DURING the Lunar New Year, Chinese newspapers were dominated by news on how the local Chinese community celebrated the annual festival.
One person consistently stood out during the festivities in various parts of the country. That’s none other than Bai Tian, China’s relatively new ambassador to Malaysia.
Sometimes, he was seen in photographs with Chinese community leaders. On other occasions, he gave speeches in praise of the community for their relentless efforts in promoting Chinese education and culture.
Bai’s schedule was hectic. Very often, he had to attend more than one function in a day.
For example, he joined 1,200 people on Feb 24 at a CNY lunch of the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia graced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in Serdang, Selangor. And in the evening, he was at a 2,500-strong dinner hosted by Associated Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Malaysia (ACCCIM) in Shah Alam.
On the fourth day of CNY, the envoy went to Bagan Datuk, the constituency of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
It was a high-profile event that saw Bai extending invitations to 10 fishermen to learn advanced skills in China, pledging 15 scholarships to residents there to study at Xiamen University Malaysia and donating books to Chinese schools.
If it had not been election time, many would have brushed off the gestures as friendly CNY greetings. But with the pending general election (GE14), Bai’s visits and speeches have come under a political magnifying glass.
“Bai Tian’s CNY activities are seen as supporting the Barisan Nasional. Why was he in Bagan Datuk with Umno and Barisan leaders, and in Bentong with MCA leaders?” a political analyst asks.
The analyst, who declines to be named, says that Bai’s CNY speeches in praise of the Government gave the impression that China was backing the ruling coalition.
While speaking at a CNY function hosted by Sin Chew Daily on Feb 25, Bai extolled the Barisan government “for being open and inclusive” when pointing out that the development of Chinese education in Malaysia was the best among Asean nations.
The view of this analyst is shared by other observers and journalists.
“It is so obvious the present and past ambassadors are supporting Barisan,” says an official working in a Chinese association.
According to some reports, China has to back Barisan to ensure there is no disruption to its current and potential investments worth over RM300bil in Malaysia.
However, a senior official at the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur tells Sunday Star:
“The embassy adheres to China’s official policy of no interference in the domestic politics of host countries.”
In countering the “wrong perceptions” of analysts, the official says during the CNY celebrations here, Bai had received many invitations from Chinese associations and groups to attend their events.
Hence, Bai took the opportunity to go to various states and places like Bagan Datuk to offer his New Year greetings and understand more about Malaysia’s culture and the people.
“We believe China-Malaysia relations do not stop at government-to-government ties but should also include people-to-people exchanges. By interacting with Malaysians on the ground, we do not see our visits as backing Barisan or meddling with local politics,” the embassy official says.
In fact, on Feb 2, while attending an MCA function on Belt and Road, Bai declared he did not wish to see China-Malaysia ties being politicised.
“Irrespective of the election outcome, we will treat Malaysia as our good neighbour and will work with the government of the day to foster closer China-Malaysia relations,” says the embassy official.
While the embassy does not wish to be drawn into local politics and believes there is “no way” it can influence the outcome of GE14, there is nothing it can do to stop local politicians from using China for political mileage.
The rise of China as a superpower and the influx of its investments into Malaysia in recent years can be a double-edged sword, depending on how you interpret China and its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
For Barisan, Malaysia-China ties appears to be a favourite topic in its campaigns.
The Government has claimed credit in bringing in massive Chinese investments, creating jobs and pushing the economy forward amid global uncertainty and decline in investments from traditional sources.
In fact, Najib spoke of his efforts in uplifting Malaysia-China relations to a new high in his speeches at the CNY functions of ACCCIM and Hua Zong.
MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, known to have played a major role in forging ports alliance and infrastructure development, often reiterates the economic benefits of the RM55bil East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) being built now to connect the east and west coasts of Peninsular Malaysia.
For local Chinese businessmen, these opportunities created by Belt and Road Initiative are viewed as a “once-in-a-life-time golden encounter” for them.
Hence, Barisan politicians believe that emphasising their role in bringing in Belt and Road projects, such as the ECRL, will draw votes from the Chinese community.
Furthermore, many believe that some older Chinese Malaysians still harbour a special sentiment towards China – the homeland of their ancestors.
Due to this uncut sentimental cord, the China factor – seen as favourable for Barisan – has been weaved into political campaigns by Barisan candidates. Thus, Bai Tian’s visits are played up.
As early as last year, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Dr Salleh Said Keruak cited Malaysia’s strong ties with China as a key reason for an expected “big rise in support for Barisan from the Chinese in GE14”.
Does China card help?
However, the China factor has become complicated. It can work for and against the Barisan; likewise with the Opposition.
From records, the influx of investments from China only happened after 2015 – much later than from the West, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
Chinese corporations and industries entered Malaysia at an unprecedented scale after Premier Li Keqiang pledged to support the local economy during bilateral talks with Najib in Kuala Lumpur in 2015.
Following the visit, China bought 1MDB’s energy assets in time to stop a possible rating downgrade by Moody’s. This was seen as “rescuing” Malaysia amid negative publicity about 1MDB.
Chinese corporations now feature prominently in huge infrastructure and construction projects. The projects with Chinese link include ECRL, TRX, Melaka Gateway, Kuantan Malaysia-China Industrial Park, Malaysia Digital Free Trade Zone, Proton-Geely joint venture and Xiamen University Malaysia.
China has also continued to be Malaysia’s largest trade partner for eight consecutive years.
The Middle Kingdom has become an important source of tourists coming to Malaysia. It is estimated that Malaysia earned some RM15bil from Chinese visiting last year, against a national tourism income of RM82bil.
But while these investments are playing an economic function, they have also been portrayed as a threat to Malaysia by opposition politicians and academics.
Apart from accusing China of stealing jobs and eating into the economic pie of Malaysia, there have been warnings that the sovereignty of the country could be compromised, with soft loans being taken.
In addition, Malaysia’s national debts – now at 51% of the GDP – could balloon if more debts are incurred for mega projects.
Moody’s researchers highlighted their concern over Malaysia’s high debts when they came here to update the Government on their ratings of the country and companies last week.
Pakatan Harapan chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad warned recently that the opposition pact, if it captures Putrajaya in GE14, would review all foreign direct investments and cancel projects, such as the ECRL, that were contrary to the country’s interest.
By saying this, Dr Mahathir might have won support from some quarters but he could have also scared off voters who see legally-binding business contracts as a “win-win” situation for Malaysia and China.
According to former ambassador Dr Huang Huikang, many Chinese projects have localisation plans in place to fulfil the development strategies of both countries. However, these are not publicised.
In the case of ECRL, Najib has announced that at least 30% of the civil engineering work will be awarded to local contractors.
The TRX International Islamic Financial Centre, constructed by a Chinese corporation, has sourced 54% of raw materials from locals and hired 40% Malaysians as mid-level managers.
While Dr Mahathir is fond of highlighting the negative aspects of Chinese investments, the DAP – the Chinese based party within Pakatan Harapan – has avoided this subject.
Vilifying Chinese investments will undermine Chinese support for DAP. This was one reason why DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng paid a visit to Dr Huang after one leader joined in the fray to criticise China projects.
As it stands, Malaysia appears to have gained more after building close ties with China.
China has proven that it will come to the aid of Malaysia in times of need, following the promises made in late 2015 by Li and in mid-2017 by President Xi Jinping to Najib.
Last year, China emerged as Malaysia’s biggest buyer after importing over RM8bil worth of rubber products.
Early last month, Bai Tian told Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong that China would import more Malaysian palm oil and palm oil products without setting any upper limits.
Prices of crude palm oil that were depressed due to news that EU – the second largest importer of Malaysian palm oil – wanted to impose sanctions on palm oil, rose after the pledge.
“China understands oil palm planters’ concerns in Malaysia. You can rely on us as a friendly party,” Bai told Mah during a courtesy visit on Feb 1.
This was indeed a huge pre-CNY ang pow given to Mah and Malaysia.