China finds an eager South American stablemate in Suriname

Commercial buildings in the centre of ParamariboIt would be hard to imagine a more striking contrast. On the one hand, there is the massive Suriname Aluminium works, a subsidiary of the US giant Alcoa. It employs some 5,000 people. On the other hand, less than a kilometre down a tarmacked road in the industrial suburbs of Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname,Broad, a Chinese construction company housed in a corrugated iron shed, specialises in turnkey homes and offices.

Two different worlds, almost face-to-face but travelling in opposite directions. On 1 July, after almost a century of operations, the management of the Suralco plant will be handing over the reins to a group of state-appointed managers. Broad started trading five months ago and Suriname’s President Desi Bouterse attended the official opening. His National Democratic party triumphed in the general election on 25 May, winning a comfortable majority. These entirely separate events are emblematic of the scale of the changes at work in this former Dutch colony, once seen as Uncle Sam’s backyard.

In less than 10 years the Chinese have set up hundreds of companies, shops, casinos and restaurants in this small South American state, which reaches deep into the Amazon jungle. They have widened and asphalted roads, and built social housing. A television channel, with staff of about 20, now broadcasts in Mandarin Chinese on Suriname networks. In 2011 the Southern Commercial Bank opened in Paramaribo. A group of Chinese businessmen has just bought out another one, the Fina Bank. Chinese nationals are now estimated to control around 90% of the country’s supermarkets, small grocery stores and food shops. All the main parties in the recent election fielded a prominently placed candidate of Chinese heritage.

As in Africa, Beijing has unobtrusively but methodically established a foothold in this country of barely half a million people. Immigration has substantially increased since the late-1990s, adding (according to official sources) about 10,000 people to the existing Chinese community. Some observers see this presence as a rear base or testbed for Chinese ambitions in South America.

“Suriname is a lucky country, such [a] small population, so much land,” the New York Times quoted Yuan Nansheng, a former Chinese ambassador to Suriname, as saying in 2011. The close ties his country enjoys with Bouterse, who 16 years ago was sentenced by a Dutch court in absentia to 11 years in prison for drug trafficking, were sealed with an official visit to Beijing in 2013.

In the meantime China has gifted dozens of coaches to the Suriname military. A group of Chinese contractors clubbed together to build a magnificent office block, about 500 metres from the president’s palace. It now houses the foreign ministry.

“The Dutch government’s relationship with the Bouterse clan was turbulent, particularly when it suspended development aid. This prompted the regime’s top brass to look for other solutions,” says Winston Ramautarsing, a lecturer in economics at Anton de Kom University of Suriname. “Closer links with China, which is keen to find its place in the Amazon basin for obvious reasons, came about almost naturally.

“It’s much the same trend everywhere, but given the size of our country and the way the authorities here have welcomed them with open arms, the Chinese presence is more visible,” he adds.

Heading out of Paramaribo and into the country, you soon see the scale of this presence. On either side of the road are dozens of small timber-processing plants, factories producing roofing or sheet aluminium, with signs sporting Chinese ideograms or the owner’s name. In some places this influx of cheap labour has caused resentment, a cause taken up by Ronnie Brunswijk, leader of the General Liberation and Development party ABOP, now allied with Bouterse.

“[Chinese migrants] buy up all the street corners, help grow our economy, offering a range of competitively priced products, with a variety and quality of service we’ve not seen before,” Ramautarsing explains. “But their very low salaries and their visible or supposed success sometimes upset people.”

In the centre of the capital, small food shops are mostly operated by families who have recently arrived from China. “They call us ‘saltwater Chinese’, unlike the others who arrived here in the 19th century and have settled on farms further inland, close to freshwater rivers,” says one such shop worker named Lia.

Sitting at her till, behind an array of iron bars, “because attacks are frequent”, this young student helps her parents keep the shop open “as long as possible”. “Life isn’t easy here,” she adds. “We had to learn Dutch and Sranan Tongo [Suriname creole], cope with the violence, the climate too. But we’d never leave now.”

Bron: The Guardian