Just the nickel, please

China's new power in the Pacific

The plumes of our bird have a history that holds a mirror to this country and reflects onto it not our character, but the character of colonists and traders, the collectors, the naturalists, the bounty hunters – and it is their view of us, mirrored on to us, that is given as our own.
Drusilla Modjeska, The Mountain (Random House, 2012)


AN EASY WAY to get noticed in ‘policy circles’ is to write about how Australia and New Zealand are losing the Commonwealth nations of the Pacific to China. This geopolitical feeding frenzy draws in secret satellite dishes, bugs in submarine cables, a battle with Taiwan for votes, and President Xi Jinping’s grand-strategy-cum-bumper-sticker called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that now seems to cover everything China does abroad. Beneath the blaring headlines lies a question: does the Commonwealth resonate at all for Chinese people recently arrived in the Pacific? Are Chinese actors looking to build a new commonwealth in the Pacific, based on the BRI’s principles of ‘peace and co-operation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit’?

This question was far from my mind some fifteen years back, when I travelled to China’s frontiers of Xinjiang and Tibet seeking out juicy lamb kebabs, palatable yak-butter tea and, most importantly, clean bathrooms to service the needs of picky North American guidebook readers. As a former inorganic chemist who had picked up the Chinese language largely by watching soap operas, it wasn’t obvious at the time I’d end up as the lead researcher on a project called ‘The impacts of Chinese aid and development projects on governance in PNG’. Funded by a piece of the ever-shrinking AusAID research pie (before we were through, AusAID would cease to exist altogether, subsumed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the ‘national interest’), our team of a legal scholar, a historian and a recovering chemist were driven by a simple, burning question: what is China up to in the Pacific?

A Senate committee convened in the dying days of the Howard government had released the report China’s Emergence: Implications for Australia with an entire chapter dedicated to the south-west Pacific. It made for bleak reading. Expert after analyst after strategist took to the microphone to warn that China held ‘lavish receptions’, was ‘heading straight for the jugular’ and gave ‘unconditional aid and various perks’ to ‘fragile tiny states’ that were ‘cheap for Beijing to buy’. Finally, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer himself told of ‘unseemly competition within the South Pacific between China and Taiwan over recognition’ that ‘we’d rather not see’. Was it that bad?


I SET UP shop in the gorgeous but rapidly fading tourist town of Madang, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, safe within the well-manicured lawns of Divine Word University, where the sun of the British Commonwealth was yet to set. Horlicks, Akta-Vite and bully beef were on the shelves of the tiny shop, the staff canteen served meat and exactly three veg for lunch and dinner, and walk socks were worn high. Rotarians, half of them knighted, debated the merits of funding a full Divine Word University brass band, and the university’s supremo, Father Jan Czuba, seemed to keep the time machine humming by his sheer acts of will, conducting daily acts of service from fixing tractors to shifting rubbish dumpsters that had strayed from their mission. My main interest was a huge nickel and cobalt mine that had just started nearby, more than forty years after a huge body of ore had been found by Australians in the red soil mountains of Kurumbukare.

The Beijing-based company that ran the Ramu NiCo project, China Metallurgical Corporation (MCC), was an old-school state-owned enterprise. It had risen from the ashes of the old Ministry of Metallurgy, a work unit that was one of the spoiled children of the Maoist era. While the original Australian geological survey team was chancing upon a rich vein of nickel, cobalt and chromium in the foothills of the PNG Highlands in the 1960s, MCC was providing its workers with an iron rice bowl even as much of the rest of China was starving. In 2005, they arrived in Madang and set up their headquarters a few minibus stops and a world away from the neat cordyline hedges and clam-shell borders of Father Jan’s university. Known as the Spaceship to locals, it was three stories of shiny metal and glass, enclosed by a low wall emblazoned with the hopeful slogan ‘one ramu, one community’. The building design, not exactly appropriate for swampy land five degrees south of the equator, cost Ramu NiCo in electricity bills, cleaning and broken windows – a favoured gambit of feisty landowner leaders when negotiations were stalled was to hurl the nearest computer out of a window. Getting on board the Spaceship was never easy for our team, as MCC had a morbid fear of Australians all round. The venerable Kevin Murray, a naturalised Papua New Guinean and a former district officer for the Australian colonial administration who now runs the local chamber of commerce, told of his first encounter:

My first experience with the Chinese was pretty funny. We had our first meeting and all the directors [of Ramu NiCo] were there. They expected to see all PNG nationals. They nearly fell off their chairs when I walked in. Because one of the Chinese after that said to me, under no circumstances will we be employing any Australians. They had a real thing about Australians.

It’s hard to imagine anyone being fazed by a softly spoken old salt like Kevin, though a rather creative local environmental group memorably referred to him as a ‘standover man’, an appellation that would reliably reduce the coconut plantation owner to a fit of decidedly unthreatening giggles. Ramu NiCo did end up hiring a few Australians, although their ‘thing’ was not without basis. While they could never match the fevered tones of North American sources, Australian media and think-tanks ran hard on the downside of China’s rise in the Pacific. A riot at Ramu NiCo’s PNG refinery in early 2009 and subsequent nationwide anti-Asian unrest were accompanied by headlines such as ‘China is no longer a force for good in the Pacific’ and ‘China’s neocolonial slavery in PNG’. When I did get to talk openly with managers from Ramu NiCo – they periodically met with university types to go through the motions of meeting PNG’s requirement that visa holders speak, or least try to learn, English or Tok Pisin – it was apparent the accusation of neocolonialism hit a raw nerve. One of MCC’s most dedicated proponents, an HR manager, put it bluntly: ‘How can you say we’re anything like you [Australians]? We’re not here to convert them to a religion, or to communism, or anything. We just want the nickel.’ They also opined at length on the lack of shopping options in Madang – admittedly, one of the major stores appeared to specialise entirely in cans of corned beef and tins of tuna in oil with cheery names like ‘Dolly’, ‘Dolores’ and ‘Ox and Palm’ (yes, beef and palm oil).


IT’S TEMPTING TO see ‘just wanting the nickel’ as extractive colonialism of a particularly unvarnished persuasion. But the Chinese government maintains that China is a developing nation, a victim of colonialism, not part of a colonial empire like the Commonwealth. Even if Ramu NiCo isn’t paying a fair price for the resource (the mine was given a ten-year tax holiday by ‘father of the nation’ and former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, and pays significantly less in royalties than other mines), it’s not colonialism. We’re all the Global South here. But getting the nickel was not easy. The company’s problem was not Australians, many of whom tended to be aged and inebriated in Madang; it was the downright-difficult-to-deal-with and frequently irascible landowners, and the web of expectations and obligations around land ownership that had built up over four decades. More than 95 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s land is under customary ownership, which means all would-be resource extractors have to deal with men who have risen to the top by being the strongest and most cunning among their peers. In the case of the Yandera copper mine just south of Ramu NiCo, the main landowner leader wasn’t even a local, having bought his way to the top with funds amassed through years of scamming the PNG government. The mine remains parked in the feasibility study stage. Talk to any Chinese academic or diplomat with knowledge of the Pacific, and one of the first things they will ask is ‘why didn’t Australia do something about land title in PNG?’

But my Chinese friends should have looked harder. When a coterie of analysts from the Centre for Independent Studies wasn’t warning the Howard government about the dangers of lavish Chinese banquets, they were pushing for the one thing that Ramu NiCo managers craved: an end to PNG’s traditional land ownership system. They reduced the complexity and diversity of land management practices in PNG to one loaded word that defined the problem in ideological terms: ‘communal’. Land should be parceled off to individuals to give them a place in the market, because land title was the ‘principal cause of poverty in PNG’. PNG politicians did their bit too. Between 2003 and 2011, aided by the PNG Lands Department, they launched an assault on traditional ownership. Egged on by logging companies, they shifted over five million hectares of customary land (11 per cent of the country) into Special Agricultural and Business Leases, to be held by foreign and local companies for ninety-nine years – more than long enough to clear-fell every hectare. But MCC lacked the savvy and the political networks of the Malaysian-Chinese logging companies that hoovered up most of these leases. The mining company from Beijing faced the more fundamental barrier of failing to realise that they weren’t in China, where the state can make rainclouds perform on cue.

The company’s courtship of PNG barely extended beyond Prime Minister Michael Somare and his immediate entourage. Provincial leaders were given short shrift and the landowners barely given a thought. Chinese engineers, not unreasonably wanting to quickly finish building their part of the project so they could return to their families in China, would argue ‘Graun bilong Somare’ (the land is Somare’s) to those impeding the march of their earth movers. Local landowners would typically laugh and point out that their land was much better than Somare’s crocodile and mosquito infested patch (the ‘father of the nation’ hails from swampy East Sepik province). The laughter would stop when a bulldozer ploughed through their gardens. The frustration of the PNG company staff with their gung-ho Chinese colleagues almost boiled over into a mass brawl outside the Spaceship in 2009. One of the PNG shirt-fronters explained:

The contractors were going ahead and doing stuff without consulting us, without us going to talk to the locals to get them aware that this will be coming. We have to compensate them if we do any damage, especially with the clearing, and we have to record any damage and pay according to fairly generous rates. And sometimes the contractors never told us, just went in and did the clearing.

The Papua New Guinean mineworkers, caught in the middle of this clash, expressed bemusement with a management style that was far from the sleepy customs of postcolonial Madang. One of the handful of senior PNG workers described his encounter with MCC motivational methods, sparked by a visit from company president Shen Heting to the Spaceship:

The meeting, it was basically mobilising support. Big banners. I felt so embarrassed about it. They talked and talked. All of them shouted. And I came out of it not knowing anything but I assumed it was more like ‘we’re now going to start a project, we’ve got to get behind this thing’. I’m not used to it. It’s like a rugby league team, you know. They psych you up before you get to the field.

Fortunately, there was no Roy Masters-style pre-game face slapping to get the management team ready to take on greedy landowners, but this gung-ho approach spread down to the village level.

Shen Heting was a colourful character who once lectured Prime Minister Julia Gillard that ‘the Australian government needs to liberalise’ by dropping English-language requirements for short-term Chinese workers on Australian mining projects. Talking to Caixin, the premier financial magazine in China, he argued:

Central government enterprises that secure mines overseas are in reality securing resources for China… High-quality resources have already been taken by others, so at present, we can only go wherever there are still good resources. Which regions we invest in is not up to us to choose. As for risks, we can only rely on the support of the central government and our own efforts to avoid them. As long as it is a good resource, we will go for it.

A fortuneteller based in Hong Kong would allegedly provide the final word on whether to go for it in each of Shen’s state-backed bets. MCC ended up mining for six different metals on four different continents, losing billions of dollars. Eventually, China’s central government had enough and placed the company under the aegis of the more successful China Minmetals. In 2017, Shen was expelled from the Communist Party for corruption.


A FREQUENT HOPE expressed by those in the project area, from easy-going coastal people around the Basamuk Bay refinery site to tough highlanders living on the red soil of the Kurubukare mine site, was that the Chinese company would eventually go home and Australians would take over the mine. This was awkward territory, as I had growing sympathy for the Chinese workers struggling to understand PNG and to make sense of the company that was paying their wages. Yet this placing of the Chinese outside of the realm of white men, the men from the Commonwealth, was similar to a brilliant, sadly unheralded article penned by Mike Wood describing the attitude of PNG locals to Malaysian-Chinese working in a logging camp in Western Province in the early 1990s.

Wood opens his essay with the words of Frantz Fanon from his 1952 essay ‘The Fact of Blackness’: ‘You come too late, much too late, there will always be a world – a white world – between you and us.’ The logging-camp workers find themselves placed outside the realm of ‘real people’, as ‘many of the themes of Australian colonial discourse concerning the Chinese get reworked into landowner stories of the radical alterity of Chinese. In these anecdotes the Australian form of colonialism is re-presented as a process involving appropriate levels of identification with “real people”. This positive re-evaluation serves as a foil to the definition of Chinese who often come to be associated with negative characteristics previously associated with Europeans…the desirability of Europeans has been amplified in the process of fixing the Chinese in a position of moral inferiority.’ On hearing of my research, a rheumy-eyed official from PNG’s Ministry of Education – displaying an admittedly wonky understanding of Chinese history – pulled me aside at the delightful bar at Jais Aben Resort and distilled Wood’s arguments down to this: ‘You [Europeans] colonised us. You brought a lot of good things. You also colonised them [the Chinese]. So what have they got to teach us? Nothing.’

Many of the Chinese workers at Ramu NiCo held a similar opinion of their own organisation. They saw the Go Global strategy – the predecessor to the Belt and Road Initiative – as an inspiring cause derailed by petty managerialism. Chinese mining projects I’ve visited have a wide fault line between engineers who enjoy building things quickly and managers who enjoy shouting slogans loudly. Just as local mineworkers looked askance at the low wages and slapdash safety conditions offered by Ramu NiCo, Chinese workers were surprised by how far the company fell short of its own rhetoric. One young engineer summed up his experience:

When we joined, we were taught that we were promoting the national interest. On the international stage, our future would be promising. When we heard these words, all of us swelled with pride. But after a few years of chaotic management and relentlessly stingy working conditions, this group chose to head for the door. With the Ramu project under internal and external pressure, the leaders busied themselves counting pennies, putting on a show and sending ‘good news’ back to MCC headquarters and to SASAC (State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Committee). As for whether graduates stay, leave or progress, they don’t care. But they’ll be sure to claim penalties if you resign early.

Whenever I felt like terrifying Ramu NiCo managers, I would hint that I might pay a visit to MCC’s main office in Beijing to give a presentation on how the project was faring from an outsider’s perspective. But it never seemed the right thing to do. With a couple of notable exceptions, the managers holed up in the Spaceship were decent people stuck in a situation that they could not change and could often barely comprehend. Nothing had prepared them for what they encountered each day, and after a year or so many were gripped by a Kurtz-like sense of foreboding. One poor fellow was even kidnapped. There was no Chinese equivalent of Robert Louis Stevenson, bringing tales of exotic lands, and beyond an English-speaking diaspora that had long since disconnected from the motherland, China had no historical ties to the Pacific. Few of Ramu NiCo’s managers had any experience of mining, let alone the Pacific. Most workers thought they were going to Africa: they reasoned that New Guinea must be somewhere near Guinea, or at least Guinea-Bissau. Experienced managers who had worked on other mines in China thought the company’s difficulties were akin to those faced on China’s frontiers. As one put it after riots had disrupted operations at their refinery, ‘It’s just like Xinjiang!’ Others likened Papua New Guinea to Tibet. After the 2009 anti-Asian riots, a Chinese netizen made this link, ‘When our nation is a bit stronger, whenever there’s an incident like this, retribution will be swift, just like this year in the western regions.’ Many managers and workers indulged in a temporal shift, reasoning that PNG was like China before it ‘reformed and opened’ in 1978, a sleepy country where few people put in a hard day’s work. There was agreement among the management that older Chinese mine workers were more comfortable in PNG, even if they spoke little English or Tok Pisin. As one quipped, ‘Those over thirty-five understand the culture but not the language; those under thirty-five understand the language but not the culture.’


MANY CHINESE INVESTORS saw the Commonwealth as the root cause of PNG’s inert state – Australia had left PNG with an independent legal system, a flourishing media landscape, assertive trade unions and irritating civil society groups, all of which did not suit PNG’s ‘national situation’ (guo qing). The two values at the top of the Commonwealth Charter, democracy and human rights, were deemed worse than useless in an impoverished and only partly built nation such as Papua New Guinea. One of the many migrants from Fujian province, who had taken the moniker of ‘Nick’ and set up a small shop in a remote corner of Madang, explained why PNG was dangerous:

Their legal system is unstable. They make their own hooch, and as soon as they’ve had a skinful, they’ll come for you. They hit people, curse them, burn down their houses; there are no limits. It’s not like in China, where if you go over the top, they’ll take you outside and shoot you. So people are scared. Here, there’s no death penalty. They’re part of the British Commonwealth, there’s no offences that have a death sentence, so crims have no fear. If they go to jail, it won’t take them long to break out. I don’t get it – what sort of law is this? No one is afraid of it.

Plenty of Commonwealth countries do have the death penalty, even wealthy Singapore and Botswana, but Ramu NiCo managers would agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments, while disowning the messenger and branding him a criminal, a bandit who was ‘destroying the image of China in PNG’. Nick was one of thousands of migrants who had arrived in the Pacific from a handful of villages in Fuqing, a semi-rural community in Fujian province. Not many Papua New Guineans are likely to meet a Ramu NiCo manager, but nearly all of them will buy a plastic bucket or cheap watch from a Fuqing (pronounced ‘foo-ching’) merchant. Nick was one of these risk-takers, and like many he’d gone into debt to chase his dream of a six-storey mansion, a local bride, a healthy child or four, and finally a tombstone with a giant cross (Fuqing is staunchly Christian). Unfortunately for Nick, the gamble had backfired so spectacularly that he would not be going home as the prodigal son, or indeed, ever. He kept a low profile lest his creditors track him down. He had married a local, was on to his third son, and claimed that Sir Michael Somare protected him from harm. The number of bush knife scars on his legs suggested some harm still came his way.

Sir Michael and other Pacific elites find the Chinese useful to point out the shortcomings of their countrymen, reflecting Chinese views of the Pacific back onto their own people. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he argued:

They thought the government was making a mistake by just employing Chinese [at the Ramu NiCo mine]. Because to get a new industry going, you know, Chinese are workaholics; they work from six o’clock in the morning, even at night, until they complete the task. Ask the Melanesians. We work when time permits us. When we feel that after ten o’clock when we are tired, we go and sit under a tree. Our work ethic has to be changed in this country; we have to work much harder.

Somare’s sentiments were echoed in scores of chats I enjoyed with Chinese merchants, miners and mendicants.

Despite their work ethic being lauded by the former prime minister, migrants like Nick are at the bottom of the pecking order in PNG, in the eyes of other Chinese and locals. Many claim to be from anywhere other than Fujian province and carry fake travel documents to show local police, who have developed a surprising knowledge of Chinese geography. The word fujian in their passport means a more savage beating. Reviled by the Chinese, Australia and PNG media, over several years of interviewing them in their shops, and a few trips to their home villages, I came to be in awe of a work ethic that was almost a syndrome. Fuqing workers, quoted in a journal article by migration studies experts Lin Sheng and Zhu Yu, had a work ethic more powerful than the China Syndrome:

All you need is courage. The one thing the [Fukushima] earthquake and radiation zones have is work, and the wages are higher. Because of this, lots of us went there to find jobs… On any day in the earthquake zone, you should be able to find two or three jobs. If you sleep five hours a day and don’t rest, aside from one hour spent eating, you can work for the rest of the time and earn 400,000 yen [$4600] per month, which is about twice your average wages. And because of the GFC, in other areas [of Japan], it’s almost impossible to get a full day’s work.

If anyone is building a new Chinese commonwealth, it’s people like Nick, living far from the overblown rhetoric of the Belt and Road. Working from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, in villages that often have never had a shop previously, they live behind razor wire and dogs, away from their children who are left with their grandparents. You’ll be hard pressed to find these pioneers celebrated in Chinese media, or even by the government agencies charged with protecting and organising them. Riots in the Solomon Islands in 2006 saw Honiara’s Chinatown burned to the ground, with many Chinese citizens evacuated by Australian and New Zealand forces. The Guangdong Office for Overseas Chinese Affairs, the agency responsible for China’s migrants, sent a team to investigate the cause of the riots. Scholars cite a range of factors – a dodgy election, Taiwanese money politics – but the Chinese team found a single trigger: the ‘new Chinese’ business community.The report argues:

Their quality is low. Most don’t understand foreign languages and have no knowledge of foreign trade. Under pressure of competition, they blindly followed the tide out of China. They own nothing and are impatient for success. Acting without fear, they often make rash decisions. Facing bureaucratic inefficiency has been difficult. They lack the capacity to overcome barriers to doing business, and the patience of previous migrants, grasping for money with no thought to the consequences. They are happy to use cash to grease all transactions. ‘Improper’ behaviour has drawn contempt not only from the old Chinese, but it has transformed locals from respecting the Chinese to resenting their presence.

This official contempt for China’s entrepreneurs, echoing the disdain of the Confucian scholarly elite for the merchant class, will feature in China’s future attempts to manage its diaspora in the Pacific. In August 2017, seventy-seven Chinese nationals were rounded up from locations around Fiji and put on a China Southern airliner bound for the less-than-tropical city of Changchun in China’s north-east. The detainees were hooded with black balaclavas and had a policeman on each arm, creating a spectacular photo-op to reassure the Chinese public that their law enforcement agencies would go to any length to protect them from crime. Xinhua, China’s official press agency, held that they were involved in a variety of online and phone scams, which are rampant in China. However, investigations by Hagar Cohen of ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing suggested the majority of those arrested were teenage girls, brought to Fiji as sex workers. Few people in Fiji called for due process to be followed, with the opposition asking why criminals had been allowed to enter Fiji in the first place, as one prominent Fijian–Chinese businessman celebrated Fiji being spared the ‘rigmarole’ of the court process. PNG’s leaders promptly asked whether China might care to deport all of their Chinese criminals, with an eye to cleaning up the streets ahead of Port Moresby hosting APEC in 2018.

Conducting muscular show-arrests plays well inside China, particularly at a time when patriotic sentiments are being stirred by movies such as Wolf Warrior II (strapline: ‘Whoever attacks China will be killed no matter how far the target is.’) But the effect of the operation was to sideline and silence Fiji’s legal system and media, institutions already under pressure from the Bainimarama government. As China moves away from its doctrine of non-interference to what Peking University Professor Wang Yizhou calls ‘creative involvement’, operations that support illiberal trends in the Pacific should concern anyone who embraces the original Commonwealth ideals. For now at least, direct interventions by the Chinese state are the exception, but they send a clear message to China’s merchants abroad: toe the line.

In a Politburo study session in January 2014, President Xi demanded that ‘the charm of Chinese culture’ be revealed to the world and ‘modern Chinese values’ be disseminated. Yet, despite its powerful intentions, the Chinese state faces a conundrum not unlike that faced by Britain in its days of Empire: the foot soldiers of Empire do not embody the slogans of Empire. Mining engineers, pressured by bosses in Beijing or Chengdu, unable to build anything in the rainy season and faced with intransigent local landowners, have no time for ‘openness and inclusiveness’. Risk-takers who stick around despite having a bush knife drawn on them every year, focused on earning enough to return home, are unlikely to embody ‘mutual learning and mutual benefit’. Without a cogent ideology to support it, the Chinese commonwealth has no common. To suggest it does is to merely lay our own groaning maps over theirs, smudging the fascinating characters beneath.

Fear not the lavish banquets, banned now under Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive in any case, and celebrate the surprises that await when a people who disavow imperialism build an empire in spite of themselves.

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