Samoa: Will the island be ‘exploited’ by Chinese firms?
Samoa is no stranger to colonisation. In 1830 Christian missionaries destroyed the Samoan religion; Germany ruled Western Samoa from 1899 until 1914; and after that the country passed over to New Zealand’s rule. It was not until 1962 that Western Samoa gained autonomy again, changing its name to Samoa, formally, in 1997.
However, despite independence, Western culture has maintained a strong presence in island life. The latest dilemma for Samoa, thrown up by the economic forces of globalisation, is how to deal with Chinese interest in Oceania’s potential for tourism.
The attempts to utilise the plentiful land, scenic beaches and comparatively weak economies of Oceania has already received much attention and analysis. Terence Wesley-Smith highlighted the interest of Beijing’s firms in Oceania in his 2007 policy paper ‘China in Oceania: New Forces in Pacific Politics’. In contrast to those fearing a neo-colonisation, Wesley-Smith argued that China’s interest offers significant opportunities to Oceania not otherwise available. In particular, Wesley-Smith focused attention on China’s aim to gain support from the islands.
It would be naïve to claim that this aim is being successfully achieved yet. It is clear from the comments of Samoan political figures that Chinese presence and interest remains a tense issue. Furthermore, a recent offer made to Samoa by a Chinese firm reveals just how much the islands of Oceania are expected to give up in return for foreign investment.
The latest controversy in Samoan-Chinese relations centres on the Beijing Investment Zhao Yi Li Management Company and their intention to build hotels and casinos in Apia, Samoa. This company is expecting a lot from Samoa in return for coming to the island, namely a land lease for 160 years and tax exemptions. Crucially, anyone wondering if the arrival of hotels and casinos would at least provide significant employment opportunities for residents of Apia can think again. The Beijing Investment Zhao Yi Li Management Company is also demanding the right to bring across 30,000 of its own workers. These workers must be allowed over for at least three years and will also get to live in Samoa tax-free.
“Ridiculous” was how the Samoan leader of the opposition, Palusalue Faapo II, described such demands, when he spoke to Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat. Faapo went on to claim that such businesses assume Samoa is so “desperate for investors” it can be “easily exploited”.
Faapo also highlighted the fact that the Chinese firm would be bringing over their own buildings materials, again limiting the economic benefits this investment would have for Samoan employment and local industries. Some reports have claimed that the company also wanted land for an airport, a hospital, a school and a nursery. It has also been claimed that the firm has requested the right to make sure only the Chinese workers brought over could use these facilities.
One of the many grounds for objecting to such requests is the feared loss of Samoa’s most beautiful lands. Faapo told Radio Australia that he believes, for hotels and casinos, the Beijing Investment Zhao Yi Li Management Company will want Samoa’s beaches.
“Samoa won’t be able to easily lease these lands to these Chinese people,” Faapo warned.
Faapo’s interview with Radio Australia, whilst highlighting a passionate protection of Samoan interests, also reveals underlying racial tensions. Faapo does repeatedly highlight the nationality ‘Chinese’. At one point, he claimed: “It is our duty to ensure that these people are genuine… to ensure that these Chinese are good people.” Regardless of whether it is one Chinese firm or many, such speech is not likely to be conducive to positive race relations between the two countries.
The issue of Chinese investment appears to have divided the prominent political figures in Samoa somewhat. In total contrast to Faapo’s fighting talk are the actions of Samoa’s current Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sa’ilele. The PM kept a visit by the Beijing Zhao Yi Li Investment Management Company secret. However, Sa’ilele has defended his actions and also referred to the Chinese firm as ‘stupid’.
“I kept this from the media because I know that once the media hears about this, then they are full of smart people who will go and waste time asking stupid questions to stupid companies like this,” PM Sa’ilele told reporters.
The Samoan government will not be entertaining any such demands as those made by the Beijing Zhao Yi LI Investment Company, revealed PM Sa’ilele, when speaking to New Zealand’s Radio Samoa.
This incident is only the latest attempt to invest in Samoa’s potential for tourism. In early 2013 a Chinese group were granted 202 hectares of land near Apia to build a hotel and golf course. However, these plans have since been delayed due to internal issues within the Chinese firm.