Jamaica’s relationship with China began as part of the larger project of Asian indenture adopted by the British Empire after the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. In 1854, 224 Chinese indentured labourers arrived in Jamaica on the SS Epsom. Additional groups of labourers arrived throughout the nineteenth century, largely via other Caribbean and Latin American islands. The largest of these ships, the SS Prinz Alexander, transported 694 labourers from southern China through San Francisco and Panama. This project was, however, largely unsuccessful, as the predominantly male labourers often left the island after their tenure because of the poor conditions.
A second wave of Chinese—this time, businessmen—arrived in the early twentieth century through chain migration and interisland circulation. Unlike other islands, which attracted both Hakka and Punti Chinese migrants, on Jamaica, the kin-based chain migration system facilitated the migration of predominantly Hakka Chinese people during this period. Geographic information system mapping of records from the Chinese Cemetery in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, reveals that most of these migrants emigrated from a small number of villages surrounding what is now the city of Shenzhen, in Guangdong Province. Most of these migrants entered the grocery retail trade, beginning a long tradition of Chinese shopkeeping that lasts to this day.
Multiple incidents of anti-Chinese violence throughout the economic turmoil of the mid and late twentieth century and the adoption of socialist policies by the administration of Prime Minister Michael Manley (in office from 1972 to 1980 and, with a different economic program, from 1989 to 1992) led to mass emigration of the Hakka Chinese population in the 1970s and 1980s. Building on his time as a labour organiser, Manley ran on a platform that saw racial and economic equity for Jamaica’s poor, black lower class as achievable only through radical change and democratic socialism. Once in office, Manley implemented a series of social policies that prioritised the needs of Jamaica’s marginalised black majority, including a national minimum wage, paid maternity leave, abolition of bastardy laws, and price controls on staple products. However, his amendments to the income tax laws that were to fund his redistributive policies were less well received by Jamaica’s upper and middle classes—many of whom were Chinese. Manley’s increasingly socialist tone and his relationships with leaders like Cuban President Fidel Castro led to international scrutiny by countries such as the United States, an ensuing destabilisation campaign by its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and a corresponding reduction in international investment. Due to a significant ‘brain drain’, economic and political insecurity, and resource scarcity, much of the Jamaican Chinese population moved to the United States or Canada, reducing the overall Chinese population in Jamaica from 11,781 in 1970 to 5,320 by 1980.
In the mid 1980s and 1990s, a third wave of Chinese migrant labour arrived in Jamaica, this time to service factories in the Kingston Free Zone (KFZ). The KFZ was founded in 1976 with the hope of creating more jobs and reviving the quickly collapsing Jamaican economy. It functioned as a warehouse, transhipment, and later, export processing plant for international goods. Under the Jamaica Export Free Zone Act, companies within the KFZ were exempt from taxes on profits, imports into, or exports from the zone—preferential treatment that incentivised companies from the United States and Hong Kong to build export processing plants there. The migrant workers at the KFZ were predominantly women who specialised in the garment industry. Because of the informality of hiring practices, it is unclear how many women worked in these factories. However, it is estimated that up to 4,000 Chinese workers were employed in the KFZ at its peak.
Chinese migrant workers in the KFZ were shuttled between the factories and their dormitories, providing them with few opportunities to engage with the local Jamaican population outside grocery shopping and English classes facilitated by the Chinese Cultural Association. Correspondingly, few were expected to stay following the decline of the KFZ (which was often attributed to more competitive arrangements in other countries). However, locals report that once married (some in China and others locally), some of the women from the KFZ returned to create wholesale businesses, leading to a new wave of Chinese migration. Unlike the original Hakka Chinese community, this new cohort hails from diverse locations throughout China and predominantly speaks Mandarin Chinese. Not only did their presence rejuvenate the wholesale grocery trade on the island, but also they formed several hometown associations, including the Dongguan Hometown Association and the Fujian Hometown Association. In 1972, Jamaica formally recognised the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The following year, the PRC Embassy was established and, in 1977, the Jamaica China Friendship Association was created to facilitate greater local knowledge of China.
Chinese investment in Jamaica, as in many Latin American and Caribbean nations, has boomed in the twenty-first century. The PRC’s foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in Jamaica grew from 40 million USD in 2011 to 839 million USD at the end of 2016, while Chinese policy banks provided loans with a total value of 2.1 billion USD to the Jamaican Government from 2005 to 2022. Much of this money has been used to fund road infrastructure projects, urban revitalisation, and the development of Jamaica’s natural resource sector. One of these projects was the North–South Highway, completed in 2016, spanning six Jamaican parishes, and connecting Ochos Rios (a major tourist city) to Kingston. The North–South Highway was financed by a loan of 457 million USD from the China Development Bank (CDB) and equity investment provided by the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). Since then, CHEC has led several other infrastructure projects on the island, which were similarly funded by the Export–Import Bank of China (China Eximbank) and the CDB. These include road reconstruction projects throughout Kingston, additional highway projects, and Jamaica’s first road overpass connecting Spanish Town to Kingston.
In addition to projects contracted to Chinese construction companies and sponsored by Chinese development finance, Jamaica has also seen an increase in Chinese FDI. Chinese investment in Jamaica includes that by Huawei, ZTE, Sinopharm International Corporation, JISCO Alpart, and companies founded in Jamaica such as ZDA Construction and BYD Construction. Numerous small Chinese-owned businesses have also sprung up across the island—many of which sell wholesale goods. While some researchers directly attribute increased migration to Chinese policy and investment, others claim that even though private immigration benefits from the state, it is not directly facilitated by it. However, the local reception and media coverage of current PRC-sponsored projects have been fraught—with Jamaican workers’ rights and poor local perceptions of new migrants central to these debates.
While less significant in terms of expenditure than China’s engagements in Jamaica’s infrastructure and natural resource sectors, the PRC has invested in educational projects throughout Jamaica. In 2009, Jamaica became the first English-speaking Caribbean nation to receive a Confucius Institute (CI), at the University of the West Indies, Mona. In 2019, the original CI was replaced with a new, 5 million USD facility, making it the largest CI in the Caribbean.
In 2019, Jamaica signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the PRC’s Ambassador to Jamaica Tian Qi, joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While the PRC had many investments in Jamaica at the time of signing (see below), the MoU provided the basis for future policy coordination and financial support from the PRC. At the May 2019 BRI Forum, Ambassador Tian praised Jamaica for joining the BRI, saying: ‘Looking into the future, I envisage high-quality Belt and Road cooperation in enhancing connectivity by promoting policy synergy, infrastructure development, unimpeded trade, financial cooperation and people-to-people bonds, thereby enhancing practical cooperation for the wellbeing of our peoples.’
As is often the case in bilateral relations, the economic ties between China and Jamaica are best understood in the context of the two countries’ developmental trajectories. In the case of China, the two key factors prompting its engagement in Jamaica are the quest for natural resources to feed domestic Chinese demand and the need for markets for firms from its infrastructure sector. For Jamaica, the past four decades of crippling debt to international lenders and the impacts on the island’s economy and society need to figure in any analysis of its external relations.
Trade: Jamaica had an overall trade deficit of 3.49 billion USD in 2020. Food, industrial supplies, fuel, and lubricants dominate its imports. The country’s mining sector is the main contributor to its export basket, with alumina and bauxite making up 44% of exports. Indeed, despite its small size, Jamaica is the world’s sixth-largest producer of alumina, with a 2% share of the global market. This trade imbalance and the reliance on alumina exports pre-date the growing economic ties between Jamaica and the PRC in the past 15 years, which have been characterised more by investment and finance than by trade. The PRC does not feature among Jamaica’s top five export markets, with only 2.2% of the island’s exports shipped to the Chinese market. The PRC has become the second-largest exporter to Jamaica, although the share of imports from China (about 7.7% of total imports) remains well below Jamaica’s reliance on imports from the United States (about 45% of the total).
In this way, Jamaica’s trade with China reflects its overall quantitative and qualitative trade imbalance with the world economy. The PRC’s main exports to Jamaica include industrial machinery, electronics, processed articles of iron or steel, and vehicles. Conversely, Jamaica ships to China mostly unprocessed or low-value-added exports in categories such as ore slag and ash, inorganic chemicals, and iron and steel. The administration of Prime Minister Andrew Holness (in office from 2011 to 2012, and again from 2016 to the present) has tried to promote greater trade ties with China, and announced a ‘strategic framework’ for economic relations in 2019. Despite perennial concerns about overexploitation of the country’s fisheries, these efforts are focused on exporting goods such as live lobster, tuna, sea cucumber, and conch, as well as products such as rum and pork.
Investment and Finance: In broad terms, there are two types of Chinese investment in Jamaica: that tied to loans from Chinese policy banks, and that carried out by individual companies outside state-to-state financial frameworks. The latter has concentrated in two ‘sunset’ industries that have well passed their productivity peak. The first of these is an investment of 260 million USD by China’s Pan-Caribbean Sugar Company (PCSC), which in 2009 paid 9 million USD to acquire the Bernard Lodge, Frome, and Monymusk sugar estates when the Jamaican Government decided to privatise its sugar assets. PCSC, a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Complete Plant Import & Export Corporation, attempted but failed to revitalise Jamaica’s sugar sector, and has already divested from the Monymusk and Bernard Lodge estates. PCSC continues to run the Frome Sugar Factory, but the project has been a lossmaking venture, with the plant facing declining productivity rates. This has trumped earlier hopes that international investors could modernise Jamaica’s sugar sector and bring it up to international standards.
The second Chinese investor in a Jamaican ‘sunset’ industry is the state-owned Jiuquan Iron and Steel Group (JISCO), which acquired Alumina Partners of Jamaica (Alpart), the company that runs the St Elizabeth bauxite refinery, from Russia’s RUSAL in 2016. The St Elizabeth plant is the largest bauxite refinery in the country, and had been abandoned since RUSAL decided to shut it in 2009. The 299-million-USD purchase brought much hope and around 700 jobs to St Elizabeth Parish—although with more flexible contracts and lower salaries than in the past—but the refinery now faces an uncertain future. With the plant experiencing low productivity, JISCO decided to suspend operations in 2019 for two years to modernise the plant.
The remainder of Chinese investments in Jamaica are concentrated in infrastructure and have been rolled out with loans from China’s major policy banks. The most emblematic among these is the North–South Highway, financed with a loan of 457 million USD from the CDB in 2009, and constructed by CHEC. The project made international headlines both for its scale and for the unusual arrangement used to finance it: the Jamaican Government offered to pay with 484 hectares of prime land and a concession to operate the highway’s tolls for 50 years. Beyond this project, the CDB and China Eximbank have provided the Jamaican Government with 10 other major loans worth 2.1 billion USD for roadworks, the construction of the Montego Bay Convention Centre, and an affordable-housing project.
While Jamaica’s outstanding debt to China represents only a fraction of the country’s total debt—3.9%, according to the country’s finance minister—the Government of Jamaica announced in November 2019 that it would not be taking new loans from China. The commitment came as part of a program to reduce debt and does not preclude Chinese infrastructure companies from operating in the country, although, in the words of Prime Minister Holness, they will do so under ‘the modalities of joint-venture partnerships, public–private partnerships, or private-sector transactions directly between Jamaican firms and Chinese firms’.
Chinese investment in Jamaica has been at the centre of many controversies and public backlashes. In addition to the history of anti-Chinese feelings in Jamaica, the Jamaican public has been critical of the country’s increased debt, the perceived lack of transparency around the terms of loans and project deals, and the employment of Chinese workers and companies for infrastructure projects.
As in other countries, in Jamaica, there have been frequent critiques of the use by Chinese companies of Chinese nationals (as opposed to local workers) on PRC-sponsored projects as well as the poor treatment of both Chinese and Jamaican workers. In some cases, local outrage against the treatment of labourers on infrastructure projects has led to strikes—for instance, in 2018, workers on the CEHC-led Mandela Highway Improvement Project went on strike for five days over working conditions—and to calls for the Jamaican Government to bring criminal charges against Chinese companies for labour rights violations. The owners of Jamaican construction businesses have also criticised the government for providing tax waivers and import concessions for Chinese companies, putting local firms at a disadvantage when bidding for contracts. Several public figures have been critical of Chinese investment. In 2017, former National Security Minister and Member of Parliament Paul Bunting released a video accusing the PRC Government of economic colonialism and predatory lending practices. Bunting’s claims were later strongly rejected in a statement released by the PRC Embassy. In 2018, Paul Golding, Dean of the College of Business and Management at the University of Technology, Jamaica, warned the nation about the PRC’s lack of transparency and the potential for Chinese investment to become a ‘debt trap’.
One of the earliest controversies regarding PRC investment in Jamaica occurred in 2013 when CHEC proposed leasing two small islands to build a transhipment hub. Great Goat Island and Little Goat Island are part of a small archipelago off the coast of Old Harbour Bay in St Catherine Parish. This proposal prompted an immediate backlash from locals and environmentalists. Critics accused then Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller (in office, 2006–07 and 2012–16) of selling a Jamaican ‘paradise’ to the PRC (links here, here, and here). Moreover, several ‘Save Goat Island’ campaigns were created, requesting the land be maintained as a cultural heritage or ecotourism site, to protect any endangered species on the islands. In 2016, the Jamaican Government announced it would not proceed with the project.
Later controversies arose in response to a major infrastructure development program funded in part by China Eximbank. Contracted by the Jamaican Government, CHEC completed a series of infrastructure projects across the island, including road-widening works in Kingston and the development of Jamaica’s first road overpass. As part of the road-widening project, several markets and informal business spaces were demolished, including the historic Constant Spring Market. In 2018, local activists and vendors protested the proposed demolition of the market, successfully requesting court injunctions to prevent the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation demolishing the site. However, in 2019, the injunctions were lifted, signalling the end of the legal battle and paving the way for the demolition.
Debt, Transparency, and Accountability
The financing of these various infrastructural projects with loans from China Eximbank and the CDB has also been contentious. Many of the concerns raised by the 2.1 billion USD borrowed from China mirror widespread suspicions elsewhere about Chinese development finance. These include questions about potential debt traps, uneasiness about the opacity of Chinese loans, and associated issues of accountability. The debates also have a unique Jamaican flavour, given how Jamaica has for decades had one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in the world. Debt has had a direct impact on rising poverty rates and decaying welfare, and remains a source of anxiety.
The Caribbean Investigative Journalism Network highlighted many of the concerns about Chinese loans in a 2019 report, which recognised the short-term benefits of such loans in an infrastructurally underdeveloped region. However, it also criticised the fact loan agreements with Chinese entities were rarely published and failed to adhere to approved procurement processes, while requiring excessive government guarantees that risked the seizure of publicly owned Jamaican assets. The academic literature on alleged Chinese debt traps has routinely debunked the idea that Chinese banks have any strategic interest in seizing unproductive assets in remote areas of the world. Scholars have also emphasised that Chinese banks are much more inclined to renegotiate and restructure debt repayments when a country finds itself in financial distress. In this sense, Chinese loans would appear to be more flexible than the ‘multilateral debt trap’ that Jamaica has had with Western-based organisations for four decades. Still, expressions of concern over Chinese loans have been common in the media and even in Jamaica’s popular music.
Legitimate concerns have stressed that the opacity of Chinese loans has hindered the possibility of civil society oversight and participatory governance of Chinese-financed projects. The issue here is not the potentially onerous terms of repayment, but the selection of projects and their economic, social, and environmental impacts. For example, the Jamaican minister responsible for water, works, and housing, Horace Chang, condemned in 2017 the construction of the Montego Bay Convention Centre, financed with a loan of 45 million USD from China Eximbank, emphasising how little the centre was used and its high maintenance costs. He further stressed that ‘if we had spent 50 million USD on our inner-city communities, maybe the problem in Montego Bay today would not be there’. Therefore, questions have been raised about whether infrastructural development can uplift the country from its developmental impasse and, more generally, whether projects targeted by Chinese loans can generate sufficient economic activity or social benefits to justify taking these loans in the first place. As mentioned above, as of November 2019, the Government of Jamaica announced it would not be taking new loans from China.
Conflicts between Chinese Migrants and Jamaicans
Chinese investment has also been accompanied by an increase in independent Chinese migration to Jamaica, with many of these migrants operating wholesale businesses. Conflicts between Jamaicans and independent migrants frequently appear in the Jamaican press and on social media. Videos of Chinese nationals eating donkey or other forms of exotic meat are often shared on WhatsApp and other social media platforms, conforming with and propagating local perceptions that ‘Chinese nyam [eat] dog’. In one such incident, a Chinese shop-owner in Trelawny was filmed slapping the face of a Jamaican teen whom she accused of stealing. Video of the incident was circulated widely on Jamaican news outlets and social media, garnering much outrage from local viewers. After widespread calls for the shop-owner’s arrest, she was charged with assault occasioning bodily harm but ultimately not sentenced, leading to further outrage. Over the years, there has been an increasing number of cases of Chinese nationals becoming targets of theft and violence and, in some cases, even murder. While much of the violence occurs as part of a robbery (see, for instance, here, here, and here), there have been instances of Chinese nationals being specifically targeted because of their ethnicity, which has led to increased concerns among both Chinese migrants and Chinese-Jamaican leaders about the safety of the community.
US politicians have been especially critical of Chinese expansion in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 2015, then President Barack Obama undertook a three-day trip to the Caribbean and Central America, which included a visit to Jamaica (the first visit by a sitting US President since Ronald Reagan in 1982). Several media outlets—for instance, see here and here—speculated that President Obama’s visit was directly connected to increased PRC investment in the region. The visit by Obama, the first African-American US President, had special meaning for many Jamaicans.
The administration of Donald Trump took a more confrontational stance towards China’s engagement in Jamaica. President Trump nominated Donald Tapia in 2019 to serve as the US Ambassador to the country. During his short tenure (September 2019 – January 2021), Tapia frequently attacked China in Jamaican media. Tapia authored opinion pieces and gave interviews lambasting Huawei’s 5G mobile technology (which he claimed would be used to spy on Jamaicans) and Chinese debt traps. He also lobbied the Jamaican Government against the involvement of a Chinese company in the country’s gambling and lottery sector. While Tapia’s remarks mirrored the concerns of some Jamaicans, his intrusion into Jamaica’s national politics and his unsavoury style (for instance, he picked Twitter fights with Jamaicans and accused them of drinking cheap vodka and smoking marijuana) were met with significant backlash and critiques directed both at him personally and at US meddling in Caribbean politics. Since the departure of Tapia, the US Embassy in Jamaica has adopted a much less confrontational approach to China’s activities on the island.
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