The Chinese – Not Tourists But A Growing Labour Workforce
Text and Pictures by Dinouk Colombage
Tens of thousands of Chinese have been in and out of Sri Lanka in the past year, 2011. Highly placed sources at the Ministry of Tourism speaking on conditions of anonymity to The Sunday Leader said that as many as 60,000 Chinese nationals had arrived last year for purposes of work on Chinese funded projects. Of this number a minimum of 9,000 remain in the country.
Officially, however, the ministry has been forced to maintain that these numbers comprise of a significant rise in “tourist” arrivals from China to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka boasted that in 2011 over 90,000 tourists arrived from China. This, the ministry claims, is an increase by 15 percent from the previous year.
But the reality is that these Chinese arrivals are not interested in sunning themselves on Sri Lanka’s golden beaches or climbing Sigiriya or photographing the relics in the cultural triangle or even engaging in bird and leopard watching. They are in fact arriving in their numbers – tens of thousands – as labour contracted to work on China’s expanding network of development and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.
All over the South and in the city the sight of Chinese workers has increased in recent months. In Hambantota it is reported that temporary settlements have been setup to accommodate the growing amount of foreign labour.
The billion dollar project involving the construction of the Hambantota port has seen China take the lead role. The Far Eastern nation is calling the shots on the construction of not only the port but also the airport and the convention centre. The workers for these projects have originated not from Sri Lanka but from China. A local labour force remains underutilised numbering in the thousands.
Funding for these projects has come mainly from the China Export-Import Bank. The loans have been given with interest rates varying from 2 percent to 6 percent, while the grace period is a short three years. Repayment of these loans is expected within 15 to 20 years.
They may seem the generous neighbour, but in reality China is simply lending us money which is going right back into their own construction companies and its workers’ pockets.
In Colombo the signs of a growing number of Chinese workers can be seen at the BMICH construction site. Upon visiting the site, The Sunday Leader saw Chinese nationals operating in capacities varying from menial labour to supervisors. The absence of local workers was noticeable.
With the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war and China’s growing role regionally, the country has become a site of great interest for the Communist state. China continues to step up its involvement in the Indian Ocean region; this has seen them increase their presence in its trade routes. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Hong Kong have all had ports constructed by the Chinese. Sri Lanka is the newest addition, making the chain complete.
The country now faces the prospect of going down a path similar to that seen in African states such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique. These nations all have one thing in common, governments accused of corruption and inept politicians. As China looks to build its influence around the world, Sri Lanka is proving to be an attractive option.
In Zimbabwe the government has implemented a ‘Look East’ policy which is designed at expanding trade with countries in the Far East including China, Malaysia and South Korea. In recent years this policy has focussed on only China while excluding the other nations.
Despite President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s claims that Sri Lanka is looking to improve relations in the region, only its ties with China have increased. Earlier this year China overtook Japan as Sri Lanka’s largest donor. In the last year China has given over $1 billion in assistance, compared to the US and UK giving $7.5 million and £1.25 million respectively. Of course much of the so-called assistance is in the form of loans with interest.
Those in favour of China’s growing role in Sri Lanka argue that they keep India at bay. Sri Lanka’s big brother to the north seems to have been forced to take a step back due to supposed ‘improved’ relations between China and Sri Lanka. It now remains to be seen whether or not Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa government has simply replaced one meddling neighbour with another.