka of any size at one time had a resident Chinese Dental Mechanic, with a signboard displaying a set of grinning pink and white dentures placed prominently.

These ‘traditional’ dental mechanics had the monopoly of orthodontic care until later displaced by Government dental clinics manned by the BDS graduates of Peradeniya University or those in private practice.

Another Chinese institution found, as pointed out by the reader, in all our major towns was the Chinese Lucky Store selling ‘Choice and Sundry’ goods, mainly manufactured in Hong Kong and competitively priced compared to similar goods from the West. There are still two existent in Maradana and Wellawatta.

The other day I spotted a Dental Mechanic’s establishment and a Lucky Store on Trincomalee’s Main Street! Probably descendants of the laundrymen the British Navy brought from Hong Kong. Chinese restaurants are of course ubiquitous in all of Sri Lanka’s towns today, but they do not necessarily involve people of Chinese descent.

Evocative description

Tissa Devendra on his book ‘On Horse Shoes Street’ writing about his childhood in Kandy has an evocative description of the itinerant, ponytailed and China silk sellers: “The Chinaman was the great purveyor of real luxury. Once in a while mother used to succumb to his twangy cry of ‘Chaiina Seeelk!’ and call him. He leant his bike on the veranda wall and offloaded his large bundle, neatly wrapped in khaki cloth. As a boy, I must confess this man’s appearance and nasal accent intrigued me more than the goods he sold. But I do have hazy recollections of brilliant kimonos printed with prancing dragons and swirling chrysanthemums, beautifully hand-embroidered linen and swatches of lustrous silks of incredible softness. Intricate little knick-knacks of ivory- fans, combs and serviette rings were also temptingly on display. Once selections were made the silks were measured out, under mother’s watchful eye, with the cubit long baton the Chinaman carried both for measurement and self-defence. This baton was useful to threaten the scallywags who often ran behind him yelling ‘Cheena Booku Booku’ – which war cry was supposed to enrage all Chinamen.”

The number of persons of Chinese descent living in Sri Lanka was so large that the Government recently enacted special legislation, the Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Chinese Origin (Special Provisions) Act No. 38 of 2008, to grant them Sri Lankan citizenship, since they had lost all contact with their origins in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or where ever. It is reported that over 100 persons have obtained citizenship under this law up to now.

China’s role

The People’s Republic of China’s role on the world stage and the internal developments in China are matters which concern commentators, observers and nations, especially those such as ours.

The IMF has estimated that within five years the Chinese economy will become the largest in the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit sets the date as 2019. China sits on foreign reserves worth $3,000 million. However measured at current exchange rates the average American is at this time around 10 times as wealthy as the average Chinese.

As China becomes richer, it is becoming more assertive on the world stage. Together with Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa, China (BRIC-Sa) is, to take one example, pushing hard to stop the traditional step of a European successor to the IMF’s Strauss-Khan. These so-called second rung powers are acting in concert.

The first foreign trip made by the recently-elected President of Brazil, Dilma Roussef, was to Brazil, not the USA. Brazilian diplomats consider China, their largest trading partner, a more vital ally than the USA.

There has been a huge infusion of Chinese donations, grants, investments and loans to Sri Lanka and other developing nations, making her a humongous player in influencing the developing world. China’s Asian-ness is an issue.

Kishore Mahbubani, one time head of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, says: “We Asians know that China will be of influence in Asia for the next 1,000 years, but we are not certain whether America will be still be a power in Asia in 100 years time.”

The Western developed nations Washington Consensus of ‘freedom works’, which has fuelled the Arab Spring, unfolding in the Maghreb, West Asia and North Africa, is being challenged by a Beijing Consensus of authoritarianism, one party rule and a Confucian doctrinaire model of governance.

The challenge China faces is whether her economy can continue to grow at eight to 10 per cent. Will China’s economically-empowered citizens step back from demanding political pluralism and political freedom?

China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has said that there are two sets of forces obstructing reforms in China: one-party conservatives ‘vestiges of feudal society’ and extreme leftists/Maoists, ‘the pernicious influence of the Cultural Revolution,’ that orgy of violence, destruction and persecution unleashed by Mao.

Relations with Sri Lanka

Clearly, China is interested in good relations with Sri Lanka. The possible reasons are many, business is one; there is a growing bilateral trade deficit in favour of China as she exports large amounts of goods, services and labour (one Indian commentator said that the labour were in fact convicts!). A news item in a local newspaper said that the demand for snakes for consumption had risen markedly in areas where Chinese labour had moved in.

Geo-politics is another possible reason. Ceylon was one of the first countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1950. A Sri Lankan Government official has been quoted as saying that China is very generous to Sri Lanka. China does not ask any questions, other than those related to the specific project.

This is markedly different with the rest of the world; the EU had an ongoing dispute with Sri Lanka on human rights and related issues, the US Government has accepted a petition from an international trade union to review workers rights in Sri Lanka, and the UN Secretary General appointed a panel to advise him on possible human rights violations during the recently-concluded ‘humanitarian operation,’ much to the fury of the Sri Lankan Government and a huge furore has broken out now that the ‘Darusman’ Report has been published.

China on 1 July told a press conference at their Foreign Ministry that China believed the Sri Lanka Government and people were capable of handling their own problems. Some international humanitarian NGOs have also been making critical noises. The Government’s Human Rights Commission has indicated that it may look into allegations of human rights violations during the conflict. Various groups have taken diverse positions on the ‘Darusman’ Report, ranging from outright condemnation as a violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, to recommending that some sort of national inquiry is required on the allegations made.

A good friend

This is a time that Sri Lanka needs all the friends we can find. China is certainly a good friend; she is financing nearly all our biggest infrastructure projects, harbours, airports, railways, an oil storage facility all three in Hambantota. Also a coal-fired power plant and an expressway to the Colombo airport. A state-of-the-art performance centre in Colombo is almost complete and road rehabilitation is underway in the war-ravaged north. There have been large sales of locomotives and earth moving equipment. In 2009 Chinese commitments were $ 1.2 billion out of a total of $ 2.2 billion. The Board of Investment statistics show that China is the biggest investor in electronics, garment making and other areas. A free trade zone has been set up specifically for Chinese investors at Mirigama.

Political freedom

Internally, can China face up to the challenge of the demand of its economically-empowered citizens for political freedom, while still keeping intact the domination of the Communist Party? Two questions arise; first, how is it that the Chinese Communist Party responsible for such terrible deeds as the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the death of some 35 to 40 million people in the world’s worst-ever manmade famine, in the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1960, remained in power without facing any serious threat, except the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989? Second, why does the China of today still call itself ‘communist,’ when in reality it operates more like the cutthroat capitalism which existed in Victorian England?

The answer to the first question, analysts say, lies in the party’s ability to jettison ideological baggage while all the time claiming to cling on to Leninist first principles. Flexibility and dexterity have been the key factors as the party both led and adapted to humongous changes, as Mao famously said, the party has had to ‘manage contradictions’.

The answer to the second question is that in 1979, Deng Xiaoping, the pragmatic founder of the new China, enunciated four basic principles which should govern policy, the most important being ‘the leading role’ of the Communist party. A more recent view has been expounded by Chen Yuan, the son of a Long March veteran and hero of central planning, a leading State banker, who said: “We are the Communist Party and we will decide what communism means!”

China fears the awakening of its citizens, especially of the minorities such as the Tibetans, the Inner Mongolians the Uighurs and others who resent Han domination. In Inner Mongolia, Han lorry drivers who recently ran over pastoralists objecting to trucks crossing their grazing lands led to a wave of unrest. The words Arab Spring and Jasmine Revolution have been blocked on China’s internet!

Sanlu dairy firm scandal

The Communist Party will need to really assert its authority to manage the contradictions, which will emerge between the demands of the market and party control. A classic example is how the scandal surrounding the Sanlu dairy firm was handled.

The firm’s infant formula was found to be contaminated and killing children, but instead of an instant recall, the party demanded that the bad news be suppressed so as not to spoil the atmosphere at the Beijing Olympics. Later the parents of affected children staged huge protests. One of the leading protestors whose child was also affected was arrested and later released, may be due to protests at his incarceration.

Rising nationalism

The Chinese leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about such opinions and views their people express. Growing prosperity and greater communication with the outside world has made the country’s more than 1.3 billion people much harder to manage than in the past. There is a rising nationalism among the Chinese people and the feeling that the world does not give China enough ‘respect’. This is particularly evident among younger Chinese who are internet savvy, who are in micro, small and medium independent businesses, whose economic autonomy has made them very aggressive and who do not fear to articulate positions which are contrary to the Communist Party’s line and use the internet and mobile telephone technology to communicate those views. China’s leaders devote huge amounts of resources to monitor their own people. This internet nationalism is closely monitored. The internet is seen as a major source of peoples’ opinion. A local newspaper reported that the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority had obtained Chinese expertise to do the same in Sri Lanka; this was later denied.

China has a vast proportion of its people who can be best described as ‘net-citizens,’ who use the internet – Information and Communication Technology – routinely in their daily lives. China’s online community, like anywhere in the world, are young, urban and highly nationalist. They demand respect for China from the rest of the world. They are the first to be out on the streets rioting if they feel that the Communist Party and the Government is not standing up for China, as when the Chinese Embassy in Baghdad was bombed by the US during the invasion of Iraq. More recently, notwithstanding worldwide appeals, China executed a British drugs mule and bullied Cambodia into handing back 22 Uighurs seeking political asylum.

String of Pearls strategy

A manifestation of the Chinese Government’s response to their citizens demanding respect of the world is the String of Pearls naval strategy, described by the Strategic Studies Institute in London (the words were coined by a young Pentagon analyst according to Hu Shiseng, head of the South Asia Policy Unit at the China Institute for Contemporary relations in Beijing) being developed in the Indian Ocean, to safeguard China’s access to the oil fields of the Gulf and the natural resources of Africa.

Deep water ports to which China’s blue water fleet will have access to patrol and may be control, but certainly to monitor shipping are being developed in Lamu – Kenya, Gwadar – Pakistan, Hambantota – Sri Lanka , Chittagong – Bangladesh and Sittwe – Burma, on an East-West axis.

Recently the Prime Minister of Pakistan openly invited China to run a naval base at Gwadar. In August 2010, Chinese warships docked for five days at a port near Burma’s main city, Yangon, on a ‘friendly call’. This has so alarmed the India Government that the Indian Navy is developing a radar station and naval base in the southern most Addu Atoll in the Maldives, the location of the former British base on Gan Island, to monitor the Chinese Navy’s movements.

Professor Shrikant Kondapalli of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, says: “This is not a fear, this is a fact; when you put together all these jigsaw puzzles it becomes clear that the Chinese focus in the Indian Ocean is not just trade, it is a grand design for the 21st Century.” Indian Naval Chief Admiral Nirmal Verma, speaking recently at the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium at Abu Dhabi, underscored the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean, pointing out that “two thirds of the worlds’ oil shipments, one third of its bulk cargo and half the world’s container traffic passes through the expanse of the Indian Ocean”. A total of 80% of oil for China’s resource hungry economy comes from West Asia and Africa across the Indian Ocean.

China has also progressed from a net coal exporting country to a coal importing one, according to the latest statistics, and is the world’s biggest consumer of renewable energy. So access to resources is critical.

At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue an Asian Defence Forum held in Singapore, Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of US forces in the Pacific, said: “The US has to watch how incidents like those China has said with the navies of the Philippines and Viet Nam in the South China Sea are handled, post mortem.”

The recent disclosure that China is completing the building of an aircraft carrier, based on a hull purchased from the USSR (the Russians had abandoned the construction) is adding to the disquiet on China’s intentions on dominating the sea lanes.

The String of Pearls strategy is just one manifestation of China’s need to stand tall in the world. As Hu Shiseng of the South Asia Policy Unit emphasises: “During peace time, these kinds of facilities are only for commercial purposes. Another example would be the Kazakhstan-China oil pipe line which will run along the Chinese-Kazakh border to the Caspian Sea, which will give China access to Central Asia’s oil and natural gas.

Battle for natural resources

The battle for natural resources always provoked confrontation, through the history of the world. Nations such as Sri Lanka should take cognisance of this, located at the southern tip of the Asian land mass, near one of the potential choke points for international shipping, all sea transport travelling on an East-West axis have to pass Dondra Head and traverse the space between Sri Lanka and the South Pole. Though this is a huge mass of ocean, today’s surveillance technology using geo stationary satellites, could turn it into one of the most hotly-disputed parts of the world, in a crisis.

The efficacy of such satellite surveillance was well proven when the Americans assassinated Osama bin Laden at Abbotabad, Pakistan, recently. Choke points have always been the stuff of military disputes through history, e.g., Elephant Pass – between the Jaffna Peninsula and mainland Sri Lanka, Kadugannawa Pass and Balakaduwa Pass – between the Kandyan Kingdom and the rest of Sri Lanka, the Straits of Malacca between Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, the Suez and Panama Canals, the Straits of Gibraltar, to name only a few.

China cannot afford any restrictions being placed on sea traffic between Dondra Head and the South Pole; her strategy is to secure and dominate these sea lanes to ensure unhindered access to crude oil and raw materials.

This is how the respect, which China’s economically-empowered citizens demand from the world, the Communist Party, in its own economic and political interest has to deliver, manifests itself. It’s a far cry from the taoguang yanghui – hide brightness, nourish obscurity – policy espoused by Deng Xiaoping.


China with its strong yuan is also purchasing real estate and businesses abroad. On a recent visit to Greece, Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang sealed 14 deals, supposed to be the largest Chinese investment package in Europe ranging from construction to telecoms.

The Chinese shipping group Cosco has leased a large part of Greece’s largest container port, a useful entre-port for Chinese goods to European markets. In Ireland the Government is talking with China to develop a 240 hectare industrial park, somewhat on the lines of the one proposed for Mirigama in Sri Lanka, so that Chinese manufacturers could operate inside the European Union free of import quotas and protective tariffs.

In Burma in 2010 alone, China has invested over $ 8 billion, mostly in gas, oil and hydropower, around two-thirds of the aggregate of the last two decades combined. As Vanessa Rossi, expert on China at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, has said: “There’s a mutual benefit here, China needs markets, Europe needs money.”

History repeats itself

Strategically located, in geo-political terms, smaller nations such as Sri Lanka have to realise that it is no longer that gentle ‘Konde Bandapu Cheena’ (Chinaman with a pony tail) of yore, nor the Chinese Dental Mechanic, nor the Lucky Stores Mudalali they are dealing with, but with a powerful, aggressive, assertive and demanding world power.

More like the fabled ‘Middle Kingdom,’ the Imperial China of the 1400s when Admiral Cheng Ho came to Galle with a fleet of seagoing giant Sampans, kidnapped members of the royal family and left behind a memorial plaque, in Chinese, Tamil and Persian.

The original is at the Colombo Museum, a copy at the Galle Museum. At that time in history, the world’s most powerful economies were those of China’s Middle Kingdom and India’s Mughal Empire. History has a way of repeating itself.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

Recent columns