State, Society and Governance in Melanesia

There is almost no similarity to, or continuity with, the Chinese in Papua New Guinea now and the Chinese of the 1930s who, even if born in New Guinea, held a certificate of registration of an alien on which the bearer was identified by his thumb print. The Chinese were then a minority, largely unprotected by a home government, subject to petty discrimination, deliberately avoiding party politics and only entering the public arena to make a general show of being loyal citizens in such events as the Rabaul Empire Day parade.

The Chinese in Papua New Guinea now outnumber Australians by two to one; some are backed by a powerful government in China which is extending its global political and economic reach, and some have connections to other governments in Southeast Asia; they are engaged in billion dollar resource projects; they have joined vigorously in public debate, hiring high competence in public relations, and one of the major resource firms owns a national daily newspaper which is partisan when the interests of any activities of the parent company are an issue; and they have become involved in public decision-making from the highest to the lowest levels.

Some influence on decision-making is the appropriate lobbying of those with a case to argue; some of the payments made to political parties are within the range that individuals and companies normally contribute in democratic systems; but just from what is on the public record in the courts and the ombudsman’s reports a few Chinese change or subvert government decisions by corrupting elected and appointed officials.

The very presence of so many illegal migrants working in jobs where they do not have the appropriate licence is indicative of widespread low-level violation of government regulation. From the evidence presented in 1987 and 1989 to the T. E. Barnett enquiry into corruption in the forestry industry, and from latter reports and practices in other countries, the timber industry has long been rife with malpractice.

It must seem ironical to the original companies that developed the Panguna and Ok Tedi mines that the Ramu nickel and cobalt mine appears to have violated the established standards for international companies: providing fair wages and conditions for local workers, employing and training a maximum number of local workers, not importing unskilled workers, paying a reasonable return to local governments, ensuring just compensation for landowners, and conducting pre-production environmental impact studies.

Outside commentators have to be careful not to accuse the Chinese of illegal or undesirable actions as though they are the only national group involved. The Chinese stand out because they are new, numerous and involved in the largest and most public ventures, not because they are the most venal. Commentators also have to accept the obvious: the Chinese have every right to pursue national, company and personal goals in Papua New Guinea. Scrutiny of legality, morality and mutual benefit to Papua New Guineans must be applied equally to all foreigners.

Four final observations. First, states, such as Papua New Guinea, where the bureaucracy has difficulty enforcing policy and where officials and politicians from Waigani to local level governments are vulnerable to large and small inducements, have great difficulty getting a fair return on their resources or even controlling the composition of their own population; and once bribes have been paid the erosion of institutional strength and civil trust is rapid. Secondly, China will continue to play an increasingly important role in the region.

The issue is not whether it exercises greater influence but how and in what direction. Thirdly, Australia continues to speak – and issue reports – as though it is not just the dominant player in the region but virtually the only big player, that this is where the rest of the world expects Australia to have expertise, and where Australia provides most aid, guides development and intervenes at times of natural and man-made disasters. When Papua New Guineans suggest that they do not want to be beholden to Australians and that there are alternatives, this is scarcely taken seriously in Australia. It should be, and in future it will have to be.

Failure to recognize growing Chinese engagement in Papua New Guinea was apparent in recent statements by the Australian government and opposition. The Defence Update of 2007 in its review of Australia’s strategic environment drew attention to China as a ‘driver of economic activity both regionally and globally’, the importance of United States-Japan-China relationships, the vulnerability of the Papua New Guinea state suffering from problems of governance, law and order, weak job creation and poor delivery of health and education services. But it did not consider the significance of China and its growing economic and strategic power as a player in Papua New Guinea.

Speaking at the Lowy Institute on 5 July 2007, Kevin Rudd, Leader of the Opposition, claimed that the time had come ‘for a fundamental rethink of the direction of Australia’s development assistance strategy’ and he set out a ‘long-term Pacific Partnership for Development and Security’. The seven-point approach to foster primary education, better health care, infrastructure, youth unemployment, business development, better governance and improved law and order was to be negotiated between Australia and each island state.

The program did not mention the role of the Chinese or the need to consider or engage any other national or international donors. Fourthly, Papua New Guineans resent what they see as migrants taking jobs and business opportunities, buying favours and taking wealth out of the country. It is possible that Australia will one day have to intervene to protect Chinese migrants whose lives and property are under threat. The targeting of Chinese – many innocent of involvement in the precipitating events – was apparent in the riots in Nuku’alofa and Honiara in 2006. Perhaps Australia will fly any endangered Chinese to Manus or Nauru: that would indeed be a Pacific solution


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