History and Policy of China in Polynesia

As one origin of Polynesians’ forebears, China has a special connection with the Polynesian islands that dates back more than a millenium.[1] The connection has been revived since the late 19th century, when Chinese began to immigrate to these islands again, especially to French Polynesia and Hawaii. Today Chinese communities in many Polynesian islands have developed into stable form, with considerable impact on the local economies, cultures and politics. Beginning in the late 20th century, the Chinese government has been looking to increase its influence in the Pacific islands. Its foreign policy in the area, particularly as relates to independent island countries, has resulted in significant local development programs but also caused considerable controversy.

A Brief History of Chinese Immigration in Polynesia
After two Opium Wars, Westerners not only forced China to open its doors, but also began to interfere in its domestic politics and foreign policies.[2] Taking advantage of new leverage in China, western countries introduced Chinese laborers into their colonies in the Pacific to serve the trade across the Pacific Ocean triggered by Cook’s voyages. In this trade, Tahiti and Hawaii were two vital stops.

In French Polynesia, there have been three major waves of Chinese immigration since the 19th century.[3] The first group of around 500 Chinese arrived in Tahiti in 1865 to work on the Atimaono cotton plantation. They remained until its bankruptcy in 1873.[4] Between 1890 and 1914, a second wave of several hundred Chinese, mainly from Guangdong, immigrated to French Polynesia. Most of them left China after the formal repeal of the emigration ban in 1893 and entered the French colony freely with their families. They started penniless in Tahiti, set up family business and restaurants, and tried to make fortunes. The descendants of those families own a significant number of businesses in Papeete today.[5] Between 1918 and 1928, the third and largest wave of Chinese immigrants—about 5000 people—arrived in French Polynesia. Many of them were recruited in by “credit ticket,” which deducted the cost of the journey from the immigrants’ wages. These immigrants joined plantations or businesses already well established by earlier immigrants.[6]

In Hawaii, there is another case of fully developed Chinese immigrant society. Starting with the trade between Pacific Northwest and East Asia, Hawaii played a vital role in the sandalwood trade and was known as “Tan Xiang Shan”—“the sandalwood mountains”—in China.[7] In this period Chinese cooks, carpenters and artisans boarded as crewmen with Chinese business passengers to sail to America. Some of them got off in Hawaii and stayed, becoming the first generation of Chinese immigrants in Hawaii.[8] Wong Tze-Chun, a Chinese entrepreneur, pioneered the commercial sugar industry in Hawaii. With Wong and his followers’ efforts, sugar production was expanded and became a major export crop in Hawaii by the 1850s.[9] As a result the Kingdom of Hawaii began to seek cheap labor in China. The Act for the Government of Masters and Servants, passed in Hawaii in 1850, authorized the importation of laborers as apprenticed plantation workers for no more than five years.[10] Following the Act, the first group of contract laborers (about 700 people) from Guangdong and Fujian was shipped to Hawaii in 1852.[11] Later the American Civil War resulted in a shortage of sugar in the United States. This directly led to a high demand for sugar from Hawaii, and thus a shortage of labor. As a result, 473 male labors with 52 wives were brought to the Kingdom by the Board of Immigration, which was established in 1864 to promote and exert more control over foreign labor.[12] After finishing the contract, most Chinese labors left plantations and tried to find new jobs. Some of them successfully established business in downtown Honolulu, where a Chinatown was formed.[13]

Contemporary Policy: The Increasing Influence on Independent Island Countries
Henderson and Reily have argued that Chinese immigrants in French Polynesia and Hawaii, as well as in other Pacific island countries, have gained economic power because of aspects of traditional Chinese culture and philosophy that are distinct from Polynesian traditional culture.[14] While stimulating a rapid growth of local economy, the commercial dominance of Chinese immigration “has often been a source of resentment” and “depressed wages, work conditions and employment opportunities.”[15] China’s increasing contemporary influence in the island countries has also brought both local development and global controversy. Since French Polynesia and Hawaii have become annexed territories of France and the US respectively, China’s foreign policy in the Pacific region today has focused mainly on independent island countries.

By the early 1980s China’s foreign policy was no longer based on the promotion of global revolution and the rejection of the international system, but rather focused on developing itself and actively participating in the construction of the international system. Its general strategy was shifted from an Alliance Diplomatic Strategy to a Non-alliance Diplomatic Strategy, fully opening up under the principle of independence.[16]

In recent years, the Chinese government has started to look to the Pacific, which no longer interested Europe and the US as much as during the Second World War and the Cold War.[17] Without dramatic competition with the western world, China’s growing global power extended into the region and accelerated its influence beginning in the late 1990s.[18] In 1991, China had only 4 diplomatic posts in South Pacific, but it now has the largest number of diplomats in the region.[19] Today 8 out of 14 states (not including New Zealand and Australia) that make up the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) have diplomatic relations with China, along with intensified official visits, enhanced trading, and packaged aid programs.[20] It has become an accepted routine that “the first official overseas visit by a new head of government from the region is made to Beijing, not Canberra, Washington or Wellington.”[21]

Today, China is the third biggest donor to the region. Its estimated annual aid is somewhere between $100 million and 150 million.[22] Even though this number cannot compete with the $400 million in annual aid from the biggest donor, Australia, Chinese aid has increased more than 8 times from 2005 to 2007 (See Fig.1).[23] Besides the aid to individual countries, China has also been financing regional organizations such as the PIF. In 2000, the Chinese government donated “$3 million to the Forum Secretariat to promote trade and investment, $1 million of which would fund the opening and three years of operation of the Pacific Island Trade Office in Beijing.”[24] The donation directly led to a closer working relationship between the PIF and China and furthered the involvement of Chinese government with independent Pacific island countries.

PIF Member 2005 2006 2007
Cook Islands 2.8 3.2 14.1
FSM 3.95 4.895 15.8185
Fiji 1 23.08 161.3
Niue 0 0.65 0.75
PNG 3.05 14.1 10.7
Samoa 12.9 17.5 23.6
Tonga 0 5.5 57.8
Vanuatu 9.25 9.25 9.25
Totals 32.95 78.175 293.3185


Fig 1: Chinese aid to Pacific Island Forum members, 2005-2007

In addition to direct loans and grants, China has been offering other kinds of aid to meet the current need of Pacific island countries. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui has claimed that “the ultimate goal of China’s Pacific islands policy is the maintenance of the regional stability and the promotion of common development.”[25] In terms of education, the Chinese government provides not only grants for educational infrastructure, but also scholarship programs to support students from the island countries in the region to study in China.[26] While the Chinese Government Scholarship Program offers bilateral awards to individual countries in the region, the China-Pacific Island Forum Scholarship Scheme is awarded through the PIF to its members (except New Zealand and Australia), covering undergraduate, masters, doctoral, and special scholarship studies in various academic areas.[27]

China has also been helping the region in the medical field. The Chinese government has financed medical equipment and sent medical teams to island countries. In the case of Samoa, a total of more than 100 Chinese doctors in total have been sent to the Samoan National Hospital over the course of more than 20 years.[28] In addition, China has also been conducting training courses for health officials, hospital managers and medical researchers from these countries every year.[29] Other kinds of aid programs cover technical fields, tourism, special training, and trade.[30]

All these aid programs are part of what Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao calls “Win-Win Cooperation”: the island countries get what they lack of from China, and China gains what it wants most in return.[31] This reflects the commercial nature of China’s aid programs, which are administrated by the Ministry of Commerce instead of an aid agency.[32]

Natural resources—mainly timber, fish, and minerals—are one of the major benefits that China has realized in return for its investment and assistance. In fisheries, China has established Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with the Cook Islands, Fiji, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati.[33] For minerals, China has carried out extensive oceanographic research and analysis of the region’s seabed minerals.[34] The China Metallurgical Construction Company signed an MOU on the $625 million Ramu nickel and cobalt mine in Paupua New Guinea; it would provide complete funding and construction and buy mine products for the lifetime of the mine, estimated at 40 years, for an 85% stake in the mine.[35]

The island countries of the Pacific provide a good location for outer-space science and exploration. Kiribati in particular is a key space location. In 1997, China opened a “China Space TT&C Station” in Tarawa, Kiribati. This station helped to track and control all China’s domestic satellites and played an important role in China’s first manned space mission.[36] Even though China claimed that this station was a part of the “civilian space program,” there is suspicion that the station was actually built for the military to monitor the major US missile range in the adjacent Marshall Islands.[37]

Competition for International Recognition
China's strongest motivation to provide aid is the diplomatic competition between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Republic of China (Taiwan). Today, among independent island countries in the Pacific, the Cook Islands, Federal States of Micronesia, Fiji, Niue, Paupua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu recognize the PRC, while Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu recognize Taiwan.[38] On one hand, the PRC requires those island countries with which it has established diplomatic relations to support the “One-China Policy” and to cut any contacts with Taiwan in order to diplomatically isolate Taiwan.[39] On the other hand, Taiwan uses the same strategy to increase the number of its supporting countries, trying to gain a seat in the United Nations (UN) and other international and regional organizations.

The PRC and Taiwan are both interested in the Pacific region mainly for the same reason: a lot of international organizations, like the UN, have a “one-country, one-vote” policy. Under such policy, support from a region that has a large number of small countries will be significant.[40] Since the populations of the island countries are small, these countries have some of the highest representation per capita in the world, which means that their valuable votes are relatively cheap to buy.[41] Meanwhile, because the survival of these island countries is largely dependent on foreign aid, it is not hard for the PRC or Taiwan to make deals with them.[42] However, the island countries have to choose one between the two “Chinas.”[43] Island countries in the Pacific often shuttle back and forth between the PRC and Taiwan when the other one offers better deal than the one that they originally recognized.[44] These diplomatic shifts cause more instability and incongruity of aid from both PRC and Taiwan. At the same time, the aid fluctuates widely between years.[45]

Some Chinese aid programs aim at economic growth that will create jobs and reduce poverty locally, but others do not.[46] Thus another criticism of the sustainability of Chinese aid has pointed to the infrastructure projects China has built “without any consideration of ongoing operating or maintenance costs” and lack of “flow-on benefits to the local economy.”[47] While China often secures an agreement to provide building materials, labor and other supplies, the recipient countries only get “the end product in the form of bricks and mortar” instead of actual local development.[48] In Samoa, a $12.9 million swimming complex funded by China was built by Chinese workers. It is reportedly beyond the ability of even New Zealand to maintain and is dependent on Chinese money to keep running. However, this white elephant project allowed China to buy up fishing licenses in return.[49]

The debt burden created by Chinese soft loans is also problematic. Chinese debt service amounts to 32% of the GDP in Tonga and 16% in Cooks Islands.[50] In Tonga, after the 5-year grace period of Chinese debt repayments expires, the debt servicing costs are expected to jump up to 100%.[51] The International Monetary Fund has warned that Tonga is facing debt distress, and Tonga’s former Reserve Bank Governor and Finance Minister, Josh ‘Utoikamanu, confessed, “There is a very high possibility that Tonga will be unable to serve its debts in the future.”[52] The debt burden is indeed a danger to these small islands, whose economy and government systems are delicate.

In addition, the secrecy of Chinese aid has resulted in serious criticism. Regarding details of its aid budget as state secret, China refuses to publish relevant figures in any region, including its recipient countries.[53] One Pacific official, describing an aid project, pointed out that “the projected cost for construction may be overstated against the real cost…There is no transparency in material used or the associated cost of these materials. So too with the labour component.”[54] As a result, people have questioned China’s long-term interest in the region.[55]

Considering these problems related to Chinese aid programs, Fergus Hanson suggested several approaches to improving the long-term relationship between China and the Pacific region. First, he suggests that China should seize the opportunity presented by the diplomatic truce with Taiwan after Ma Yinjiu became the President in Taiwan to orient its Pacific aid programs toward new goals such as regular aid flows and long-term development. He recommends greater use of local labor and an awareness of recurring and maintenance cost as integral parts of aid projects. In terms of debt burden, increasing grant-to-loan ratios would help, and other more sustainable approaches are urgently needed. And finally, Henderson urges that China should improve the transparency of its aid and enhance the communication with recipient countries.[56]

The ties that China has built with Polynesia over time have become an integral part of Polynesian society. From early immigration to contemporary foreign policy, negative impacts could not be avoided. However, China has the choice to make a more positive impact in the region, and people do recognize the benefits that the Pacific islands have received from China. As Chinese officials have expressed concern about the sustainable development of the region, and far fewer flashy infrastructure projects have been built recently,[57] a long-term sustainable relationship might be possible in the future.

Jueqian (Ripple) Fang, University of Washington 2012


[1] John Henderson and Benjamin Reilly, “Dragon in paradise: China’s rising star in Oceania,” National Interest 72 (2003): 94-104. FindArticles.com. January 11, 2012.

[2] 李海攀,“近代現代中國外交,”同安教育網, n.p. 19 Dec 2004. Web. March 19, 2012.

[3] Anne-Christine Tremon, “From ‘Voluntary’ to ‘Truly Voluntary’ Associations: The Structure of the Chinese Community in French Polynesia, 1865-2005,” Journal of Chinese Overseas 3.1 (2007): 5. Project MUSE. January 16, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Eleanor C. Nordyke and Richard K. C. Lee, “The Chinese in Hawai’i: A Historical and Demographic Perspective,” The Hawaiian Journal of History 23 (1989): 196-216. eVols. Jan 16, 2012.

[8] Nordyke and Lee, “Chinese in Hawai’i,” 197-198.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Nordyke and Lee, “Chinese in Hawai’i,” 199-200.

[13] Nordyke and Lee, “Chinese in Hawai’i,” 201.

[14] Henderson and Reilly, “Dragon in paradise.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] 劉雅文, “淺析八十年代初中國外交轉型中的國內因素,” Modern Society 6 (2010). Web. March 20, 2012.

[17] Congressional Research Service, The Southwest Pacific: U.S. Interests and China’s Growing Influence (2007:): 5. Web, January 16 2012. 5; Shie, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific,” 309.

[18] Tamara Renee Shie, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific: Beijing’s ‘Island Fever’.” Asian Survey 47.2 (2007): 307-326. JSTOR. Web. January 16, 2012. 309.

[19] Jian Yang, “Regionalism in East Asia and the South Pacific: Different Experiences, Unbalanced Relations,” (2009). Asia New Zealand Foundation. Web. January 21, 2012.

[20] Shie, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific,” 309.

[21] Henderson and Reilly, “Dragon in paradise.”

[22] Jian Yang, “China in the South Pacific: A Strategic Threat?” New Zealand International Review 34.1 (2009). FindArticles. Web. January 16, 2012.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Shie, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific,” 314.

[25] Wang Hongjiang, “FM: China, Pacific Islands Countries Ties Important,” Xinhua news, Xinhua, October 19, 2009. Web. March 22, 2012.

[26] “China to Give Samoa More Money for Education,” Radio New Zealand International, Radio New Zealand International, January 20, 2008. Web. January 15, 2012.

[27] “First Scholarship Awarded Under China-PIF Scholarship Scheme,” Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Pacific Islands Forum, September 10, 2009. Web. January 21, 2012; “China-PIFS Scholarships 2010/2011 Intake,” Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Pacific Islands Forum, March 21, 2010. Web. January 21, 2012.

[28] Chen Zhi, “Chinese Ambassador Describes China-Samoa Ties as Friendly Partnership,” Xinhua news, Xinhua, April 10, 2011. Web. January 15, 2012.

[29] Wen Jiabao, “Win-win Cooperation for Common Development,” China Daily, Xinhua, April 5, 2006. Web. January 15, 2012.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Fergus Hanson, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific,” Lowy Institute, Lowy Institute, July 2009. Web. January 16. 2012. 7.

[33] Shie, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific,” 313.

[34] Henderson and Reilly, “Dragon in paradise.”

[35] Ibid.

[36] “South Tarawa Island, Republic of Kiribati,” Global Security, Global Security, n.d. Web. January 13, 2012.

[37] Shie, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific,” 313.

[38] Shie, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific,” 309.

[39] Congressional Research Service, The Southwest Pacific, 15.

[40] Shie, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific,” 320.

[41] Shie, Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific,” 321.

[42] Francis X. Hezel, “Pacific Island Nations,” East-West Center, East-West Center, 2012. Web. March 23, 2012. 23.

[43] Shie, “Rising Chinese Influence in the South Pacific,” 320.

[44] Robert Keith-Reid and Samisoni Pareti, “China Stirs the Pot of Divided Pacific Loyalties,” Pacific Islands Report, East-West Center, March 16, 2006. Web. January 15, 2012.

[45] Hanson, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific,” 5.

[46] Jemima Garrett, “China in Pacific,” Radio Australia News, Radio Australia News, April 4, 2011. Web. January 20, 2012.

[47] Hanson, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific,” 5.

[48] Hanson, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific,” 6.

[49] Hanson, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific,” 5.; G. Marty, “Natural Dairy NZ & Chinese Neo-mercantilism,” The Standard, September 13, 2010. Web. March 22, 2012.

[50] Garrett, “China in Pacific.”

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.; Hanson, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific,” 7.

[54] Hanson, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific,” 8.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Hanson, “China: Stumbling Through the Pacific,” 1, 10, 11.

[57] Ibid.

How to cite this page:
Jueqian Fang. “History and Policy of China in Polynesia,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2012. Web. [Date accessed]