Traces of China Everywhere In The Solomon Islands
In recent years, China has rapidly expanded its influence in the South Pacific. Solomon Islands’ relations with China are at the forefront of other South Pacific island nations. VOA reporters Leah and Kujima recently visited the Solomon Islands to learn about China’s presence and influence there.
At the grocery store on either side of the only main road in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, although there is no Chinese on the façade, you can see the Chinese faces behind the cash register when you walk in.
Locals say the shops are almost all Chinese-owned, especially in Chinatown. Almost all of these shopkeepers are from the Jiangmen area of Guangdong Province.
Solomon Islands Chinese are everywhere
Liu Ze, secretary general of the Solomon Islands Chinese Chamber of Commerce, told VOA reporters about the historical origins of this
“More than a hundred years ago, a British company in Tulagi invited five Chinese from the Jiangmen region of Guangdong to come here and cook for them, or to be carpenters. Until World War II, around 41 years, wasn’t this side ready for war? The British company evacuated the Chinese who had become a family to Australia, and a few Chinese who did not have a family stayed in Solomon, and then fought with the British army and took charge of some auxiliary work. Then at the end of World War II, when the battle was won, they began to open shops in Tulaji, because when some wartime materials came over, they were not as tightly controlled as they were here. Just after opening a shop here, I found that the profit was very good. After changing the capital, these older families began to expand their businesses and then called a lot of people from their hometowns,” he said.
In addition to the old Chinese who have long taken root here, many Chinese who have set up shops here have come here to make a living because of their relatives one or two decades ago. They are mainly concentrated in the capital region, but in the most populous province of The Solomon Islands, Mareta, we also see a lot of Chinese-owned shops.
In recent years, there have also been people like Liu Ze who come here to invest in projects and open restaurants. At present, there is no authoritative statistics on how many Chinese are in the Solomon Islands, some estimate 3,000, some say 5,000 or 6,000.
After China established diplomatic relations with the Solomon Islands in 2019, it was mainly large state-owned enterprises and their employees like China Civil Engineering (CCECC), China Railways (CRCC) and China Harbor (CHEC). These works are mainly in Honiara.
Michelle Lam is a native Of Solomon Islands, but does not speak Chinese. In the early years, her parents applied for teaching here from Hong Kong and never left the area.
“If you’re in this country, they [the Chinese] are everywhere,” she said. They run shops, do business, and move around. But you can’t call them China’s presence here. It’s just people doing their job. When they came up with the phrase ‘China’s presence,’ I think they were referring to Chinese state-owned enterprises that do some of the work here. ”
The 2023 South Pacific Games stadium project, which China has built in the Solomon Islands, is one of the most obvious examples of China’s presence here.
China Civil Engineering won five of the seven projects for the massive project through a public tender. At the same time, the company is also responsible for the construction of half of the only main road in Honiara, and the other half is built by Japanese companies. It is also undertaking an airport renovation project in the Western Solomon Islands Province.
Next to the stadium, China Harbor is building a branch campus of the University of the South Pacific, but this is not an aid project.
China is taking over the infrastructure industry
Some locals believe That China is taking over the infrastructure industry here.
Bob Pollard, who served as chairman of Transparency International’s Solomon Islands division, is currently the general manager of Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands, a company dedicated to helping local villagers.
“Take the construction industry here, for example, it has been taken over by China Civil Engineering Group Co., Ltd., and there are companies like China Harbor,” he said.
Ricky Fuo’o, president of the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also spoke about China’s impact in the construction industry in an interview with VOA.
“The construction industry is definitely one of the major industries that we’re seeing a lot of impact, and they’re really dominant now,” he said. There are a lot of Chinese companies, construction companies coming into this country, we don’t have a way to compete with them in terms of price, the huge size of the company is there, these companies are big. This is one of the industries we see that is slowly infiltrating and taking over. ”
Pollard, general manager of the Solomon Islands Pacific Coconut Company, believes that even if the tender is passed, it is unfair to other companies because of the connection between the Chinese state-owned company and the Chinese government.
“I think it’s a real concern because if you’re doing big construction and they’re bidding, I don’t think it’s a level playing field because of these companies, who knows how much subsidies they’re getting from the Chinese government?” He said.
But there are also those who don’t see China’s projects in the Solomon Islands that way.
Walton Naezon served as Solomon Islands Minister of Commerce and Minister of Mines.
One of his mining companies is a partner of GSG Mining, which currently mines gold in the Solomon Islands, and is a member of the company’s Board of Directors.
“I don’t think China has taken over the Solomon Islands. I think what people want is for China to develop the Solomon Islands. They are building facilities, utilities, etc. That’s a good thing for this country. I’m pleased that most of the investments China makes in public real estate here are not loans. What they’re offering is aid money,” he said.
While everyone can see the vast projects undertaken by Chinese companies, little is known about them and the purpose for which they are being built.
Lin Wenshen, who used to work for China Harbor, said this has something to do with some of the practices of Chinese companies.
“They said they were only here to do construction work. They don’t blend in with [the locals] at all. When I was working at China Harbor Company, the discipline in their station was very strict. They let people come to work. They basically work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep. They have zero tolerance for social activities, basically to avoid cultural misunderstandings, getting into trouble, etc. ”
When VOA reporters tried to interview the person in charge at the construction site of the South Pacific University campus under the China Harbor Company, a young site commander was going to give us an audio interview, but after asking his boss, he refused to do so.
A staff member at the Chinese civil company even tried to prevent us from filming outside their project, saying the background belonged to their company.
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