PARAMARIBO, Suriname — The Foreign Ministry’s elegant new headquarters here is a gift from the Chinese government. Chinese signs on hundreds of businesses, from casinos to grocery shops and furniture stores, beckon the residents of this capital. Chinese work crews are paving roads cutting through the jungle.
Anchored by a surge in immigration
to this country since the 1990s, and smoothed with gifts of aid and low-interest loans, China
has quietly but surely established a foothold in Suriname
, a tiny corner of South America that is often an afterthought even for its neighbors.
While the economic aid has certainly been welcome in Suriname, formerly known as Dutch Guiana, the growing political and demographic profile of the Chinese here has created concerns, ranging from xenophobic calls from some political leaders here to investigate what they call a “Chinese invasion” to more tempered efforts to decipher what effect China’s rising influence will have on a country that is already distant linguistically and culturally from the rest of South America.
“What’s next, Chinese Guiana?” asked John Gimlette, a Briton whose book, “Wild Coast,” about the forgotten corner of the world on South America’s northeastern shoulder — Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname — was published this year.
China, which has built an embassy compound here that dwarfs the aging United States Embassy, insists that it has no plans to make Suriname into a de facto colony. Instead, China portrays its growing clout here as a reflection of solidarity with another developing nation.
Still, Chinese officials acknowledge that Suriname, which is about the size of Florida but with a much smaller population, about 500,000, is rich in potential.
“Suriname is a lucky country, such small population, so much land,” said Yuan Nansheng, the Chinese ambassador to Suriname, in an interview.
China, which enjoyed warm ties with previous Surinamese leaders, has also nurtured a close relationship with President Desi Bouterse, a controversial figure who until his election by Parliament last year was a fugitive from Interpol because of a 1999 cocaine trafficking conviction in the Netherlands.
Mr. Yuan said that he met with Mr. Bouterse at least once a month, about the same pace of meetings he had with Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, where he served as ambassador before coming to Suriname.
Mr. Yuan said China had no problem with the questions surrounding Mr. Bouterse’s past, even as the president also remains on trial for the killing of 15 top opponents in the 1980s, when he installed a military government here after taking part in a coup. “Of course, we would like to invite Mr. Bouterse to China,” Mr. Yuan said.
Meanwhile, though precise figures are hard to obtain, China is also thought to have emerged as the top provider of aid to Suriname after the Netherlands conveniently ended important aid disbursements here around the time of Mr. Bouterse’s election last year.
Aside from the new Foreign Ministry building, designed and built by Chinese companies, China’s aid to Suriname includes military assistance, construction of low-income housing, a plan to derive renewable energy from rice husks, help for shrimp farming and an upgrade of the state television network.
China’s expanded presence can easily be glimpsed just by driving out of Paramaribo into the countryside. Chinese laborers from one company, China Dalian International, which is upgrading Suriname’s roads, toil under the hot sun. They live in roadside camps carved out of surrounding forest.
In parts of Suriname, concerns over whether some Chinese laborers illegally stay past the end of their visas has led to debate over whether Chinese companies should be allowed to bring their own workers to the country, possibly depriving some Surinamese of jobs.
In one example, a Chinese palm oil project in the eastern province of Marowijne prompted calls by Ronnie Brunswijk, a leader of Suriname’s Maroons, who are descended from escaped slaves, for Chinese employment in the area to be limited to management positions.
More broadly, the arrival over the past two decades of thousands of new Chinese immigrants is generating debate over the influx’s effect.
Some here see positive results. “They invest in every corner of the country,” said Noel Hassankhan, a restaurant owner, referring to Chinese food stores. “They offer an assortment of products, cheap prices, and stay open until late in the evening.”
Estimates vary over the numbers of Chinese now in Suriname, but China’s embassy puts the figure at about 40,000, or nearly 10 percent of the population, including legal and illegal migrants. Others, citing scandals over illegally obtained residence permits, say the numbers could be higher.
As in other parts of the world that have recently attracted Chinese immigrants, notably in Africa, many of the new arrivals are traders or small-business owners. In parts of Paramaribo and towns in the interior, Chinese food stores can now be found on nearly every block.
These immigrants face numerous challenges. Many opt to bypass Dutch, the official language, communicating with customers and employees in Sranan Tongo, a Creole language that makes heavy use of English. Chinese shop owners and their families are also exposed to violent crime, including robbery and murder.
“We need the steel bars to protect us,” said Lin Yubo, 25, the Chinese owner of a general store in Atjoni, a village in the interior. He and his wife, who arrived in Suriname five years ago, live in their store behind a metal barricade. “This is life in the bush,” he said.
Suriname’s growing Chinese community supports two daily newspapers and a new television station with 15 employees that broadcasts each day in Mandarin. “Suriname is a gateway to both South America and the Caribbean, so its Chinese population has grown fast,” said Thomson Cheung, 57, the station’s director, who came to Suriname in the 1970s.
Chinese emigration to Suriname is nothing new. The first Chinese contract laborers arrived in the mid-19th century, and many Chinese in later generations intermarried with mixed-race Creoles.
But the recent influx of thousands more has been more notable, in part, because many of the new arrivals are visibly involved in commerce, standing in contrast to Brazilians, Suriname’s other fast-growing immigrant group, who work largely at remote gold mines in the interior.
Some immigration specialists, citing estimates for Chinese immigration elsewhere in South America, say concerns over China’s influence here is overblown. Canadian and American companies, for instance, remain important players in Suriname’s mining industry. In absolute terms, they point out, more Chinese have moved to neighboring countries like Brazil and Venezuela.
But Suriname’s size means that the influx is impossible to ignore. “Suriname is basically a village with a seat in the United Nations,” said Paul Tjon Sie Fat, a Surinamese scholar in the Netherlands who has written widely on China’s influence in Suriname. “Any small change in the ethnic or class balance is immediately noticed.”