An editorial titled “The Plunder of Myanmar” in the New York Times on January 23 delivered a wide-ranging criticism of China’s resource extraction in Myanmar, from illegal logging to jade and copper mining.
China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency ran several defensive responses soon after, claiming that the article “blatantly breaches such basic journalist principles as fairness and balance.”
The Xinhua piece spoke in vague and general terms and spoke to the deeply instilled nationalism that defines Chinese state media: “…even if the single cases are true, the perpetrators are just a handful of individuals. It is highly irresponsible to hint that China as a whole is to blame for what Myanmar may have lost in the so-called plunder.”
The Chinese foreign ministry also claimed, “China has always required Chinese nationals and enterprises abroad to abide by local laws and regulations, protect the environment and bring benefits to local people.”
This statement is intended to dismiss the fact that China is the primary destination for rosewood, tiger penises and, as the New York Times put it, “jade hacked out of the earth by impoverished, heroin-addicted labourers,” and that the situation on both sides of the border has allowed this trade to take place.
China’s reaction shows strong defensive stance against criticism of the way the PRC has handled its southern neighbour. This shows how important the country is to China, especially the southwestern provinces, and the effect public opinion in Myanmar could have on the Chinese political landscape.
North of the border, the city of Kunming in Yunnan province has experienced a boon in resource processing in the past few years. Formerly reputed as the most liveable city in China for its clean air, Kunming has in recent years been soiled by the building of new refineries and a precipitous drop in air quality. Protests were quickly put down over oil and paraxylene producing refineries just outside the city, and the subsequent years have seen an expansion in the oil industry, including refineries built to handle crude from the now-operational pipeline stretching from the Myanmar coast into China. While China is sucking away Myanmar’s oil, its own citizens will receive the brunt of the pollution from its refinement.
In a sense, China isn’t intentionally seeking to exploit Myanmar, but the PRC methods of development simply don’t sufficiently take into account environmental concerns, abetment of corruption, and the rights of local people. The people of any of the Chinese-run mines aren’t any more exploited than those of Kunming, and enjoy the same GDP growth and mining labour jobs. The clearing of villages for mines and dams in Myanmar isn’t any more unjust than the millions relocated for similar projects in China. It is simply the embedded culture of PRC government and industrialists, to put quickly-built infrastructure and economic growth first and the fates of individuals and long-term sustainability a distant second.
Ultimately, the debate over China’s role in Myanmar shows a deep insecurity. Ally-shy China needs Myanmar to be an alternative route for oil from the Middle East and Africa, and to provide electricity and trade in its Southwest provinces, most directly Yunnan.
China’s southwest is especially important to the PRC, as its development can continue to be a bright point in the Chinese economy, even as the developed east coast’s growth rate becomes increasingly flaccid. These economic figures are especially important, as the realistic pursuit of the heavily propagandised “Chinese Dream” of continuous economic growth and a rise in material wealth is important to the dignity of Beijing.
This growth has been upset by Myanmar public opinion in the past. Myanmar has rebelled against Chinese influence with the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam Project, which was to be built in Myanmar, but meant to send much of its generated electricity to China. U Thein Sein later suspended the project, citing the will of the people, and it has lain in limbo ever since.
This has shown that Chinese influence over Myanmar, though far-reaching, is not absolute. China, if it is to succeed in siphoning off Myanmar’s resources, needs to be extremely cautious of Myanmar public opinion, even more so than its own citizens, over whom it has tighter control. This is the true reason behind the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s defensiveness on the New York Times article, and why Chinese operations in Myanmar continue to keep a low profile in general.
China’s power over Myanmar is further diluted by increasing competition from Europe, and to a lesser degree India and the US. If the People’s Republic is to win influence over Myanmar, they must prove and publicise good will towards the country. If Chinese influence is to be countered, the rest of the world must likewise prove itself relatively benevolent. Until Myanmar can build the capacity to prop its own industry up, foreign investment will prove to be not only a grab for cash and resources, but also for the future of the country’s political alignment.