What happens to a poor, forgotten nation when China rushes in?

The construction site for a Chinese-funded stadium complex in Honiara, Solomon Islands. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONIARA, Solomon Islands – Down a dirt road outside the Solomon Islands’ capital city, past Chinese construction projects and shops where Chinese merchants sell snacks and clothes, a tribal chief tried to explain what it feels like to have a rising superpower suddenly take an interest in a poor, forgotten place.

“At first,” said the chief, Mr Peter Kosemu, 50, as he sat in the shade on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands, “most people just wanted to see what was going on.”

When the Solomons cut ties with Taiwan in 2019, China rushed in, opening a large embassy, breaking ground on a stadium complex for the 2023 Pacific Games, and signing secretive deals with the government on security, aviation, telecommunications and more.

Many islanders likened it to watching carpenters waltz unannounced into your kitchen, drawing up plans, tearing down and building, with little explanation.

But what started as curiosity has turned, for many, into a source of deep concern, raising questions about China’s you-should-be-grateful approach to the developing world.

Workers at the stadium, including many who commute from wood-slat houses in the area where Mr Kosemu lives, complain about unfulfilled promises on pay.

Politicians who resisted China’s plans, or just asked tough questions, have reported that their rivals are suddenly flush with money and pro-China messages. Community leaders regularly hear neighbours condemn the prime minister and Chinese officials for undermining democracy.

“There’s no proper consultation with the people,” Mr Kosemu said. “No one is happy about it.”

Brash and unliked

For years, Beijing has thrown its wealth and weight across the globe to fuel its economy, gain geopolitical influence and blunt criticism. The Solomon Islands has often been portrayed by Chinese state media as a model of what China’s international efforts can accomplish, suggesting an unstoppable march toward dominance by America’s main competitor.

“Chinese modernisation offers humanity a new choice,” China’s leader Xi Jinping said in late October at the Communist Party congress in Beijing, when he secured a third term and was beginning to re-engage China with the world after a Covid-19 hiatus.

But in the Solomons, a country of about 700,000 people and 1,000 islands that sit in the sea lanes between Australia and the United States, recent experience undercuts Beijing’s confident, money-driven approach to expanding its power around the globe.

Some US officials worry that China’s goal in the Solomons is to create a client state, securing deep water ports and satellite communication sites that could surveil or stymie military operations by Australia and the United States in the event of a war over Taiwan. The country’s prime minister signed a security deal in April that gives China a right to send police officers or naval vessels to the country with few limitations.

Because of strong-arm tactics such as these, surveys show, negative views of China are soaring around the world.

“China is much less successful than is commonly assumed,” said Ms Audrye Wong, a political scientist at the University of Southern California who focuses on Chinese foreign policy. “They think paying off people is a quicker and more efficient way of achieving the things the Chinese government wants. The reality is it often creates a backlash and doesn’t work.”

‘They don’t understand us’

Every day just before 6pm, workers stream out of the stadium complex in the capital, Honiara, that is being built by a Chinese state-owned company with what officials have described as a generous US$50 million (S$66 million) grant from the Chinese government.

The signs out front boast of friendship, cooperation and safety in Chinese and English. But after work recently, at a snack stand across the street, employees called all of that a lie.

“Everyone wants to strike because of the poor payment and lack of safety,” said Mr Lenny Olea, 35, a driver. “We need to get this fixed.”

Mr Olea said he was making US$1.20 an hour less than what he used to make at a hotel after promises of extra money for food and transportation never materialised.

A dozen others said that they received no safety training and that their Chinese foremen communicated with sign language and hit them in the head if they got something wrong.

“They don’t understand us,” Mr Olea said.

Since the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare switched allegiance to Beijing, more Chinese companies have set up in the Solomons, buying everything from mines to grocery stores and gas stations.

Islanders often tell stories of warm interactions with Chinese merchants who migrated decades ago. But many complain that newer arrivals treat workers (and customers) like peons – owners often ring up sales from a platform that lets them tower over all who enter.

Seeing such tensions, some provincial leaders have resisted Chinese investment.

In an interview at his office, the premier of Malaita province, Mr Daniel Suidani, explained that he had welcomed projects from Japan and other countries but blocked attempts by China to do infrastructure work because he had not seen it add any real value elsewhere in the country.

He said Chinese officials had worked with politicians in Parliament seeking to undermine him, funnelling aid to their districts, rather than asking him about what the province needed.

“I’m not stopping them, to come and have a good call here or a talk with me,” he added. “But so far, the truth is no one has come.”

‘This is state capture’

Outside the Chinese embassy, posters show splashy renderings of future projects and photos of Mr Sogavare with Chinese officials. It all has the feel of a movie theatre marquee, with Mr Sogavare as the star.

A black belt in karate, known for being charming and volatile, he has grown more combative as he has become more intertwined with Chinese projects and pressures. After watching Chinese police officers train with Solomon Islands officers for the first time, he declared, “I feel safer.”

Leaked documents point to how the security agreement may have come together. Meeting minutes from the Sogavare government showed that, in August 2021, as public criticism of Mr Sogavare’s cosiness with China intensified, money from the Chinese government went to 39 of 50 members of Parliament from a “national development fund” – about US$25,000 each.

A signed letter from Mr Sogavare, 67, explained that the money came from the Chinese embassy, which “has been consulted on this additional support and have consented to the release of this assistance”.

And China continues to spend and give. A hospital in east Malaita recently received construction materials from Chinese officials. A few months ago, the Chinese ambassador gave a new pickup truck with “China Aid” painted on the side to a small hospital’s psychiatric unit.

Mr Matthew Wale, the opposition leader, said, “This is state capture, happening in real life.”

The US and Australia have tried to counter Chinese influence. Australia will give more than US$100 million in aid to the Solomon Islands this fiscal year. American military doctors also recently performed free surgeries alongside local doctors on an American hospital ship in Honiara’s harbour.

“China never does this kind of thing,” said Dr. Catherine Tirri, 40, as she observed a fistula surgery. “China doesn’t do service.” NYTIMES

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