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“Jamaicans will need to learn Mandarin to compete for jobs"

SIGNED ON THE DOTTED LINE: A 2013 deal between the then Jamaican Government and Chinese officials. China donated $230 million to Jamaica for the construction of a Chinese garden within the Hope Royal Botanic Gardens in Kingston (image credit: 'The Gleaner')

2013 SAW the signing of bilateral co-operation agreements between Jamaica and China, guaranteeing a host of investment, including new developments on the island. A new 600 mile super highway dubbed 'the Beijing highway’ linking south to north, two new schools, a 220-bed children’s hospital, and a $353 million US dollar loan amongst the spoils.

With all this, surely bright days lay ahead?

Fast forward to 2017. An interview given by Dr. Umar Johnson caused a viral storm when he said, “The Chinese pretty much own Jamaica,” stating that, “Jamaica, home of Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley is on course to become China's first Caribbean colony”. He accused the bourgeois Jamaican Government of selling out the nation because, “They don’t have to live with the consequences of their economic decisions”.

So, what exactly went wrong?

Well, in return for the new developments built the Chinese were given land rights, concessions and access to water ways. With the 1200 acres of land received around the highway, they built three hotel resorts.

UNITING OF THE NATIONS: From left - Chinese Ambassador Zheng Qingdian (left), former Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade AJ Nicholson at a reception in 2012 to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Jamaica (image credit: 'The Gleaner'/Winston Sill)

The promise of the developments bringing new trade and jobs for locals had been compromised by the building of brand new Chinese-owned and staffed shops next to the hotels, who themselves predominantly employed Chinese staff.

But, these were just echoes of the cries heard during the construction stages of these developments.

China, as part of the bilateral agreement, also took control of bauxite (the island's top natural resource) mining. They were required to use a 70% Jamaican labour force on sites. Instead, they flew in their own workers.

In their defence, some companies claimed to have just brought in specialist workers for jobs the Jamaicans weren’t widely trained in. But in reality, Chinese staff were commonly seen being employed to perform basic labour roles as well. The Jamaicans who did find work on Chinese construction sites told of poor treatment, conditions and wages.

Anger grew at Chinese Central Bank-backed companies winning all the contracts and monopolising Jamaica’s resources.

Chinese-run Pan-Caribbean Sugar Company bought three Jamaican state-run sugar factories in 2010 and promptly laid off over 100 security guards, sparking protests. The company also cut the jobs of nearly 300 other workers, calling the moves “restructuring”.

HIGH PRAISE: Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who criticised Chinese domination before he was elected, then changed his views

Hostile scenes began to take place, mirroring those from Africa.

Maybe Africa should have served as a cautionary note against Chinese investment. Horror stories have come out of Angola, Mozambique and Gambia, ranging from deaths due to lack of safety equipment, to political meddling.

The fear amongst the public that Jamaica is being sold-off is only exacerbated by complaints of the Chinese being rude and disrespectful.

Contrasting with popular public opinion; the Jamaican Government continue to put out heavily pro-Chinese rhetoric. Appearing terrified of losing investment, then Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller responded to concerns over hiring practices by warning that continued discussion of the issue could send out negative, off-putting messages to the Chinese. Then opposition leader and current Prime Minister Andrew Holness accused the Government of “brushing aside” concerns over “hiring practices”. Although his tone changed when elected prime minister himself, hailing this, “A great era of Chinese Jamaican bilateral agreement”.

Dr. Richard Bernal, former Jamaican ambassador for the US commented wryly; “The Chinese are no more intrusive than the American corporations in Jamaica”. Maybe he has a point.


Jamaica’s reliance on foreign aid began after slavery. By retaining control of the country's key resources, ex-slave owners crippled any indigenous hopes of building their own economy, global powers began loaning Jamaica money with astronomical interest rates and imposing higher tax levies on their exports.

In the 1970s, Jamaica seemed on the cusp of a breakthrough with Prime Minister Michael Manley’s democratic socialism. But Manley’s refusal to sever ties with Cuba sparked a four-year CIA campaign that saw violence escalate through Jamaica. Tourism fell, and the US saw that potential investors stayed away. This gave the IMF perfect leverage to impose austerity measures. Devaluation of currency saw the cost of food rocket, whilst the IMF held wages down. An island already blighted by hurricanes were down and stuck beneath a mountain of debt.

Enter China. A shift in global power has left China not only capable, but in need of expanding its global presence. Jamaica, like Africa, represented the perfect opportunity - resource rich and financially crippled.

Of course there are benefits to investment from a benevolent benefactor, but history of old and recent should tell Jamaican officials there is no such thing as a benevolent benefactor. This investment looks like it's coming at a costly price - ownership

Shahine Robinson, Minister of Labour and Social Security seemed to sum-up the mood of a nation and where things are headed for the island, when she said:

“Jamaicans will need to learn Mandarin to compete for jobs domestically”.

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