“Many of our locals think that China is plundering natural resources and goods from Myanmar” said Bing Bing, a 24-year-old Shan (an ethnic group of Myanmar) girl and senior Chinese interpreter from Myanmar. Despite her in-depth experiences with many Chinese clients, she did not recall a positive image of her Chinese partners among Myanmar people.
On January 17th, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar for the first time in almost two decades, seeking to boost the Belt and Road Initiative and strategic cooperation with Myanmar. This state visit is seen as a symbol of the new era for China-Myanmar relations.
China’s official relations with the government have gone forward smoothly. However, behind the ongoing China-Myanmar high-level cooperation,why have we encountered such a substantially different perspective on China’s image from its common people? How exactly do regular Burmese view China and why?
Chinese in Myanmar: Pauk-Phaw is not the Whole Story
In most Burmese’ eyes, China leaves a complicated image in Myanmar. While Chinese are generally regarded as pauk-phaw (meaning fraternal in Burmese, now being used as a term to describe the friendly and close relationship between China and Myanmar)，negative impressions have frequently been recalled by many civil society organizations and media in Myanmar. Among all, non-transparency and insensitivity to the local community are frequently associated with China.
The lack of transparency is the major issue. Vicky Bowman, one of the most influential NGO leaders in Myanmar, as well as the former UK Ambassador to Myanmar, pointed out a common perception on Chinese companies. She said it was common that when NGOs tried to approach the Chinese factories and companies, “the guards asked them (NGOs) to leave”, indicating the unwillingness of Chinese companies in communicating as well as the lack of an information-sharing system between the companies and the local community.
Joint Peace Fund (JPF), set up by 12 international donors to help create nationally owned and inclusive lasting peace, also expressed that they would like “to have more access to information, more exposure to representatives from China” as the motives of the initiatives of the economic corridor between China and Myanmar seem unclear to JPF.
Similarly, Pyrou Chung, the founder of Open Development Initiatives across five countries in the South East Asia, said the biggest problem is that “all the Chinese investment data are speculative”.
A higher degree of transparency and openness has also been suggested by the director of Bloomberg Myanmar, Mr. Ye Min Oo, who has encountered very different experiences in approaching Chinese companies and Vietnam companies. While the Managing Director of a global Vietnamese company showed very proactive responses, the Chinese companies sent typically procrastinated and reserved responses like “Ok, ok, later, later…”.
The other issue is the insensitivity to the local community. David Abrahamson, the former director of a local community-based NGO, Landesa Myanmar, suggests that Chinese companies have left “an impression of not listening to the community”. The suspension of the Myitsone dam project, Abrahamson believed, is strongly correlated to this problem.
While appreciating China’s strength in long-term project planning, JPF stresses that “the way it is perceived here is that Myanmar’s needs have to be shaped, massaged, to fit with the overarching objectives of the belt and road.” It is worrying to people in Myanmar that China is trying to overlay their vision onto the needs and concerns of the local community.
The underlying reasons for these negative images are multi-dimensional. The major problem is that Chinese companies, especially state-owned companies, are accustomed to dealing with the government directly instead of the local people and organizations.
Bowman expressed that Chinese are “those who do what the government tells them to do”. This over-reliance on authorities endangers Chinese companies’ sensitivity to the interests of local parties and the government-to-government mindset of doing business makes Chinese companies short-sighted.
Abrahamson holds a similar view. When asked what the difference between Chinese and Western companies in Myanmar is, he mentioned that “Chinese companies are more likely to take the face value of what the government said to be reliable.”
The negative image also arose from misunderstanding between Chinese and the locals due to language barriers and cultural differences. Ms Liu, the manager of a 5-year Chinese clothing factory in Myanmar, told us that the Chinese managers in the factories are “absolutely relying on interpreters here” and any mistakes made by the interpreter would lead to misunderstanding and friction. Once, the factory workers, mostly Buddhists, asked for Buddha statues to be placed in every work group, Liu and the rest of Chinese managers in the factory rejected it because “it is really not that necessary, and we already have a place for praying.”
Apart from the problems on the China side, the irresponsibility and incapability of the local government also play a part here. For instance, Bowman suggested that “the companies want to be responsible, but the（Myanmar) government is trying to make them irresponsible”. She pointed out that in previous projects, the government did not take issues such as biodiversity and human rights into account before signing a contract with the companies. Also, when mining companies wished to occupy less land for the protection of local bamboo fields, the Myanmar government forced them to get land permits for the entire land.
China is Trying to Create a Better Image
Being aware of the negative image of China in Myanmar would largely affect the Chinese activities and projects development, China is making promising progress with the efforts from Chinese companies, Chinese media, and Chinese NGOs.
Chinese companies have started to realize the importance of social responsibility. For instance, although the Myitsone Dam hydropower project has been suspended since 2011, State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC), the Chinese developer, still provides necessary supplies for the immigrant village, built for the villagers affected by the dam. United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has awarded SPIC’s work in social responsibility in 2015. In addition, Chinese companies have become more attentive to the local culture. Many Chinese companies have in-house Buddha statues for local employees to worship, as well as frequent trips and donations to temples.
Meanwhile, realizing the importance of media in improving the image of China, Myanmar Golden Phoenix, the only officially registered Chinese media in Myanmar, is promoting the information exchange and mutual understanding between Chinese and local communities by reporting high-quality news about Chinese engagement in Myanmar. More importantly, in contrast to the traditional official Chinese media, Myanmar Golden Phoenix has achieved what Abrahamson described as “good media engagement” for example, staying sincere and reporting both the positives and the negatives.
What is also worth noting is that more Chinese NGOs, with an expectation to promote “people-to people bonding” under the Belt and Road Initiative, have stepped into Myanmar. For instance, China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), the first officially registered Chinese INGO in Myanmar, carries out education projects, including the Panda Pack Project (distributing school bags with stationaries) and the Pauk-Phaw Scholarship Project. By now, it had raised funds and materials totaling RMB 22.42 million (around USD 3.3 million) , benefiting 78,276 people in Myanmar.
Nevertheless, more challenges arise with these efforts. Chinese investments have its “sin” since critics equaling Belt and Road Initiatives with “China’s neo-colonization’s” are heated. Chinese media is facing huge challenges on gaining global credibility as they are generally assumed to be featured by state-mandated bias. Chinese NGOs, growing in the NGO ecosystem established by well-known western NGOs in Myanmar, also face no less obstacles.
Chinese NGOs: learning to be a good story-teller
As mentioned above, Chinese NGOs have taken their first step in Myanmar. And some beneficiaries have shown their appreciation. Nyi Nyi Lwin is one of the beneficiaries of Paukphaw Scholarship Project, his mother appreciated CFPA because “he does not have to quit school”. Yet, Chinese NGOs have far more room to grow and prosper.
Almost all of the interviewees in the local NGO sector and INGO sector have zero-to-little knowledge of Chinese NGOs in Myanmar, those who know of the charity projects conducted by Chinese NGOs describe that the Chinese charity model is “old-fashioned” and is not going to fix the core problems of China’s image in Myanmar.
Chinese NGOs can be a key actor in creating a better image by bridging the gap between Chinese companies and local communities, though it can only be achieved if Chinese NGOs can patiently work on the ground and serve the local community to become more credible in the eyes of the local people.
(Image: State Counsellor of Myanmar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi meets with Chinese president Xi Jin Ping. Source: Ministry of Information, Myanmar. )
Shiyuan Zeng, Rui Cui, Zhang Wen, and Xiaocao Cao, and Yuting Cheng are fellows of China House.
Shiyuan (Vanessa) Zeng is a undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, with a major in Psychology and a minor in Finance.
Rui Cui is a undergraduate student at Jilin University, with a major in Public Administration.
Zhang Wen is a graduate student at Beijing Language and Cultural University with a major in Chinese Literature.
Xiaocao (Michelle) Cao is a undergraduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), with a major in History.
Yuting Cheng is a undergraduate student at Huaibei Normal University , with a major in International Politics.
All the names listed are in no particular order.
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