FIJI: Opening Doors to Chinese Business Migrants

Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, Jan 21 1995 (IPS) - The Fijian government is inviting Chinese business migrants to fill the vacuum left by Indian Fijians who have moved overseas since the 1987 coup, but sociologists warn this could only complicate the sensitive race relations in Fiji.

More than 24,000 Indians, mostly professionals and entrepreneurs, have left the South Pacific nation since the previous Indian-dominated government was ousted in a coup led by Maj-Gen Sitiveni Rabuka, now Fiji’s prime minister.

To fill the gap, the Rabuka Cabinet this week approved a proposal to allow up to 7,000 Chinese businessmen and their families from Hong Kong to migrate to Fiji, provided they pay an application fee of 30,000 dollars and invest at least 100,000 dollars in government-approved projects.

The proposal was drawn up by a Hong Kong company, Asia Oceania Development Ltd, with which the government will sign a contract to facilitate the flow of business migrants to the islands.

“No parliamentary approval is needed for the scheme. Once the contract is signed people could start to come,” said a spokesperson for the home affairs ministry.

The government says the programme will bring in up to 2.5 billion dollars in investments and create some 80,000 jobs. The Chinese are expected to be heavily involved in repacking and refining import commodities for re-export.

“The domestic market needs to be developed and the Chinese people are good at it,” said Labour Minister Militoni Leweniqila. “For any country to quicken its development pace, it must have the necessary number of consumers. Bringing in the Chinese can facilitate this.”

The Cabinet decision has sparked a heated public debate in this ethnically-divided nation. In a telephone interview from Suva, Fijian opposition leader Jai Ram Reddy said this would have far- reaching implications for race relations in the country.

Reddy, leader of the Fiji-Indian National Federation Party (NFP) which was the major partner in the coalition government overthrown in 1987, said he would demand a thorough debate on the scheme at the next session of parliament.

He believes parliament could pass a resolution to intervene in the programme since the government did not consult opposition parties before going ahead with the scheme.

“It must be remembered that more than 100 years ago, (the former British administration in Fiji) decided to bring in Indian indentured labour for similar economic (development) reasons that have been advanced now,” he said.

“Descendants (of Indian sugar plantation workers) are still struggling for justice and equality. They are landless, minus meaningful political rights, and before that is resolved, the government now wants to bring in thousands of Chinese,” he said.

The 1990 constitution favours indigenous Polynesians over Indians who make up nearly half of Fiji’s 770,000 people. It bars non-natives from becoming president or premier, and reserves 37 parliamentary seats for indigenous Fijians, 27 for Indians and five for other groups under the General Voters category.

Vijay Naidu, a sociologist and vice-chancellor of the University of South Pacific in Suva, warns of possible social upheavals if the arrival of Chinese immigrants is not gradually phased in over 10 to 15 years.

“If we allow a large number of Chinese into Fiji at once or even over the next few years when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule … the Chinese population will outstrip the General Voters in a short period. Such a move would force the government to look at providing representation in parliament,” he says.

Politicians, academics, businessmen and ordinary people interviewed by the media this week expressed similar fears.

Many say they welcome the move if it would bring in foreign investment and create jobs for the 10,000 school graduates who join the ranks of the unemployed every year, but they are worried about its implications on the sensitive race relations in Fiji.

“We could be earning billions of dollars from the scheme (and) this will enable us to sustain growth,” says Daniel Elisha, president of the Fiji Chamber of Commerce. “However, the population figures will be upset if such a large number of immigrants are allowed into the country at one time.”

Josevata Kamikamica, an opposition parliamentarian who heads the indigenous Fijian Association Party, describes the move as “the sale of our birthright”.

“Why do we have to bring in all those people? The socio- economic problems borne out of this issue will be complex and immense,” he warns.

Even the trustee of the Chinese Association in Fiji, Bill Yee, has asked the government to reconsider its decision. “I think the maximum the government should consider is 10,000. We have noticed in the last few years that our society is becoming complicated because of the influx of immigrants.”

Current estimates show there are about 5,000 Chinese in Fiji. While a few settled in the islands a century ago, some 1,000 Chinese, mainly from the mainland, have come to do business in Fiji in the last few years.

More than 900 work permits have been issued to Chinese nationals since 1987, and the Fiji Trade and Investment Board says there are nearly 60 Chinese running joint ventures in Fiji.

In 1990, Fiji stopped giving work permits to Chinese farmers because immigration officials found many of those who had come to farm ended up flocking to the cities to set up restaurants.

Official figures show that between 1987 and June 1993, Fiji granted citizenship to 508 Chinese, more than half the number of applicants. During the same period, 24,014 Indians left the country, many going to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Alarmed by these statistics, Immigration and Home Affairs Minister Berenado Vunibobo last year asked Fijian Indians to come back to fill the skills and business vacuum. But the response has been limited because Vunibobo later denied having made such an invitation.

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