Are There Chinese Hitmen in the Kingdom of Tonga?

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Are There Chinese Hitmen in the Kingdom of Tonga?

Remarks from Tonga’s prime minister make public an open secret about crime in the Chinese community.

Are There Chinese Hitmen in the Kingdom of Tonga?
Credit: Flickr/ Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Tonga ‘Akilisi Pohiva has publicly said he’s concerned some members of Tonga’s Chinese community might be hiring hitmen to target rivals within their own community. In so doing, Pohiva has said out loud what is an open secret in many parts of Oceania, and beyond.

In a range of countries, some of the recently arrived Chinese immigrants are bringing with them the norms of the business sector in mainland China. Many parts of China are a wild west. There are entire “gangsterized” villages and endless examples of the impunity (and immunity) with which powerful people can act. The recent case of Bo Xilai, the former party secretary of Chongqing who became enmeshed in a murder case, shone a bit of light into the depth of the rot.

Many of the Chinese who come and work in shops in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and elsewhere in Oceania didn’t have much money to begin with. In Tonga’s case, many immigrants are recruited from rural areas of China by one of the handful of major Chinese business people operating in the Kingdom. Often they have to borrow either from friends, family, or illicit sources to get the money for the flights, passports, visas, and set-ups costs. All too often they end up passing through criminal emigration operations. That means some were enmeshed with corrupt, and possibly criminal, activity before even landing in Oceania. And now those organizations know where they live.

Additionally, in Tonga, newly arrived Chinese have taken over about 80 percent of the retail sector in around the last decade. Many of the Chinese who run shops are still linked back into Chinese systems through supply chains and family.

While there are notable exceptions, including intermarriage, many of the newly arrived Chinese take local citizenship if they can, but they tend to see countries like Tonga as either a place to make money before returning to China, or as a stepping stone to other countries, including New Zealand and Australia – if not for them, then for their children. Many don’t intend to set down permanent roots, and so tend not to value integration into local society.

Tonga, like much of the rest of the region, is community-based and church is important. There are regular fundraisers, sharing of crops, and food to be made for communal events. Most of the Chinese community stays outside this network of obligations.

If a Tongan owned a shop, they would be expected to contribute to the community. The Chinese don’t, lowering their operating costs (in addition to being able to source directly from contacts in China). No matter how hard a Tongan worked, it would be very difficult to compete with a Chinese shop. It is not a level playing field. This can result in resentment from the Tongan population, exacerbating insularity in the Chinese community. It is one of the reasons why Chinese shops were targeted during the Tongan riots of 2006, and why a village in Samoa has decided to ban any new Chinese shops from customary land.

The insularity of some in the Chinese community has contributed to the perpetuation of more unsavory mainland business practices. In Tonga recently arrived Chinese have been involved in human trafficking, prostitution, kidnapping and ransom, smuggling, corruption, bribery, gambling, arson, and murder. Then there is the visa fraud, fraudulent passport use, attempts to bribe customs, fencing of stolen property, etc. All in a country with a total population of around 100,000, where the Chinese population is only around 3 percent.

There isn’t much crime in Tonga, and official numbers put Chinese community-related crime at about 3 percent of total crime. But that percentage is misleading because the majority of crime within the Chinese community is never reported – it tends to be the most extreme cases, or cases involving Tongans, that find their way into the police statistics. Most adult Tongans in the capital, Nuku’alofa, can tell you where the Chinese brothels were, or are, and some of the gambling locations. They rarely get busted.

More troubling is that Tongans are sometimes enlisted as enforcers or proxies. There are multiple cases of Chinese businesspeople trying to enlist Tongans to burn down competitors’ shops, smuggle drugs, or assault rivals within the community. This spreading of criminality into the general population is socially corrosive in the tight knit communities of Oceania. If, for example, the same China-produced fentanyl that is doing such damage in North America is brought into Oceania’s societies, it may take a very long time to recover. There are already signs meth might be making it in to Tonga.

Obviously, not all Chinese in Tonga are involved in illegal activity. In fact, some of the biggest victims of the criminality are other members of the Chinese community.  Also, there are at least three distinct (though sometimes overlapping) types of crime:

  • Transnational crime that passes through Tonga incidentally (for example using Tonga as a transshipment point when smuggling drugs between South America and Australia).
  • Crime in Tonga with direct links back to China (possibly via organized crime groups)
  • Crime within the Chinese community in Tonga

It’s unclear how much, if any, of this is linked to people in the Chinese “system,” either officially or unofficially. So, the question is how to tackle this before it gets worse?

For transnational crime, regional coordination and intelligence sharing is key. Australia and New Zealand are coordinating with other regional governments, including France, and are doing some good work in that area.

But, when it comes to domestic crime in Tonga, unfortunately New Zealand has other priorities that have seriously hampered crime prevention efforts.

Wellington has been focused on achieving a certain sort of regime change in Tonga. For at least a century various political leaders in New Zealand have been sporadically trying to break and bring to heel the complex political, economic, and social structures in Tonga. This is in part because New Zealand wants Tongan customary land, currently administered by the heads of the extended families (aka the “Nobles”), to be privatized. Some of Wellington’s recent efforts involved backing and funding, in at least one case via an NGO, the “democratic” group that was involved in the 2006 riot. During that riot, to avoid bloodshed and valuing lives over property, the Tongan police did not heavily intervene, eventually stepping aside to let the Tongan military secure the situation, which they did.

With Tonga in shock, New Zealand (and Australia) used the opening to propose a tripartite tied-aid policing agreement that would put a New Zealand police officer in place as Tonga’s Police Commissioner. Since then, three New Zealanders have filled the post. None spoke Tongan, let alone Mandarin, or had spent much time in Tonga before the posting. All have had serious problems building trust with the police force, and have forced officers to enact policies that are breaking down trust between officers and their communities, affecting information flows.

All also executed operations that raised questions about whom they were serving. One of those operations initiated a series of arrests of Nobles seemingly designed to discredit them as a group. Most of the charges were subsequently dismissed by the Supreme Court, with one Noble even successfully suing for back pay owed as a result of him losing his Parliamentary seat due to the false charges. Another operation involved seizing databases from the Tongan Immigration Ministry and sending them out of the country (presumably to New Zealand) for analyses. No convictions have resulted from the seizure.

The current Police Commissioner is focused on arresting people who are sitting by the road, or in their front yard, casually drinking on a Friday or Saturday night, even if they aren’t committing (other) crimes. He’s arrested hundreds of young men. Now that they have criminal records for doing something many New Zealanders do every weekend, they will have a much harder time getting a visa for further education, work, etc.

Meanwhile, the problems in the Chinese community go unaddressed — or worse, misaddressed. At the end of March, under the watchful eye of the current New Zealander Police Commissioner, the prime minister of Tonga was made to apologize to the ambassador of China for the crimes against Chinese in Tonga. The Chinese ambassador also complained that “the reasonable compensation claims by the victims were not earnestly responded [to] or implemented.”

It’s unclear why, as the man in charge of policing, the Commissioner himself wasn’t the one to take responsibility. Rather, the Commissioner had earlier “addressed” the problem by bringing an ethnic Chinese New Zealand police officer to Tonga to act as a community liaison. A liaison between which parties was unclear as he also didn’t speak Tongan.

The Chinese ambassador gave the liaison department a car, but has yet to substantially cooperate with the Tongan government on background checks for Chinese in Tonga.

Another interesting component of the whole event was that to the ambassador, ethnicity and not citizenship was the determining factor. The ambassador, as a representative of the state of China, claimed to speak for all ethnic Chinese, regardless of whether they are from Taiwan, Fiji, or Tonga. It gives no space for a Sino-Tongan community separate from Beijing to develop.

This link between the Chinese state and overseas communities occasionally pops into high relief. For example, in 2006, there were riots in the Solomon Islands that targeted the ethnic Chinese community. Locals were incensed at what appeared to be corruption and favoritism linking Solomon Island decision-makers and some newly arrived Chinese. China evacuated hundreds of Chinese to China. Interestingly, the Solomon Islands didn’t even have official diplomatic relations with China, as it recognized Taiwan. But the perception was that the Chinese state, via its overseas community, was creating a back channel into the decision-making structure.

All this doesn’t help dispel the feeling that a large part of the Chinese community is in, but apart from, Tonga. And that, as long as China stays China, overseas communities are vulnerable, through family or business ties, to the whims of someone back on the mainland. It also inhibits ethnic Chinese from becoming more integrated into local society.

Less than two weeks later the Tongan prime minister, who seems to have better information sources than the Commissioner, couldn’t hold it in any longer and out came the comments about the hitmen.

The Tongans know what is going on, but policing directives out of Wellington are making it increasingly difficult to build the trust necessary to have the information networks required to actually do something about it. It is emblematic of an approach to the region in which some of Wellington’s “stabilizing” operations can actually create more problems for all concerned because, fundamentally, New Zealand doesn’t seem to trust regional allies to be able to understand and resolve their own problems. Not only does it make more difficult for the countries concerned, it can actually drive them away from wanting to cooperate in the future.

The countries of Tonga and China are working together in a range of areas. For example, soon after the apology, China announced it would be funding and building a $25 million sports complex for Tonga’s upcoming hosting of the Pacific Games.

That engagement will continue with or without the spread of crime in and around the Chinese community. It would be better for all concerned, including China, if it were without. For that to happen, New Zealand (and China) needs to get out of the way and let the Tongans assess and solve their own domestic problems, for the good of all involved.

Cleo Paskal is an Associate Fellow, Chatham House (U.K.); Visiting Trudeau Fellow, CÉRIUM (Canada); and Adjunct Faculty, Manipal University (India).