By Kua Kia Soong
We cannot deny that the fairly recent influx of Chinese investments in Malaysia has been a game changer of sorts. I was on a speaking panel recently where one of the speakers railed about how China is taking over our country. We know that Dr. Mahathir, the “interim Chairman” of PH has been doing the same, blaming Najib for selling the country’s sovereignty to China. We can imagine this will form the election theme of the Malay leaders of PH. Will they succeed in swaying the Malay voters against Najib and BN?
Meanwhile, the DAP leaders are maintaining a loud silence vis a 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. No less than the former leader of the Labour Party and a former FUEMSSO 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 reveling in China’s high profile in our country and in the world while they make believe that this Chinese capitalism has “socialist” characteristics.
In the light of Najib’s “pivot to China”, how this older generation in the Chinese community including the “old left” will vote in GE14 is anybody’s guess. Will this factor plus the leadership of Mahathir in PH 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 a Umno delegation recently paid a fraternal visit to the Chinese Communist Party when in the past, any Malaysian lefty could be arrested and detained under the 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 PRC 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 is a state capitalism!
The Chinese Communist Party will surely be familiar with Lenin’s analysis of imperialism as the stage which sees a capitalist state exporting capital for exploitation of other lands. Today’s China is the largest exporter of finance capital and corporate investor in 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.
China’s competition with US imperialism is also textbook inter-imperialist struggle. Confronted with the TPP from which China is excluded, and the extensive US military bases throughout the region, the Chinese regime’s response has been to launch OBOR and the other facilities to finance this vast initiative.
During the recent banking crisis in 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.
It so happened that the 1MDB scandal and Najib’s problems coincided with Chinese capital’s monumental New Silk Road or One Belt One Road (OBOR) venture, which is partly a venture to solve China’s overcapacity in heavy industrial goods, such as iron, steel, aluminum, 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 the OBOR Initiative, including the recent East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) connecting Malaysia’s east and west coasts and China General Nuclear Power Corp’s bailing out 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. China General Nuclear 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 more broadly have begun to decline especially following the US withdrawal from the TPP. Accumulated China FDI in Malaysia as at end-June 2017 was US$3.38bil (RM14.19bil). China topped the FDI country list last year, surpassing the United States, 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 the PH 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 PH leaders conjure up images of hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese buying land and flooding development precincts such as at Iskandar and Forest City in Johore.
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. A Chinese contractor is building the new iconic Tun Razak Exchange tower; Penang’s second bridge; there is the strategic partnership of Proton and Geely; the Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) with Alibaba as the main partner; the pipeline from Melaka to Jitra, Kedah; the multi-billion ringgit gas pipeline linking Sandakan to Kimanis in Sabah.
Nonetheless, the former governor of Bank Negara, Zeti has urged Malaysians to view China’s investments rationally, pointing out that China’s investment only amounts to two% of the foreign funds invested locally.
Concerns about China’s investments
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 East Coast Rail Line (ECRL) in the integration of East and West coast states in the peninsula, for example, there is hardly any need for the Malacca 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 Chinese. It would be beneficial to Malaysia if China’s investments can create job opportunities and investment opportunities for domestic investors. 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 OBOR will also lead to the displacement of communities and environmental destruction that we have seen in the Bakun and Murum dams and there will be resistance. This resistance represents hope in a world of growing inequality and while capitalists salivate at what OBOR can do for international commerce, it is also an opportunity for workers in the affected countries to build greater international workers’ solidarity.
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 PH.
Kua Kia Soong is the adviser for SUARAM.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.