Local out fishing for the family dinner on the beach in Savaii, Samoa
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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.

So why has this interest in Samoa been subject to deals falling through or ‘ridiculous’ demands? It is worth pointing out that, with a population of only 180,000, any serious or attractive investment in Samoa may seem somewhat unlikely. Instead it would appear that in order to make such ventures profitable, high demands would be put forward to Samoa.

Interestingly, of Samoa’s 180,000 residents, 30,000 are of mixed Samoan and Chinese descent. There are also many Chinese nationals currently residing in Samoa. Chinese settlement in Samoa dates back to the 1870s and was fostered by trading arrangements during this period. However, the relationship between Samoa and Chinese authorities has encountered many tensions over history.

In 1880, Samoa’s paramount chief, Malietoa Laupepa, banned Chinese settlers. This ban was lifted 19 years later when German rulers wanted to ship in Chinese labourers. Most labourers were men, who often took Samoan wives until a ban came in place in 1931 that made it illegal for Chinese men and Samoan women to have any interaction.

Looking back over the history of Samoan and Chinese relations also reveals the support Samoa has received from China. In 1994, the construction of the Samoan government office in Apia received funding from China and, more recently, several other government constructions have been built using funds from China.

China has helped Samoa and shares a long, complicated history with the island. Yet the economic imbalance between the two countries means modern-day interactions could lead to Samoa being exploited, depending on how Samoan leaders choose to respond. The underlying racial tensions implied by Faapo’s speech must be quite difficult for the many Chinese nationals living in Samoa, as well as for the many Samoans who are of Chinese descent, to hear.

A very telling summary of the current feelings towards the Chinese in Samoa was revealed when, in 2005, the deputy leader of the Samoan Democratic United Party, Aeau Peniamina said “there are too many Chinese in the country.” The current Minister of Tourism at that time, Joe Keil is of part-Chinese descent. He swiftly rebutted Peniamina’s comment.

Claire Farrell

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Claire Farrell is a trained journalist with experience of editing a quarterly industry journal and has previously worked on the editorial teams for the official publications of the Commonwealth Secretariat. She is currently undertaking postgraduate study in modern and contemporary literature, culture and thought at the University of Sussex.

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