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Anti-China protests take toll on border trade

Publication Date : 26-05-2014

 

It was not even the end of May, but the fierce early-summer sun and high humidity made Friendship Pass in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region almost unbearably hot.

The pass, one of the major tourist and cargo routes between China and Vietnam, was usually filled with cars and trucks. Recently, however, the flood of tourists and vehicles has trickled to a standstill.

A couple of Chinese took a sweaty stroll around an almost-deserted park before resting in the shade of a huge banyan tree that faces the symbolic Friendship Pass Tower. In the almost deserted parking lot, taxi drivers competed for trade among the few visitors, as two locals, a man and a woman, sat and ate their lunch. Occasionally, a dozen or so people arrived and went through the tower gate, which leads into the pass. They waited patiently at the security checkpoint that leads into Vietnam. Very few people were traveling in the opposite direction.

Just a 10-minute drive away is the largest Sino-Vietnamese cross-border trade zone at the Puzhai checkpoint. Once, trucks loaded with mahogany, finished and semi-finished goods, and fruit and vegetables from Vietnam plied the route, causing frequent traffic jams.

However, the volume of traffic fell dramatically when a Unesco ban on the cross-border transportation of mahogany came into force on April 1. Meanwhile, the recent spate of anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam has further reduced the meager flow.

"The traffic has dwindled noticeably", said Lu Lidan, a 24-year-old sales clerk who has worked at a nearby store for a year, selling Vietnamese products such as wooden handiwork, snacks and balms. She attributed the lack of activity to the end of the season for some fruits, adding, "It's the low season for tourists, too."

A little further down the street, a truck from Linyi in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong was parked in front of a shop. A dozen Vietnamese women were busy unloading boxes of empty glass pickle jars destined for Vietnam.

"They come from the Vietnamese town at the other end of the pass. They come over here to make money because they have no work at home," Lu said.

The truck driver said that when the jars were unloaded, he would fill the truck with Vietnamese vegetables such as peppers and take them to Shandong, where demand is high.

By 2 pm, it was too hot to work, so the women took a break. They sat in the corridor and chatted quietly.

Anxious customers

Pingxiang county in Guangxi Zhuang, a five-minute drive from the Puzhai checkpoint, is China's largest market for mahogany products. Wu Mingdong and his older brother, Wu Wenhe, have been running their wholesale outlet Hefa, meaning "Peaceful and Prosperous" in Chinese, for five years. Statues of the Buddha, carved from 3-metre-long pieces of mahogany, stood in front of the door. The brothers come from Hai Duong, a city near the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, but, like many of their compatriot traders, they have adopted Chinese names.

"Business here is good and we recently expanded the shop," Wu Mingdong said, adding that his brother was in Vietnam collecting items they had ordered. "We are running our business as usual, completely unaffected by the protests in Vietnam," he said.

Across the street, Hu Zhenxiu was at work in a shop called Jubao, or "Gathering Precious Objects". She said the protests that erupted from May 13 to May 15 had scared some customers away.

"Recently, some long-standing (Chinese) customers called and asked whether it was safe for them to come and buy mahogany. They were very concerned, but I told them it's safe to come here," said the 20-year-old.

Her colleague, Fan Suqing, 32, from Hunan province, said, "The number of people coming here has fallen in the past few days. We usually import our products from Vietnam, but we've stopped going there for the time being because of the protests. However, I think that in a week or so, the situation will cool down and we will go back."

Ding Jinxing and her husband have run their 400-square-metre shop in the China No 1 Market for Mahogany Products for three years. Ding was in Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam, when the protests started.

"Hanoi was all right compared with Ho Chi Minh City in the south, where there are a lot of Chinese companies. There are many business partnerships between Chinese and Vietnamese people in the north of the country, so people were worried about their businesses. But on May 13, the hotels in the north began refusing to take Chinese people," said the 39-year-old, who was born in Hanoi but is ethnically Chinese and has lived in China since 1979.

On May 14, Ding and some other Chinese businesspeople rented a bus to travel to Ping-xiang, a journey that was tense, but uneventful. However, just one day later, some of Ding's business friends who were returning to Pingxiang in a rented bus were stopped and robbed.

"Usually, I travel to Hanoi three or four times a month, but I haven't dared to go there since my last trip," Ding said.

"Although the Vietnamese government is taking action, such as compensating companies for damage and loss of business, offering Chinese investors tax breaks and preferential land rental rates, there are very few Chinese in Vietnam now. People don't dare to go there because it's too risky. You have to be prepared to defend yourself if you go there now," Ding said.

"Our business has been greatly affected because people, especially buyers from the coastal cities, are worried and are too frightened to come to the border towns. This month there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of buyers compared with last year - many Vietnamese workers have gone home, and the volume of traffic has fallen. I won't go back to Vietnam for a while. If things continue like this, the interests of both Vietnam and China will be damaged," she said.

"The Friendship Pass is seeing far fewer people, and many Chinese tourists and travel agencies have canceled their plans to visit Vietnam," she added.

Vietnam Street

On Wanwei Golden Beach in Dongxing county, more than 250 kilometres from Pingxiang, a group of about 50 people from Shandong province had stopped to eat lunch and take in the scenery around Beibu Gulf. Two middle-aged women stood in the shade and stared at the muddy waters.

The group, which had traveled along the coast from Fangchenggang, a port city in the gulf, was heading to Dong-xing to see a boundary tablet erected in 1890. The tourists also wanted to buy made-in-Vietnam snacks, wooden craftworks and rubber-soled slippers at the Vietnam Street market, on the opposite side of the Beilun River to the city of Mong Cai. Instead of going through the Dongxing checkpoint into Vietnam as originally planned, they had decided to stay in China and survey the few buildings visible on the southern side of the river, which forms the border.

Anti-China protests take toll on border trade

Dozens of Vietnamese vendors carrying wooden bracelets chased after the few visitors who stopped to take photos beside the river. Women sat on the riverbank waiting for customers to buy balms, cigarettes and counterfeit perfumes purporting to be Chanel, Calvin Klein and other well-known brands. They all wore colorful shirts and black trousers topped off with conical palm-leaf hats and floral print masks,

Vietnam Street, a five-story market of about 500 stalls, is popular with Chinese tourists and visitors because it sells goods of reasonable quality at low prices. Recent first-time visitors to Dongxing may be forgiven for not understanding how prosperous the place usually is.

At 10 am on May 23, very few people could be seen wandering around. Lachrymose Chinese songs that were popular in the 1990s were being piped through the empty rooms.

Lin Chao, a 29-year-old Hanoi native, was selling mahogany goods on the ground floor. His family has four stalls, one each for Lin, his two brothers and his mother.

"Usually there are more people around in the afternoons, when fatigued tourists return at the end of their trip and want to buy Vietnamese products to take home," he said.

Lin started his business in Mong Cai 10 years ago, but he later moved the store to Dongxing because "it's more convenient to send the products to cities in China". To better facilitate his business operations, Lin spent six months studying Chinese in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi.

"The anti-Chinese protests are illegal, and the Vietnamese government has taken strong measures to deal with them. Vietnamese people don't want to see these protests because they will affect trade and business between the two countries. Some Vietnamese have gone home, mostly those from places where the protests have been taking place. But I don't think businesses here have been affected too badly because most have a lot of long-standing, stable customers in China," he said.

However, Wen Fengli, a 35-year-old from Wenzhou in East China's Zhejiang province, who sells Vietnamese snacks and beverages at the market, said that she has noticed a marked decline in visitor numbers.

"The effect has been huge. There are so few tourists right now. Many of our established clients have called me to ask about the situation on the border. You see, we used to be extremely busy, especially during the holidays when the market was packed with tourists. We stall-holders rarely had time to stop and chat because we were too busy collecting money from customers. Compared with the same period last year, there are far fewer tourists. Even during the low season, we usually have more customers than this," she said.

Wen has been running her stall for three years and business has been so good that she hired an assistant, a 24-year-old Vietnamese woman from Mong Cai who crosses the border every day to work in the market. The woman, who has adopted the Chinese name Huang Yunlan, said, "It's safe on the border. There's too much inaccurate gossip flying around. It's affecting our business, so I hope it stops soon."

Peng Yining contributed to this story.

 

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