By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – ‘Isileli Hopoi Naitoko, aka ‘Isi Pofele, age 64, is a businessman who returned from the United States with his family to live in Tonga. He started a business in 2007 with a falekoloa (convenient store). His store is located on upper Wellington Road, close to the Taufa’ahau Road intersection in downtown Nuku’alofa.
He is one of very few Tongan store owners still doing business in Nuku’alofa, despite the Chinese taking over almost 90% of the retail falekoloa businesses in Tonga. In an interview this week, ‘Isi smiles with a tinge of pride in the fact that “he survived the Chinese business onslaught.”
He is one of the few stores in the greater Nuku’alofa area that are still Tongan owned and going strong. But there are over 120 stores all over Tonga that are Chinese owned and operated. And on his street, he boasts of how he had a Chinese store just down the road that moved away because they could not compete with him.
So, it is not only how the Chinese Government conducts its diplomatic relationship with Tonga that raises concern among locals, but also the impact of Chinese businesses at ground level.
But the impact is not necessarily bad, even though there are strong emotional lingering perspectives that opportunities for certain business engagements should have been exclusively reserved for indigenous Tongans.
Despite this concern, there is an increasing number of Tongans who can honestly say they appreciate the services provided by the Chinese stores. Of every five Tongans interviewed, only one would voice discontent about Chinese stores. The majority clearly state how these stores are serving the needs of the people, and they are doing something Tongan stores of old could not do.
For one thing, Chinese business owners seek out what people really need, and they stock their stores with those products. They are also open long hours and every day except Sunday. Their stores do not close for holidays, and even when there is a funeral, they remain open (unlike Tongan stores).
To put it mildly, the success of Chinese retail businesses is primarily built on the tremendous customer base offered them by Tongan consumers. There is a lively ongoing trade going on, and Tongans shop at stores not because it is Chinese or Tongan owned, but because they have what they want, and the service is generally better at Chinese stores.
But what is the key to the Chinese business success?
“There are two key factors,” ‘Isi says. “Funding and working together in groups!” And that sounds easy for Tongans to apply, but it is a Chinese “way of doing” things that seems hard for Tongans to carry out.
“You cannot compete with any business that operates together in a group. They order their goods together, making it cheaper. They co-ordinate everything, from ordering, shipping, and distribution, so that the individual store benefits from working together in a business cluster.”
He says: “There’s no way you can compete with that unless you become a part of a group that can work together.” “Going it alone,” says Isi, “is so much harder than going together with others to achieve your goals.”
The Chinese work in groups while the Tongans work independently on their own. And even when it comes to funding, an individual Chinese store can get assistance from the group providing the necessary capital, that can be paid back over a period of time.
‘Isi says that this where the Government can step in to help local Tongan owned businesses to survive and thrive despite the financial struggles. “Government can help with funding,” he says. “Even very low interest business loans to be paid back over a long period of time.”
Building better relationships – discrimination not an option
Let’s get one thing straight. The Chinese businesses are here to stay, and they are providing a needed service in retail businesses that Tongan shop owners have not been able to do for many years.
The solution is not to try and get rid of them or their businesses. They need to be embraced and appreciated, as most are now Tongan citizens, and we need to learn to accommodate them into Tongan life, and to learn from their culture and their ways of doing business. This is something the late King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV called for in the latter part of his life.
It is inappropriate to talk about Tonga as a Christian country and yet practice racism and discrimination against the Chinese or any other peoples for that matter. If we claim to be Christians, then we must treat the Chinese in a Christian way. Discrimination is not an option for Christians to treat anybody.
There are more Tongans living outside of Tonga than those living in Tonga. How do they feel if treated by their host nations the same way Chinese are treated in Tonga? The Christian maxim of “doing to others what you want others to do to you” come in here.
A young 10-yr-old Tongan comes into a Chinese store and yells (in Tongan language): “Hey China (mockingly)… hahaha… how much…?” picking up a packet of bongos that he probably buys daily and knows the price well. But this kid seems to have the attitude that it is OK to intimidate and treat the Chinese rudely, “for Mum and Dad say, they should not be in Tonga… and that they are rich and kākā (corrupt).”
If the same kid walks into a Tongan owned store and does the same thing, he would probably be slapped in the mouth, and told to go and learn some manners from his Mama! But then unfortunately, it is probably the Mama that fills these kids mind with all kinds of misconception and discriminatory information about the Chinese.
And it is probably the same Mama who led her kids to downtown Nuku’alofa on 16/11 and joined the shameful looting that took place among the Chinese stores. It is still one of the amazing images captured in videos from 16/11, that most of the looters were women with small children carrying goods out of smashed Chinese stores.
16/11 was one of the tragedies in Tongan modern history, and the Chinese stores were targets of trashing and looting carried out by Tongans. The racial and social discrimination was not only so obvious but also carried out with the belief, as expressed by a woman on video: “They stole from us, and so we take it back!” She did not specify what the Chinese stole from her, and when did they do it?
This writer carried out extensive interviews with Chinese storeowners and businesses after 16/11. And was shocked with the unkind things that were done to them by Tongans. Most did not come to Tonga with any wealth to speak of; they came to seek a new life… away from a China that offered them no freedom and had restricted opportunities to make a living.
A new pathway must be negotiated for the future
Despite the extremely unlikely scenario of Tonga breaking or making a new arrangement of diplomatic relations with China, there are factors that will not give favor to any adjustment. Chief among these is the huge amount of indebtedness Tonga owes the Chinese Exim Bank.
The Chinese did not force the money on us. We asked for the loan and got it. And that loan helped rebuild the CBD that was destroyed in 16/11.
In modern law, as in ancient, the debtor is the slave of the creditor, especially if the debtor is not in a position to pay back. With the Chinese loan to Tonga, there is a sense of dependence on an illusion that maybe the creditor would have a change of mind and turn the loan into a grant.
It has been over ten years, and no payment has been made on the US$118 million loan. It was not an interest free loan either. The leaders are still talking about an unfulfilled hope, that China would soon turn the loan into a grant.
But former Ambassador to Tonga, Wang Baodong, told this writer that turning the loan into a grant is not an option. This is because the loan was made from a bank that is governed by international laws and rules. Imagine the other customers of the bank seeking loans expecting those loans to be into grants?
Mr. Wang however was not averse to other options such as a direct approach to the Chinese Government to help finance the loan payments as part of its aid to Tonga.