In Belize, the Chinese are on Strike

BY JOSHUA SAMUEL BROWN
Apr 06, 2011

The mood is ugly as Chinese merchants marched through the streets, carrying pictures of their murdered women and empty coffins, demanding justice.

Belize is a multicultural nation. A variety of ethnicities – Garifuna, Maya, Mestizo, Mennonite, East Indian, North American, Chinese – form the county’s unique cultural quilt. The latter group, Han Chinese, are the smallest percentage-wise, yet they operate (by a very large margin) the majority of Belize’s grocery stores, as well as an inordinate percentage of the country’s restaurants and fast-food outlets.

Some Belizeans express feelings that Chinese domination of this industry comes at the expense of other ethnic groups. Others say that the business success of the Chinese is well deserved. Speaking with Belizeans, I’ve variations of the following sentiment many times. “They get up early in the morning, work all day, and don’t close until way after dark. No wonder they rich!”

If there’s any one racial stereotype that nearly everyone in Belize agrees on, it’s that the Chinese work long hours.

Knowing this will help readers unfamiliar with Belizean society understand how stark the following sight was:

 

575

 

At 10 am on Monday morning, each and every Chinese-owned business in the village of Placencia was shuttered and closed. My first thought was that it might be a Chinese holiday, before realising that in Belize, Chinese people almost never take holidays. Certainly not during the tail-end of tourism’s high season.

I headed to a cafe to get online. Through a Facebook contact I’ve never met personally but (Facebook) befriended as, I learned that a general strike had been called among the Chinese community in Belize.

His post read as follows:

Two Chinese businesswomen were murdered, and a 16-year-old Chinese boy remains hospitalised.

“The Chinese community nationwide is on ‘strike’. They have closed their businesses in protest of increased crime against them. Two Chinese businesswomen were murdered over the weekend, and a 16-year-old Chinese boy from Dangriga remains hospitalised at the KHMH (a hospital in Belize city ~ ed.) after his parent’s establishment was robbed at gunpoint two weeks ago. All Chinese-owned and -operated businesses are shuttered up.”

 

The situation in Placencia mirrored that of nearly every town in the country. From Punta Gorda to Corozal, Caye Caulker to Cayo, nearly every Chinese-owned business had closed down. Average Belizeans, many of whom shop daily or every few days for food and beverages, had no choice but to sit up and take notice. Here in Placencia, the choice of shops to buy food, beer and smokes had gone from around 10 to just one.

It was, I later learned, the second such strike in 12 months. A year ago, following a particularly brutal murder of a Chinese youth, Chinese-owned businesses had closed for a day. It was widely assumed that this strike would last longer.

The people running the shops weren’t going to using their unexpected free time to hit the beaches. They were gathering in Belize City, illegally and en-masse, to make their collective voice heard.

 

Targeted by criminals

Being a Chinese speaker living in Belize, I find myself personally affected by this. During my many visits here, I’ve became acquainted with Chinese and Taiwanese workers and business owners throughout the country. One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from these friends and acquaintances is of not feeling safe, of feeling as if they are being specifically targeted by criminals. There is also a strongly held belief that the police are either unable – or unwilling – to provide adequate protection.

The police are either unable – or unwilling – to provide adequate protection.

The spiraling crime rate in Belize, brought on in part by unemployment, inflation and substance abuse, is a regular topic of conversation in all levels of society. For members of Belize’s Chinese community, inordinately victims of crime, particularly armed robbery, the growing crime rate is especially troublesome.

Further exacerbating a common perception of law enforcement as being lax is a perceived low rate of prosecution for violent crime, leading many in the country to believe that the judiciary needs to take a more direct role. This sentiment was repeated by a spokesperson from Taiwan who took part in the rally held in Belize City, who called for stronger penalties for all violent crime. In Belize City, the mood was ugly as Chinese merchants and non-Chinese supporters marched through the streets carrying pictures of the murdered women and empty coffins, demanding that those responsible be brought to justice.

Their sentiments are by no means limited to the Chinese community. Later in the day, I walked around Placencia and spoke to some people working in the village, some of who live in the nearby village of Seine Bight (a small Garifuna village a few miles out of town). Nearly to a person, I heard were the same opinion, that crime needs to be dealt with, and that the actions of the Chinese community, though an inconvenience to many who have come to depend on them, are both justified and righteous. Many people also expressed and admiration at the unity of the Chinese as a group, and their willingness to sacrifice revenue to make themselves heard.

The only grocery store in Placencia not owned by Chinese is Wallens, and business was booming. But there was no gloating from behind the counter, no Schadenfreude at the financial boon brought on by the self-imposed closing of all competitors. Quite the opposite, in fact “Everyone in Belize has the right to do business without having to fear for their lives!” The woman who runs the store said. “We need to re-introduce hanging for the crime of murder.”

Other people I spoke with echoed the sentiment. One Garifuna woman half-jokingly suggested that some kind of Islamic law would be a good thing to combat crime. "But not the part against drinking beer and fooling around outside of marriage," she added. "I don't think we Belizeans could ever go for that, man!"

The newspapers would not come out for another day, so I had no way of knowing what the official line might be. I returned to the coffee shop and went online, both to try to find news and to take the pulse of public opinion from Facebook comments.

There was little in the way of hard news (which travels at the same laid back pace as everything else in Belize), but there was quite a bit of online chatter.

Some commentary was disparaging, with one person expressing the opinion that the Chinese strike would allow “Belizean-owned” shops to finally make some money. Another stated that were it Black citizens engaged in an illegal protest, the police would be using rubber bullets and tear gas, not stern language, to break the gathering up.