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Chinese in Jamaica: xenophobia or justified concern?

Published:Sunday | March 9, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Dr Orville Taylor, Contributor

In an editorial on Thursday, March 6, this newspaper reflected the expressed concern by University of the West Indies professor, Anthony Chen, that comments by opinion shapers could lead to xenophobia and attacks on Chinese in this country.

True, there is precedent for such incidents, but one has to apply an understanding of what could lead to such feelings instead of simply suggesting that the opposition of quasi-racists might be the catalyst.

Xenophobia is defined as "an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange". Key here is the word 'unreasonable' because it implies that there is no rational basis for the anxiety.

At the individual level, it, like all phobias, is relatively harmless. However, when xenophobia is a cultural or societal norm, it leads to conflicts and all manner of evil against the 'foreigners'. Nonetheless, it is not as strange a phenomenon as one thinks.

On the contrary, it is based on a relatively natural reaction of animals to threats to their very survival.

Some animals, such as wolves, lions and other predators which live in groups, will defend their territories to death, in the preservation of their gene pool, and access to food and water. Among chimpanzees, who share 98 to 99 per cent of our DNA, the repelling of intruders can be fierce and fatal, and their mercilessness gives the lie to the myth that, unlike man, animals only kill for food.

Man is an animal, and we have the same issues of survival as any other mammal. Thus, racism, xenophobia and prejudices are all anchored in material circumstances. Celebrated 'blackademic',

Cornel West, noted that the notion of the inferiority of dark-skinned people is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was when the Europeans needed to validate their quest and conquests that they constructed these ideas. Indeed, there were three black Popes, the most powerful position in Christendom, before 1000 AD. However, by the 1000 to 1100s, the Arabs had enslaved Africans and, disregarding the fact that the first Islamic apostle, Bilal, was black, created ideas of their inhumanity to support their subjugation.

Racist attitudes arise when control of material resources is at stake, touching a raw primordial nerve which we share with our chimpanzee kinfolk, whom some of us resemble more than others.

The history of the black underclass in this
country has been one where they were given the lowest social and
economic from Day One. Then, to rub salt and Scotch bonnet pepper in
their plantation-made wounds, every single lighter-skinned immigrant
group arriving afterwards was placed above them in: social prestige,
access to land, education, decent jobs, and loans from

These were the underlying factors that led to
myriad uprisings, including the Chinese riots, where these hard-working
Jamaican merchants, who did nothing except accept the opportunities
provided by post-colonial society, were unfairly targeted by the black
masses in 1965 because two of their ethnic group had allegedly
physically abused a worker. This was in a country where the abuse of
workers and the historical antecedents of slavery are still connected

Government to blame

The riots were
caused by the failure and betrayal on the part of the post-1944
democratically elected governments to keep the promise of an egalitarian
society with opportunities and protection for the

Therefore, as my esteemed and venerated
senior colleague warned, there is indeed reason to fear that
anti-Chinese sentiments and behaviour might erupt. However, if that
happens, it is again the fault of Government. Like the post-Independence
administration, it is blinding itself to the fact that this is a black
country, built on a principle of nominal equality, irrespective of race
or ethnicity. Yet, although, 'Out of Many, One People', the picture of
the children on the back of our currency show black children as a
statistical minority, demonstrating the real distribution of

Nonetheless, given my principles of
egalitarianism and nationalism, my loyalty is to the Jamaican people -
on the whole. Despite my own Afrocentrism, I place no African nation or
national above any Jamaican, including my Jamaican Chinese friends. I am
Jamaican first, and African after, and have long dissented with my
Rastafarian 'bredren'.

Such is also the responsibility
of Government: Jamaica and Jamaicans first. Poor with 16 per cent
unemployment, yet we have entrenched democracy and fundamental workers'
rights. Selling out of this will lead to increased social disquiet. With
the number of work permits to Chinese increasing and the waiving of
visitor visas, it is not difficult to understand that the average worker
could feel threatened by the 87 million unemployed

Work permits

Many questions have already been raised
about the rare skills that Chinese work permit holders possess in order
to open wholesale stores selling Jamaican goods. Also, there have been
allegations of pre-1938 and 1965 anti-worker behaviour by these

These new-wave Chinese are not
Jamaicans and do not yet understand our culture. China's labour history
and environment are very different from ours. We built our nation on the
back of organised labour. Interestingly, the Chinese, known for
imitation and innovation, are following the model of the British between
1770 and 1870, as they built their wealth from imperialism, unequal
trade relations, and the subjection of their labour force to horrendous

In the mid-1800s, labour organising was
illegal and inducing strikes could lead to long sentences. The
difference is, this is the 21st century, and such traditions cannot be
replicated here without consequences.

As regards the
Goat Islands project, there has been too little openness. This breeds
mistrust and resentment, especially if the jobless think that they are
being taken for fools. Nevertheless, if the evidence of the promised
increase in decent work is fulfilled, and the Chinese come with money
and a respect for our labour laws and history, the only war will be the
warbar, which combines different meats into a wonderful

I might be wrong, but I'm sticking my Chin

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in
sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to
columns@gleanerjm.com and