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"Chinese will take over the country" PM Pohiva proclaims, while digging canals at Popua

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

By Pesi Fonua

Prime Minister, Hon. 'Akilisi Pohiva PM with Cabinet Ministers, Popua, 11 May 2017.

"The Chinese will take over the running of the country in a few years time," Tonga’s Prime Minister, Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva told a Press Conference he called yesterday, 11 May at Popua.

He was commenting on the low-productivity rate of Tongan workers, after he was asked why so few Tongans were employed by Chinese construction companies in Tonga.

But the PM was so convinced that the Chinese will take over Tonga, and he blamed the low productivity rate of Tonga’s Civil Servants, saying it was only 20%, comparing with 80% of Chinese workers.

Click arrow (wait to load 2.2mb) to hear audio clip of press conference. PM 'Akilisi Pohiva questioned by journalists. 1:08:42. Tongan language.

He said he had a meeting with representatives of the Chinese community and learned that during the past few years "Chinese Businesses in Tonga did not pay any tax at all".


This was a shocking revelation by the PM, taking into consideration that about 90% of all small shops in Tonga are run by Chinese. Some of them are naturalised Tongan citizens but the belief of most Tongans is that under a regulated government business policy, the business of running small shops Fale Koloa had been set aside for Tongans only.

The revelation by the PM that Chinese businesses in Tonga did not pay any taxes during the past few years, and that he thinks the Chinese are going to run the country during the next few years, was received with incredulity by the media present.

The Press Conference was called by the Prime Minister himself for no particular reason, and at the onset he admitted that there was nothing special that he wanted to talk about. He was sure that the media had many questions and some interesting issues to discuss.

The Press Conference was held in a tent at a former public rubbish dump in a swampy area, on the Nuku’alofa eastern waterfront, Popua. The center of the rubbish dump is marked by a small grassy mound where rubbish, including asbestos materials, were buried.

Over the years the area has been settled by people from the outer islands. Successive governments have been trying to discourage people from settling in the area because of its health hazards and risk of exposure to sea level rise, and being on the side of a hurriedly buried rubbish dump it naturally was not a good place for a settlement. But it has not deterred immigrants from outer islands.

The area is also a heritage site that parliament promised to protect after a petition was approved by the House. The exposed reef area was a historical recreational site for early Tongan dynasties for catching pigeons. The Sia mounds are heritage sites where Tonga's ancient engineers built dry structures in a wet area that have survived the elements for over 500 years. The move to settle the area is destroying the the Sia Heu Lupe heritage site and its connecting linked walkways as the mounds are pulled apart for land fill by poor settlers. The settlement has been a controversial issue for several years.

Land in the area has been subdivided, people are building homes and facing all of the problems of living in a swamp.

The Prime Minister has ordered canals dug "to beautify the area". He has told people he is building a river because Tonga does not have a river.

But the water does not flow because it is at sea level.

Critics allege that the canals were dug without proper procurement process or environmental impact reports, and they fear that this project will become the new "Sewers Canal".

Popua, Tongatapu. Blue lines drawn by an artist show where the PM is digging canals through the Sia Heu Lupe heritage site. The white lines show a biologically diverse site of ancient mounds connected by raised walkways - an archaeological site threatened by an encroaching shanty town. The Tu'i Tonga's mala'e was located in this area where he greeted Captain Cook. The area is also linked to Tonga's creation myth.

The Prime Minister envisages the building a recreational centre and a golf course throughout the site of the heritage area.

But, unfortunately, his plan is incoherent.

At yesterday's press conference answers given by the Prime Minister contradicted those of the Minister of Finance, Hon. Tevita Lavemaau.

For a start, the PM introduced the Cabinet Ministers who were present as, Hon. Penisimani Fifita, the Minister of Education; Hon. Mateni Tapueluelu, the Minister of Police; Hon. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, the Minister of Labour, Commerce, Trade, and the Acting Minister of Finance; and the Minister of Finance Hon. Tevita Lavemaau.

The fact that we had both an Acting Minister of Finance as well as a Minister of Finance at the Press Conference seemed odd.

If that was not confusing, the response from the PM when he was questioned if there is a working committee and who was managing the project, was bizarre.

Hon. 'Akilisi Pohiva said there is no working committee. He is managing the project himself, and the former member of parliament 'Etuate Lavulavu is the supervisor. The project started with $10,000 that was donated from "outside".

There is no plan, no working committee. We just work outside," he said.

You are the Boss?” I asked.

Me and volunteers. No committee – nothing is written. If you ask me if there is a plan, I will tell you, no plan was written down.”

The Prime Minister said that the reason why there is no written information was because there are times government operation is very difficult because of the Procurement Procedure. “It slows down the progress of work. So there is no plan, no committee, we just work outside.”

He said that besides the $10,000 contribution from "outside", there were financial contributions from Public Enterprises, the Harbour Board Authority, the Water Board and the Power Board.

Meanwhile over half a kilometres of canals have been dug into the low lying area.

No approval

"So Public Enterprises can contribute to project outside of government without the approval of government?" I asked.

The Prime Minister said he didn't know.

"I don’t know anything about their rule of operation. But there is a good reason for why they come and help. The legal correctness is something to ask them. Nothing is written down, I am sure.”

Hon. Tevita Lavemaau, the Minister of Finance, however, gave a different version of the operation.

There is a Trust Account for the project in Treasury where we keep the contributions from High Commissioners and others,” he said.

Hon. Lavemaau explained that contributions from Public Enterprises were approved by their Boards of Directors.

He said that with regards to the Golf Course, overseas designers were here for two weeks. They have left and another designer will arrive soon from New Zealand. At the completion of their work, they will present them to a committee to select which plan to use. “We will then follow the government procurement process. It has to be tendered.”

Massive earthworks on Popua's exposed reef area are not fully explained. Popua 23 February 2017.


With deepest concern I have read your article about the canal project in Popua. From my point of view there is no benefit for the people living in this area. Instead there will be an unnecessary health risk: as you have stated correctly, the water will not flow. Therefore it will be a dangerous breeding ground for mosquitoes -  in a country that is already struggling with dangerous diseases (Dengue, Zika fever, etc.) being spread by mosquitoes. I cannot understand that it is possible to start construction works without plan. Did Mr. Pohiva tell anything to the public health officials? What would they answer?
Mr. Pohiva must realize that he can not always recognize what is best for his country and the people living there!
I hope that being woken up by your article, somebody will stand up and stop building this canal.
Bjoern Heinemann, Physician
Bielefeld, Germany

If Tonga is serious about creating canals they need to look at countries such as Holland and England and see how they have used locks to combat the flat terrain of their countries. Rather than being negative look for the positives!

This is highly irresponsible for a Prime Minister of a country to say that "The Chinese will take over the running of the country in a few years time," and to add further that "Chinese Businesses in Tonga did not pay any tax at all". He's inciting a culture of fear and of hatred using language of discrimination for his own political purpose. This is the kind of propaganda he has been using over the years. I would challenge Prime Minister 'Akilisi to provide evidence as this is an insult to all the Chinese businesses in Tonga who pay their tax. But quite apart from these, what about coming up with novel ideas for policies that will turn the country’s economy around? Where has 'Akilisi been in all these years? He's the longest serving member of parliament becoming the Prime Minister in recent years but where are his policies to create employment, and to increase workers’ productivity? He has been behind the pay increase of government workers in the past, increases that saw Tonga giving one of the highest pay increases without a return in productivity gains. He's the Prime Minister but he is criticizing and complaining as if he's not the leader of the Government. He’s actually pointing his finger at himself. His reply that there is no plan and no working party for this recreation park and that he doesn't know the rule of operation at the Public Enterprises is indicative of how he's running the Government. He has no plans, at odds and has no working relation with his ministers and he comes across as having no idea whatsoever of how to run the country apart from his intransigent ideological views that have isolated him from people that could have helped him to turn things around. I think that he’s getting on in years and it’s time to retire.