Chinese traders

The statement by the Chinese Association seemingly in response to an article in another section of the media regarding the presence of Chinese entrepreneurs in Guyana is, in several respects, an interesting one. The objective of the statement, it seems, is to reassure that the Chinese enterprises are not here to take away business or to break laws, though it has to be said that there are other ways in which the influx of Chinese traders over a short period has not gone down well with sections of the local business and consuming communities.

This newspaper has, on more than one occasion, reported on aspects of the profusion of Chinese traders without making it appear as though we were targeting them. This is not the only country in the Caribbean or the hemisphere for that matter where the relatively recent influx of Chinese traders has been viewed with suspicion and in some cases, hostility. This has been the case in some Caricom countries and we are aware of instances in both Brazil and Suriname. The other point that should be made of course is that most of the goods imported into Guyana – by the Chinese traders or whomsoever else – are manufactured in China.

More than a year ago when we sought an official view we were told by the then Minister of Industry and Commerce that the phenomenon had to be seen in the context of global trade liberalization. We felt at the time that the official response was dismissive of the issues that had been raised with us by sections of the business community.

One of the responses that we got from government had to do with what was felt was the need for our own manufacturing sector to face competition if it was to raise its own game, even though it is patently clear that in the real world it would take quite a few blue moons for our own under-resourced and largely inefficient manufacturing sector to compete with the world’s most aggressive producer of consumer goods.

The point about the comparative advantage which the Chinese merchants enjoy is linked to what we believe are the implications for micro and small-scale traders and manufacturers (seamstresses, tailors, joiners, et al) who would of course be affected by the influx of cheaper Chinese clothing and furniture, among other things.

Beyond the issues of cost and competitiveness there is also the issue of quality. This newspaper is aware of several quality-related spats between local consumers and Chinese merchants. There appears to have arisen a fairly widespread view that some of the contemporary Chinese imports, including items of clothing, shoes, cellular phones and electrical appliances are, in some instances, decidedly sub-standard, a view which appears to have been corroborated by the experience of the Guyana National Bureau of Standards. We are also aware of instances in which Chinese traders have refused to exchange goods that have malfunctioned or proven less than reasonably durable.

The Chinese Association obviously feels it has a right to sound its voice if it believes that the Chinese merchants are being maligned though, if the truth be told, there are issues that have to do with the Chinese traders and the local business and consuming communities that cannot be wished away by a strongly worded statement.

The emergence in recent years of fresh waves of Chinese traders in the Caribbean and the Americas is part of a beefing up of China’s image abroad to go along with its economic expansion at home; the advent of a new Chinese business culture in this part of the world is part of emerging bilateral relationships between China and countries in the hemisphere in which China is investing billions in major projects. Looking after the Chinese traders, ensuring that Chinese goods find favourable markets in Guyana and other parts of the region and the hemisphere is a quid pro quo agreed to by governments in the region and the hemisphere. Put differently, what we are witnessing is the unfolding of contemporary global economic diplomacy with the blessings of host governments in Guyana and elsewhere.

In the final analysis it is for the government to create an enabling environment in which our own manufacturers – given the constraints which they face – can be afforded a reasonably level playing field vis-à-vis the Chinese. There are those who might even argue that goods like working girls’ outfits and schoolchildren’s uniforms ought to be off limits to the Chinese traders since, for hundreds of seamstresses and tailors, manufacturing these represents their sole source of income. As one seamstress remarked to this newspaper last week it appears that the only option being left open to the locals is to “join the army of traders who end up selling the goods that the Chinese import.” That, in our view would be an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

What is interesting about the Chinese trader ‘invasion’ is that it impacts, primarily, on small and micro enterprises and as long as it continues without some kind of regulation, there are bound to be continuing tensions between sub-sectors of our own manufacturing sector and the Chinese importers; either that or we cave in to the proliferation of Chinese goods and turn our attention to buying and selling, as it is known in the trade. We cannot make a strident argument for the growth our own manufacturing sector if we continue to blind our eyes to the various ways in which some of the sub-sectors are affected by the sheer volume of Chinese imports and no amount of dissonant arguments will change that reality.

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