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Mon, Jul 09, 2007 - Page 11 News List

China's fuel drive draws ire in Papua New Guinea

AFP , MOUNT HAGEN, PAPUA NEW GUINEA

China's relentless drive for resources to fuel its booming economy, which is already drawing charges of neo-colonialism in Africa, is causing growing resentment in Papua New Guinea.

From the dusty streets of small towns in the remote highlands to a major nickel mine near the coast, Chinese people are increasingly visible in this mineral-rich country which prides itself on being "the last frontier."

Many Papua New Guineans, mostly descended from fierce warrior tribes which had no contact with the outside world until less than a lifetime ago, do not like what they see.

Labor Secretary David Tibu has accused the Chinese government-owned Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) of treating local workers "like slaves" at its US$750 million Ramu mine in northeastern Madang Province.

They were paid just US$4 a day, sometimes given tins of fish for overtime and faced degrading canteen and toilet facilities, he said earlier this year, threatening to close the project down.

Work has gone ahead, however, with the company also winning a 10-year tax holiday and other perks from the government of Prime Minister Michael Somare, which is fighting for a new term in office in elections ending on July 10.

With a chance of a new government taking power in PNG's notoriously unstable parliament and simmering bitterness over the rapid influx of tens of thousands of Chinese, some of those conditions could be up for review.

"They've negotiated a whole range of very exclusive investment conditions, with zero import duties on equipment and this, that and the other, plus a 10-year tax holiday," analyst Paul Barker said.

"So there may be some pressure to try and at least tweak them in some places," said Barker, executive director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of National Affairs, an independent think tank.

After the labor secretary's attack, the MCC said it would review conditions at the mine.

China's ambassador, Wei Ruixing (魏瑞興), said the Ramu mine was the biggest commercial investment by a Chinese company in the Pacific Islands region and both the Chinese and PNG governments wanted the project to succeed.

Apart from the mine, the rapid spread of Chinese and other Asians such as Koreans into businesses around this island country off the northeastern tip of Australia has also provoked animosity.

"We are very angry," journalist Firmin Nanol said in Mount Hagen, where large dogs and their handlers guard heavily barred shops along dusty streets splashed with bright bougainvillea and red betel-nut spit.

"In Hagen, most shops are operated by all these Asians. It's good that they are bringing in money but it's fake goods, really fake goods. Buy a pair of shoes, they wear out in a week. It's cheating," he said.

"People all over the country are wondering why this influx of Asians flooding our streets," he said.

In other parts of the South Pacific, such as the Solomon Islands and Tonga, this sort of resentment has led to attacks on Asian businesses when political tempers run high.

"Obviously there would be a certain point when that would be the case in PNG," Barker said. "I don't know that it's at that point at this stage."

PNG has long had a small resident Chinese community and they fear the fallout from the new influx -- which they estimate at about 30,000 in the past 10 years, he said.

China last month denied charges of neo-colonialism as it launched a fund to encourage Chinese firms to invest in Africa, claiming its aim was not to make profit but to boost a "new type of strategic partnership" with the continent.

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