Editorial: Racist moves will rebound on Tonga

The small island states of the Pacific traditionally look up to, and take their lead from, Fiji. Thus, there is bound to be some sort of impact when, with near impunity, racism is practised against that country's ethnic Indians. The spillover to neighbouring Tonga has not taken long. That kingdom has begun moves to expel many of its Chinese residents after a wave of ethnic violence against them.

Apologists for this wretched policy have not only been emboldened by the actions of indigenous Fijians but cite the ongoing fractiousness in Fiji as justification. If the growing presence of Chinese is not reversed, they say, these newcomers will come to dominate Tonga's economy as comprehensively as the Indians do in Fiji.

The argument is absurd. At the most basic level, there is no comparison between the racial makeups of the two nations. Fijians make up 51 per cent of the population and Indians 44 per cent, a situation always likely to produce tension. But Chinese residents make up only 3000 to 4000 of Tonga's population of about 100,000. Of that number, 600 are hard-working shopkeepers and their families, the particular target of Tongan venom.

The Chinese were, of course, encouraged to migrate to Tonga. From 1983 to 1991, the kingdom sold passports and citizenships to the Chinese. It was a money-making racket; the Chinese, many of whom were worried about the handover of Hong Kong to China, were not expected to show up in the Pacific.

More recently, however, there has been an influx of Chinese on work permits promoted by the Tongan royal family. The new migrants have received the seal of approval from King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. This month, the ailing 83-year-old monarch said that Tongans could learn from the Chinese virtues of hard work and saving. The parallel with the indentured Indians introduced into Fiji is obvious.

The King, it appears, has not been told about the crackdown on the Chinese. Indeed, it could be that the new policy has much to do with a looming battle for succession.

In the normal course of events, the successor as near-absolute ruler would automatically be the King's eldest son, Crown Prince Tupouto'a. But the 55-year-old is said not to want the throne. That means the King's youngest son, Prime Minister Prince 'Ulakalala Lavaka Ata, would vie for control with his sister, Princess Pilolevu Tuita.

The Princess, who has growing business links with China, has clearly influenced her father's thinking. Thus it may be far from coincidental that a contradictory policy of expelling Chinese has been introduced by Prince 'Ulakalala. For him it establishes a point of difference with his sister in an area in which he can court popular backing. As an added incentive, it earns kudos for a royal family whose credibility has been dented by an eccentric American businessman's loss of the $48.5 million raised from the sale of passports.

None of that excuses the expulsion of Chinese in a manner which raises the spectre of Idi Amin's insane ejection of Asians from Uganda in the early 1970s. In effect, the policy condones racial hatred.

Rather than rooting out and punishing those responsible for assaulting Chinese and burning their shops, Tonga plans to dispossess the victims of the violence. No matter that many of the Chinese were duped into migrating to Tonga under a shonky scheme. No matter that many would have expended their life savings in settling there. No matter that their trading expertise benefits the country hugely.

The policy, if instituted, would rightly make Tonga an international outcast. Already it has a dodgy reputation. Aside from shambolic migration policies, its status as a "harmful" tax haven has attracted OECD ire. Threatened with isolation from the international financial community, Tonga is having to reform its tax system. Increasingly, it is also courting tourism, aided by financial support from Australia. Prince 'Ulakalala might well refer to Fiji to discover how quickly that source of revenue can dry up.

Tonga has absolutely no reason to fear domination of its economy by foreigners. The work permit scheme has ended and the kingdom can tailor immigration as it sees fit. Expelling a small minority which is making a valuable contribution to the economy and, potentially, to Tongan attitudes is nonsensical.

On a far more sinister note, the policy represents a surrender to racism. However it is painted, that can never be acceptable.

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