Chinese community angered hurt


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Category: International 15 May 11

While the city slept, their silhouettes could be seen in a deserted downtown by moonlight, on the skeletons of buildings. They were spotted with their wide-brimmed straw hats disappearing into the white midday heat reminiscent of a distant land (when our people had long slowed down from listless grass-cutting to sitting in the shade). And before we could catch ourselves, buildings mushroomed around Port-of-Spain. We privately agreed that our people can never work like that. Put it down to a brutal history, but we never developed that work ethic and even now, show few signs of it. The rumblings during the Manning administration of exploitation of labour (mingled with a reluctant admiration for the Chinese labourers, and the companies that brought them in) have escalated to a full-throttle, damning cacophony.

Last Sunday, the Guardian reported that Chinese-owned businesses are “mushrooming” with some 310 Chinese restaurants along the Eastern Main Road from Morvant to Sangre Grande alone. Many workers in these new establishments, it was reported, “admitted to having no work permits” with others paying as much as $100,000 to corrupt immigration officers for their papers. We read, too, that immigration officials have begun “hunting down illegal Chinese nationals” who have come into T&T to “slave” in thriving casinos, Chinese supermarkets, restaurants and private members’ clubs, having slipped into the country through porous parts of south Trinidad with the help of an underworld trafficking ring believed to be controlled by a branch of the Chinese Triad—a well-organised criminal gang which exploits poor Chinese immigrants. We read that some 14 of these illegal Chinese nationals were being detained in Wallerfield waiting to be sent back to their homeland.

With over 5,000 years of continuous history, China is one of the world’s oldest civilisations and at 1.3 billion, the world’s most populous country. China has maintained a high growth rate for over 30 years resulting in higher living standards and a sharp fall in poverty from 64 to 14 per cent. By July 2010, there were substantiated claims that China’s economy had overtaken Japan as the world’s second biggest economy. However, a combination of the introduction of the market system, and government policies such as restrictions on rural urban migration and the inability to sell or mortgage rural land has contributed to increasing the inequalities between the well off and the poor which may have contributed to increased migration.

The recent activity has been more surreptitious but now that the cover has been blown, it can damage the image of the small but vibrant local Chinese community of some 7,800 people who have been in Trinidad as long as the Indians and Portuguese, perhaps longer, as the first group arrived in 1806 when the ship, the Fortitude, docked in Port-of-Spain.

Chinese immigrants are known everywhere, including Trinidad, for their entrepreneurial and community spirit and have been recognised as hardworking, family-oriented, a big contribution relative to the size of their population with notable luminaries such as Sir Solomon Hochoy and now, President George Maxwell Richards. I sat down with the Beijing and Cambridge educated Chinese Ambassador Yang Youming who has been in Trinidad since ’09 to hear another version of this story.  Here are excerpts of the interview. 

Q: There has been talk of the Chinese Triad, a well-organised criminal gang, running this ring of illegal immigrants, money laundering and human trafficking. How true is this?

A: The Embassy has no knowledge of a criminal ring. We have not had any reports of trafficking from the police or the Ministry of National Security. That is a matter for the police and immigration to uncover.

The main issue as far as we are concerned is not of illegal immigrants but that of visas expiring while people wait for their visas to be renewed or work permits to be processed. They come here and some stay on. The Chinese government is against illegal immigration. In a globalised scenario it’s a problem countries worldwide, including China, face and deal with all the time. 

Q: What is the current position of the Chinese detainees? Have you heard from the Ministry of National Security and the police?

A: Our consular officer has visited the detainees. We are working with the Ministry of National Security and Foreign Affairs as well as Chinese nationals both to ensure their speedy release, and where relevant, to process their work permits in a timely fashion. We encourage Chinese citizens to abide by local laws and if they violate then they have to go through the local legal process.

Q: China is the second fastest growing economy in the world. Why are your people emigrating?

A: Yes, it’s booming in China but with the opening up of the economy, the competition is tough and people are always looking for more opportunities. The old generation were forced in one way or another to leave their country as indentured labourers or to escape natural disasters. The stereotype is that the immigrants are poor and come from remote areas mentioned in the media reports which is simply not true.

The new generation come here out of their own free will, and often return. They come to look for opportunities in a globalised world. They go everywhere—to Europe, Canada, America, Africa, the Caribbean. With Universal compulsory education of nine years they are literate. Many come from rich provinces and cities. In China we have a tradition of strong family bonds. When a family member leaves to open a business abroad, all the relatives chip in to help, which is unthinkable in other countries. Many arrive with some money to invest so they are not a burden on the State. Many people with US and European passports are also returning to China so it works both ways. It reflects a trend of greater movement of people in a globalised era. 

Q: The Small Business Association has claimed that “the influx of Chinese immigrants setting up shop here has led to the strangulation of small businesses throughout T&T.” Please comment.

A: I think their concern is genuine; I don’t want to see their interest impaired. At the same time, some competition is healthy, as we experienced for the last 30 years when foreign investment and multinationals poured into China. People in China, when they were first exposed to the stiff Western competition, also panicked. But we learned that competition raises the bar. It motivates us to do better. And market forces eventually decide. We, too, have had a continual trickle of immigrants from Europe, India, Africa and other islands in Caricom.

Q: Does the Chinese community feel unfairly targeted?

A: I don’t believe the T&T government has a policy exclusively targeting the Chinese community. On the contrary, at the Chinese Spring Festival’s dinner held by the Prime Minister on February 3 this year, Kamla Persad-Bissessar thanked the Chinese community in here for their great contribution to this country. Our economic relations are also excellent. Our trade in garments, textiles, buses, asphalt and the like currently stands at $400 million annually. One of the world’s largest telecommunication companies Hua Wei employs some 40 people out of which 30 are T&T nationals.

But yes, the Chinese community has been hurt and angered by media reports which they feel is misleading and unfair. You are attaching negative images of illegal immigration, money laundering, drug rings to the Chinese people inferring that the older immigrants are supporting the newer ones in illegal activities. An entire community is tarnished. These are individual cases. The majority of people who come here, come legally through the front door and not the back door as is suggested.

This is also yet another story of globalization, of the twists and turns of nations, of movement of peoples, an emblem of our times. And so, yet another strand of arrivals from the old world stand on the border of our tiny islands where as fate has it, microcosms of continents have always converged. See how they intermingle with our fledgling, vibrant collective identity to form part of our brave new world.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur