Xi Jinping Courts Panama: The Chinese Helped Build the Canal

'China-Panama relations have turned over a new leaf,' Chinese leader Xi Jinping said during talks with Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela
AFP JASON LEE

Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s tour of the Spanish-speaking world continued on Friday with his arrival in Argentina but, in preparation for his next stop, Xi penned an editorial published in Panama arguing that China and Panama had over 160 years of shared history.

In his column, published in Panama’s La Estrella and reproduced in English by Chinese state media, Xi argues that the history of Chinese workers in Panama in the 1850s and ’60s, long before Panama was a sovereign state, makes the central American country a natural home for his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), intended to reconstruct the ancient Eurasian Silk Road and accumulate control for China over the world’s most vital transportation infrastructure.

Xi’s visit to Panama will be the first by a Chinese leader, shortly following the Panamanian government’s decision to abandon longtime ally Taiwan in exchange for favorable economic deals with Beijing.

“Friendly interactions between the people of our countries could date back more than 160 years, when the first group of Chinese arrived in Panama to help with canal- and railway-building,” Xi’s column reads. “On this hospitable land, they eventually stayed, became part of the local communities and joined the Panamanian people in pursuit of a better life. To mark their dedication, a special day has been designated for ethnic Chinese in Panama.”

Xi does not specifically credit the Chinese people with building the Panama Canal, though he does mention that Chinese immigrants did participate in “canal-building.” The first known migration from China to Panama occurred in 1854, a ship arriving with workers for the Panama Railroad Company, long before the beginning of construction on the canal. These workers independently contracted with the railroad company, with no input from the Chinese empire, at the time deeply embroiled in one of history’s most brutal civil wars, the Taiping Rebellion.

The Chinese who first arrived in Panama suffered tremendously, the result of “miserable living conditions, the inability to communicate in their own language, the radical change in the customs and meals, as well as the lack of opium.” Those who survived did build a growing Chinese-Panamanian community that continues to thrive in the country today.

Many of the Chinese who worked for the railway company joined efforts to build the canal, though that plan was created in Washington and executed by the government of President Theodore Roosevelt. The U.S. finished brokering the agreement to build the canal with Colombia in 1902, shortly before Panama separated from the South American country.

In his Spanish-language column, Xi adds that the Chinese Communist government supported a movement to hand control of the Panama Canal to Panama, despite the United States funding and executing the project.

“Back in the 1960s, in a gesture of solidarity with the Panamanian people in their just cause for sovereignty over the Canal, sixteen million Chinese staged rallies across China,” he writes, “which became a special memory of the Chinese people for a generation. All these attest to the fraternal bonds connecting the people of our two countries.”

Turning to the modern day, Xi writes that China is now Panama’s second-largest trading partner and a “natural partner” for the BRI, despite the fact that the original intent of that project was to build a series of high-tech roads, ports, and railways connecting Beijing to Western Europe, and Latin America has no role in the history of the ancient Silk Road.

“Under the framework of the Belt and Road cooperation, the two sides have signed quite a number of agreements in areas such as trade, finance, maritime affairs, civil aviation, tourism, culture, and education,” Xi celebrates in his editorial. “Chinese businesses and financial institutions have taken an active part in bilateral cooperation, helping to create thousands of local jobs.”

Xi also celebrates the founding of Panama’s first Confucius Institute, academic centers through which the Chinese Communist Party pressures foreign nations to adopt its values of Chinese hegemony and strict control of speech. “By the end of this year, China will have trained about 6,000 Panamanian officials and professionals in various fields, and close to 1,000 Panamanian students are now studying in China,” Xi boasts.

Panama abandoned its longstanding ties with Taiwan in 2017, announcing it would accept China’s claim that “only one China exists in the world,” and the Republic of China was not it. In response, Beijing would offer a variety of economic incentives, but also threaten Latin America that any distance from China would bring “irreparable damage” to the region.

Xi will visit Panama, and later Portugal, following the culmination of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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