Sun | Dec 9, 2018

Carol Archer | Question gifts from Chinese

Published:Sunday | September 2, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The new government of Malaysia, led by Mahathir Mohamad, has started a movement that the current Jamaican Government and/or Opposition should view prudently. According to a New York Times article published on August 20, 2018, the 93-year-old Mohamad was voted into office with a mandate to reduce the country's debt a good portion of which is owed to Chinese companies and government. The debt mounted as the previous administration received easy loans for showcase projects and signed deals that were of strategic value mainly for the Chinese and the pockets of Najib Razak and his party colleagues.

While in Kuala Lumpur in February 2018 for the UN Habitat World Urban Forum, I had the opportunity to question some of my Malaysian urban-planning colleagues about the urban development that had taken place since my last visit in 2004. In my view, it seemed that Mr Razak, who came to power in 2004, kept the vision of sustainable urban development that led to the development of Putrajaya - the newest city to be built in Malaysia at the time.

However, my esteemed colleagues pointed out that the sustainable development path was hijacked by decision makers influenced by easily accessible Chinese investment.

One of the most scandalous projects was the urban development of Kuantan. This port city, located on the eastern side of the Malayan peninsula, received significant Chinese investment to create a deepwater port, expand the rail network, and construct artificial islands off its coastline. The New York Times reporter alleged that the artificial islands were to house more than 500,000 residents, many of whom were Chinese. This allegation was made because in mainland China, developers marketed the city of Kuantan as a new residential location for Chinese.

As reported in The New York Times on August 20, 2018, Prime Minister Mohamad, during a visit to China, spoke plainly to indicate to the Chinese government that "we do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries".

Mohamad was acutely aware of the type of unsustainable urban development taking place in the city of Kuantan and cities in other developing countries. There is enough empirical and anecdotal evidence from across the globe to suggest that governments and citizens of developing countries must seriously question Chinese investments in major infrastructure and urban development-related projects. Certainly, here in Jamaica, given our colonial and neo-colonial experiences, we should at least question whether the next generation should be indebted based on the type of urban development our Government seeks to pursue and the terms and conditions associated with some investments that our Government agreed to.

No doubt, Prime Minister Mohamad took note of recent occurrences in Sri Lanka where a Chinese state-owned company took control of a deepwater port, which they built. The Sri Lankan government used loan funds from a Chinese company to construct the port. However, the investment failed to attract the much-touted businesses and the Chinese company took control of the port and adjoining land through a forced 99-year lease agreement.

In addition to the questionable development in Kuantan, there are at least three other cities in Malaysia where the 100-day-old Mohamad government halted Chinese-led investments and construction. These are all port cities in and around the South China Sea, including the city of Malacca. The geopolitical sensitivity of these cities cannot be overlooked. Malacca is strategically located in a strait bordering Indonesia, East Timor, Singapore, and Thailand. A strong Chinese foothold in port cities of countries in the South China Sea can and will influence geopolitical decisions in Asia and the rest of the world.

Given the current state of urban development in South East Asia as outlined above, the governments of Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean should have open and frank discussions about our current and future relationship with China. Our researchers, scholars, policymakers and others who shape public opinion should provide the necessary evidence to inform the public about advantages and disadvantages of large infrastructure and other urban development.

Kudos to the fellows of the Jamaica Institute of Architects and the Construction Industry Council for questioning the role of the Chinese in the redevelopment of downtown Kingston. It is now up to the Government to provide clarity on the role and responsibility of the state-owned Chinese company in downtown Kingston redevelopment.

If/when the Government provides the clarity, we as a society can then decide if the future generation should be entangled with this mortgage. Malaysians decided that they could not afford the mortgage associated with unsustainable development of Malaysian cities driven by Chinese investment.

Within the first 100 days, the 93-year-old Mohamad made significant strides on the mandate given to him. He not only halted the white elephant projects, but also insisted on forensic audits of the mega projects.

There is enough evidence throughout the developing world - Malaysia, Ghana, Kenya, Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Peru, Bahamas, to name a few - where there has been questionable unsustainable urban development spurred by Chinese investment for Jamaica to be prudent about our approach to the Chinese investing in our urban development .

- Carol Archer is associate professor of urban and regional planning, University of Technology, Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerj.com.