COMMENT | We cannot deny that the fairly recent inflow of Chinese investments to Malaysia has been a game changer of sorts.
I was on a speaking panel recently where one of the speakers railed about how Najib has sold out the country and we have become a colony of China.
We know that Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the chairperson of Pakatan Harapan has been doing the same, blaming Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak for selling the country’s sovereignty to China and that hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese are about to flood the country.
We can imagine this will form the election theme of the Malay leaders of Harapan. Will they succeed in swaying the Malay voters against Najib and BN?
Meanwhile, the Chinese-based DAP leaders are maintaining a loud silence vis-à-vis the China investments as they witness the exuberant response by the leaders of the Chinese associations to this gush of Chinese investments in the local Chinese press.
The way they fete the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia is without precedent. No less than the former leader of the Labour Party and a former Fuemsso (Federation of United Kingdom and Eire Malaysian and Singaporean Students Organisations) activist are leading the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce to promote closer trade and investments between our two countries.
No doubt, the former Chinese “left” in this country are likewise revelling in China’s high profile in our country and in the world while they make believe that this Chinese capitalism has “socialist” characteristics.
In light of Najib’s “pivot to China”, how this older generation in the Chinese community including the “old left” will vote in the 14th general election (GE14) is anybody’s guess.
Will this factor plus the leadership of Mahathir in Harapan also impact the “reformasi” generation among the Chinese voters who have been voting for the opposition since 2008? We hear that the millennials are not too excited about either coalition.
It is indeed ironic that an Umno delegation recently paid a fraternal visit to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); when in the past, any Malaysian lefty could be arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) for associating with the CCP. In fact, one of the Ops Lalang detainees did have this in his “allegations of fact” under the ISA detention order.
China’s capitalism at its highest stage
China arose as a world power during the period that saw a decline of world capitalism. The rise of the People’s Republic of China as a great economic, political and military power in the world, second only to the US is undeniable.
While it still describes itself as socialist and even communist, it is certainly a non-Western variant of state capitalism with private ownership, secure property rights, financial liberalisation and systemic deregulation of economic transactions. For Marx’s sake, even The Economist can see that China embraces state capitalism!
The CCP will surely be familiar with Lenin’s analysis of imperialism as the stage which sees a capitalist state exporting capital for the exploitation of other lands.
Today’s China is the largest exporter of finance capital, and corporate investor on the planet.
China’s high-speed growth has rested on a general liberalisation of financial policy that has allowed private businesses to flourish in the countryside in the 1980s and switching loan capital into large, rebuilt state-owned enterprises and urban infrastructures, granting massive advantages to foreign capital from the 1990s.
The social consequences of this change have been growing inequality while peasants have lost land while officials raked in vast increases in salaries. The ongoing efforts to drive tens of thousands of “low-end” migrant workers out of Beijing makes the eviction of urban settlers in Kuala Lumpur look like a storm in a teacup!
China’s competition with US imperialism is also textbook inter-imperialist struggle. Confronted with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which China is excluded, and the extensive US military bases throughout the region, the Chinese regime’s response has been to launch the Belt and Road Initiative and other facilities to finance this vast initiative.
To be sure, China’s capitalist system has helped to keep the world capitalist system afloat during the recent banking crisis that hit Western capitalism in 2008.
China played a role in the recovery of Western nations that were affected by the recession through trade impacts. With its huge foreign reserves, the Chinese government was able to bail out Western banks in distress.
Through China’s rapid and strong recovery, regions that exported in large volumes to China or that supplied raw materials to power China’s industries also recovered reasonably well from the crisis.
China helps bail out 1MDB
It so happened that the 1MDB scandal and Najib’s problems coincided with Chinese capital’s monumental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is partly a venture to solve China's overcapacity in heavy industrial goods, such as iron, steel, aluminium, cement and glass.
Thus, mainland Chinese money has flowed into Southeast Asia as China seeks to expand its influence in the region.
There has been a recent surge of Chinese investment in Southeast Asia associated with BRI, including the recent East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) connecting Malaysia’s east and west coasts (photo), and China General Nuclear Power Corporation’s (CGN) bailing out of the beleaguered 1MDB’s heavy debt load by sealing a US$2.3 billion deal to buy a collection of 1MDB’s energy assets.
Those assets, known as Edra, consist of 13 power plants across five countries from Malaysia to Egypt and Bangladesh. CGN will also assume an unspecified amount of debt as part of the deal.
For countries like Malaysia, these investments in infrastructure offer clear benefits but also come with costs, both economic and strategic.
The China investments come at a convenient time since foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows to both Malaysia and Asean have begun to decline, especially following the US’ withdrawal from the TPP.
Accumulated China FDI in Malaysia as of the end of June 2017 was US$3.38bil (RM14.19bil).
China topped the list of countries from which Malaysia received FDI last year, surpassing the US, Japan and Singapore in FDI value. China continued to be Malaysia’s largest trade partner and surpassed Singapore as the largest investor in Malaysia’s real estate.
Besides weakening Asean cohesion over the South China Sea controversy, the main risks cited by Harapan leaders are that Malaysia is becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese money and that critical infrastructure and businesses will be Chinese-controlled, translating into reduced sovereignty and local businesses losing out.
These Harapan leaders conjure up images of hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese buying land and flooding development precincts such as Iskandar Malaysia and Forest City in Johor.
Malaysia’s economy is also being transformed by huge and high-tech investments from China in the manufacturing and construction industries.
In manufacturing, Malaysia has become the world’s third largest solar cell manufacturer – after mainland China and Taiwan. It has also become a glass exporter after China firms poured in billions into the sector recently.
Chinese companies are involved in building the new iconic Tun Razak Exchange tower and Penang’s second bridge.
Then there is the strategic partnership of Proton and China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group; the Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) with Alibaba as the main partner; the oil pipeline from Malacca to Jitra, Kedah; and the multi-billion ringgit gas pipeline linking Sandakan to Kimanis in Sabah.
Nonetheless, the former governor of Bank Negara, Zeti Akhtar Aziz has urged Malaysians to view China’s investments rationally, pointing out that China's investment only amounts to two percent of the foreign funds invested locally.
Approach China’s investments with caution
While the alarmist protests by Mahathir et al are too far-fetched, there is no denying that these China projects are motivated by both geopolitical and commercial considerations.
Thus, while there is justification for the ECRL in the integration of east and west coast states in the peninsula for example, there is hardly any need for the Malacca Gateway port, which seems to merely serve Chinese interest in securing access to the Strait of Malacca.
Knowing the lessons from Western imperialist domination, Malaysians do need to be wary of the mode of Chinese involvement.
It has been reported that major government-led projects would be funded primarily by loans from Chinese state-owned banks rather than greenfield FDI, which could lead to the difficulties incurred by indebted countries.
There are also concerns that the materials, companies and even labour involved in the projects will be from mainland China. It would be beneficial to Malaysia if China's investments can create job opportunities and investment opportunities for domestic investors and wokers.
If China invests in industries which we have the intention to develop, this will be beneficial but we have to be wary of China’s investments in property development considering the current property glut.
Dam construction and other infrastructure projects in BRI will also lead to the displacement of communities and environmental destruction, which we have seen in the Bakun and Murum dams, and there will be resistance (photo).
This resistance represents hope in a world of growing inequality and while capitalists salivate at what BRI can do for international commerce, it is also an opportunity for workers in the affected countries to build greater solidarity for international workers.
Thus, how will China’s investments affect Malaysian voters in GE14?
I have pointed out the apparent positive response of the older Chinese voters. How the Malay and Indian voters will respond will depend on whether they fall for the propaganda by Mahathir and other Malay leaders of Harapan.
Most important of all, desperado politicians must be reminded to steer clear of racism – they may rant and rail about pirates and imperialists, but they should keep their ethnic origins out of the picture.
KUA KIA SOONG is Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) adviser.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.