Rational debate racist violence's remedy

The rise of racially motivated violence against Asian people in Samoa brings shame upon our nation.

And it is also a backwards step that returns us to the days of lashing out driven by economic resentment that we should have long since dealt with.

It is difficult to forget the last decade in which Chinese violence across the Pacific was widespread and motivated by anger at foreign ownership. 

Two days of anti-Chinese violence devastated Honiara in 2006; the same year, Tonga erupted with similar scenes. 

Papua New Guinea also had outbreaks of racially motivated violence years later.

But rising attacks on members of this country’s Chinese community show that we are at risk of seeing a return to systemic and targeted violence against Chinese people in the Pacific and it occurring in Samoa. 

To allow the wicked few who perpetrate these acts to continue and for Samoa’s international reputation to be forever stained as a country riven by racism would be our national disgrace. 

And it is a real possibility. 

As we know, the history of Samoa has been marred by several episodes of racist violence dating back to the first wave of Chinese immigrants to this country in the mid-19th Century. 

But these pioneering emigres have been responsible for some of this country’s greatest entrepreneurs and families descended from Chinese heritage are among the nation’s most successful. 

From their earliest days as plantation workers to today, Chinese people have become part of the fabric of Samoa’s history and its culture.

But as has long been noted there has been conflict between the “old” Chinese of the earliest waves of immigration and the “new” Chinese, over whether the latter do enough to respect Samoan customs or integrate with its ways of life. 

According to data from 2015, some 1500 Chinese nationals were granted permits to enter Samoa; about 700 of them came to work on projects funded by the Chinese Government.

But there was also a significant influx, in the order of more than 440 people, of people, working mostly for construction companies owned by Chinese citizens, or for relatives already working in Samoa. 

Since then this figure is only likely to have increased and, along with it, a sense of resentment against the nation’s Chinese community that is boiling over into episodes of disgusting violence. 

The front page of this Thursday’s Samoa Observer carried comments by a Supreme Court Justice, Tafaoimalo Tologata Tuala-Warren, decrying the apparent targeting of Chinese people in violent acts. (“Judge laments rising anti-Chinese crimes”).

The Judge made the remarks in the context of sentencing remarks handed down to a man found guilty of striking a Chinese man unconscious with a rock and robbing him. 

“They targeted [a] Chinese victim because of his race,” said Justice Tuala-Warren. “This was unprovoked.”

One does not have to have read the pages of this newspaper closely to have seen that incidents of this kind are far from isolated.

There are a litany of other examples of robberies in which Chinese store owners and individuals who have been targeted.

There was the murder in 2018 of a Chinese national, Charles Chao, who had been a volunteer at the Anglican School at Leififi.

Last year we witnessed the infamous $60,000 theft and brutal attack upon the couple who ran the One-on-One supermarket in Vailoa.

And then, of course, there was the tragic case of last October’s botched armed robbery in Vaitele. 

A Chinese national and Samoan permanent resident who had lived in this country for eleven years, Cao Yaqing, was brutally stabbed to death.

It was Justice Tuala-Warren again who handed down a life sentence to the 18-year-old perpetrator of that attack, Gogosina Lelei Leilua, of Vaiusu and Elise.

In doing so she issued a clarion call to end a disturbing trend of racist violence that is casting a pall over this country and its moral standing. 

“Our country should be careful lest we become a country with hostility towards a group of persons who have race in common,” she said. 

“This will lead to crime born of that hostility targeted towards a certain group of people and from there; the step towards hate crime is inevitable. 

“Hate crimes are crimes typically involving violence that are motivated by prejudice on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, or other grounds.

“We pride ourselves as a nation of being tolerant and accepting of different races and nationalities, very much in harmony with our Christian beliefs. We must guard this tolerance fiercely.”

We do not want Samoa to become the country in which systematic anti-Chinese violence that ran rampant across the Pacific for the last decade returns.

But the seeds for such a surge are present and it will require our vigilance as a nation and in our churches and communities to combat this chilling possibility. 

The delicate issue of Chinese businesspeople’s economic ownership is driving much of the racist resentment spurring the worst among us to lash out in the most senseless ways. 

But in a globalised world in which China is not only the world’s most populous nation but an economic powerhouse, the emigration of its wealthier citizens has become a political issue in several countries around the world.

Countries such as Australia and Canada, are having open policy debates about the extent of foreign, but especially Chinese, ownership of their national infrastructure and real estate. 

Raising legitimate questions about the extent of foreign-owned business in Samoa; their operating practices; and their net impact on the economy is perfectly allowable. Violence never is. 

But this is an issue that requires rational and evidence-based debate about these issues and possible policy responses that are not tinged in any way with racist resentment. 

Perhaps doing so would serve as a kind of pressure valve and move this issue out of the shadows where it can fester so terribly.

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