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WORLD FOCUS

China's deepening imprint on Myanmar in Mandalay

Trade between China and Myanmar's second-largest city is bustling as Myanmar opens up its economic potential

In a dusty corner of Mandalay, rows of Chinese nationals sit impassively by tables lined with white cloth on a betel-splattered sidewalk. Burmese traders crowd before them, holding up chunks of raw jade or sacks of bangles in a bid to interest them. The prospective buyers scrutinise the offerings, rejecting some with a flick of their finger.

This is a buyer's market, and a symbol of what many locals see as the kind of relationship Myanmar has with its powerful northern neighbour.

For decades, China was the main economic outlet for a Myanmar squeezed by Western sanctions, making it the largest cumulative investor in one of Asean's poorest countries. While Myanmar's transition from military to civilian rule is now opening the door to rival prospectors, China's imprint is deepening in Mandalay.

"People call this place Yunnan- Mandalay," says Mr Win Htay, a vice-president of the Mandalay Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry, referring to the Chinese province bordering Myanmar. "If you do business, and you don't work with Chinese, you simply can't make money."

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Myanmar's second-largest city sits about 450km from the border with China by a major overland artery, along which anything from watermelons and sugar to fertiliser and machinery are transported between the two countries.

The former royal capital, once lined with traditional wooden homes, now bustles with hotpot restaurants and Chinese boutiques selling Duoyi women's fashion, Erke sportswear and Huawei smartphones.

Advertisements for Chinese brands light up downtown Mandalay. The former royal capital, once lined with traditional wooden homes, now bustles with hotpot restaurants and Chinese boutiques selling Duoyi women's fashion, Erke sportswear and Oppo smartp
A food stall at a night market in Mandalay advertises Chinese dishes on its menu. “They like Chinese people here,” said a Chinese construction worker. “We eat with the locals and we relax with them. It’s not difficult for us because they speak Mandarin too.” ST PHOTOS: TAN HUI YEE

Sidewalks by the moat surrounding its painstakingly restored ancient palace throb with the beat of Chinese techno music on mornings when groups of middle-aged women gather for line-dancing.

Yunnan traders are a fixture in Mandalay's sprawling jade market, wheeling and dealing in the Burmese language. Chinese migrant workers haggle in Mandarin with vegetable sellers on the street.

Advertisements for Chinese brands light up downtown Mandalay. The former royal capital, once lined with traditional wooden homes, now bustles with hotpot restaurants and Chinese boutiques selling Duoyi women's fashion, Erke sportswear and Oppo smartp
At the sprawling Mandalay jade market, a Chinese buyer inspects the jade pieces on offer by a Burmese trader. Yunnan traders are a fixture here, wheeling and dealing in the Burmese language. ST PHOTOS: TAN HUI YEE

On a national level, bilateral relations have recovered from a low in 2011, when then President Thein Sein, trying to address concerns about Myanmar's over-dependence on China, suspended work on the controversial China-backed Myitsone hydroelectric dam.

Chinese firms are still waiting to start work on parts of a special economic zone in Rakhine state that was awarded to them in 2015. But current President Htin Kyaw's visit to Beijing last month was capped by an agreement that fired up a 771km-long oil pipeline running from the coast of western Myanmar to the Yunnan capital of Kunming.

"They like Chinese people here," a Chinese construction worker, who gave only his surname Wang, told The Straits Times, after bantering with a vendor in a night market dubbed Mandalay's Chinatown. "We eat with the locals and we relax with them. It's not difficult for us because they speak Mandarin too."

The ethnic Chinese, who officially make up about 5 per cent of the city's 1.4-million population, control some of the biggest businesses around. For example, a 200 billion kyat (S$210 million), 20ha development comprising a mall, condominiums, offices and a five-star hotel called Mingalar Mandalay is being developed by a company founded by Myanmar-born ethnic Chinese entrepreneur Kyaw Kyaw Win.

Many of the second- or third-generation Chinese in Mandalay have their roots in Yunnan, though they are now Myanmar citizens. Yet, China's growing dominance in the region has put them in an awkward spotlight. They are often lumped together with recent arrivals, who were accused of using bribes to get identity documents when Myanmar was still under military rule, allowing them to start businesses and snap up prime property downtown. While various estimates of the influx have been made - including one of 300,000 Chinese in the 1990s - none can be proven.

"In Mandalay, they call us China people," laments Mr Yang Choung Myint, a third-generation Chinese and vice-chairman of the Mandalay Chinese Yunnan Association. "But when we go to China, they call us foreigners."

Advertisements for Chinese brands light up downtown Mandalay. The former royal capital, once lined with traditional wooden homes, now bustles with hotpot restaurants and Chinese boutiques selling Duoyi women's fashion, Erke sportswear and Oppo smartp
Advertisements for Chinese brands light up downtown Mandalay. The former royal capital, once lined with traditional wooden homes, now bustles with hotpot restaurants and Chinese boutiques selling Duoyi women’s fashion, Erke sportswear and Oppo smartphones. ST PHOTOS: TAN HUI YEE

On the ground, antipathy towards the Chinese is partly triggered by their wealth, but also coloured by the fear that China will export its pollutive industries and inferior products to Myanmar. "They do not protect the environment," says Mr Myo Naing Soe, a 27-year-old tour guide.

Mandalay mayor Ye Lwin, in an interview with The Straits Times, related how he had been approached by a Chinese company to build a solar energy plant in the city. He added: "For solar panels, quality is very important."

Among other things, Dr Ye Lwin hopes to eventually introduce a waste-to-energy plant, a real-time traffic light control system and a fibre-optic network in the city. But he will not rush into awarding projects to companies.

Advertisements for Chinese brands light up downtown Mandalay. The former royal capital, once lined with traditional wooden homes, now bustles with hotpot restaurants and Chinese boutiques selling Duoyi women's fashion, Erke sportswear and Oppo smartp
Chinese nationals at a Mandalay night market. China’s growing dominance in the region has put second- or third-generation Chinese in Mandalay in an awkward spotlight. They are often lumped together with recent arrivals, who were accused of using bribes to get identity documents when Myanmar was still under military rule, allowing them to start businesses and snap up prime property downtown. ST PHOTOS: TAN HUI YEE

"I will not allow a Chinese 'invasion'," he said. "There will be an equal chance for all."

In the meantime, Mandalay's Chinese hope bilateral relations will get cosier. "If China and Myanmar's relations get better, the local Chinese will benefit too," says Mr Myint Naing, director of the Mandalay Overseas Chinese Service Centre. "People would not resent us."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2017, with the headline 'China's deepening imprint on Myanmar in Mandalay'. Print Edition | Subscribe