By Emiliano Valle
The anti-Chinese rhetoric was unmistak-able: “[The Chinese] are a dirty people...They come and they bring their whole family...They occupy the area and it ends up being an invasion because they reproduce and grow in the areas they get to. They are like a plague. A dirty plague.” Hearing this type of racist language made me realize that the opposition to Dragon Mart Cancún (DMC) was more complex than it first appeared.
As a college student looking for a thesis subject, I became intrigued by DMC when I learned of its closure for violating environmental law. I was familiar with the area, and this was the only major development project in the region that I knew to have been cancelled for environmental reasons. So in the summer of 2015, I traveled to Puerto Morelos, Mexico, to find out more about the project, and why many locals seemed to support DMC’s closure.
The project had been conceived as a mega mall and exhibition center—modeled after the Dragon Mart in Dubai that had been constructed a decade earlier—and was to be built between Cancún and the town of Puerto Morelos. It was designed to sell products from international suppliers directly to Mexican and Latin American businesses and the general public. In the final iteration of the proposed project, a Chinese company, Chinamex Middle East Investment & Trade Promotion Center, had a 10 percent investment in the effort while the other 90 percent was owned by two Mexican business groups. On the DMC website, the project director billed it as an important step toward helping Cancún become “the largest commercial center in the Americas.” However, in late January 2015, the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection in Mexico (PROFEPA), ordered the closure of the project (after initial building had begun) because of its violation of environmental law. The DMC project was charged with destruction of forested area and improper land use—federal offenses punishable by fines or jail time.
The closure of the project for environmental reasons surprised me. I knew of massive resorts that had been built nearby that had damaged local mangrove forests. Although mangroves are federally protected, those projects were ultimately completed. I was also surprised by the strength of the local community’s opposition to DMC. While following the project from afar, I had learned of several meetings and a march against the project. I wondered if the enthusiastic opposition to DMC was because of serious concerns about the project’s environmental impact.
Indeed, the most obvious explanation for why people opposed the project was also the official reason for its shuttering: environmental damage. There are a couple of reasons why this would make sense. First, the presence of two marine research centers near the town of Puerto Morelos (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Instituto Nacional de Pesca) may have contributed to heightened awareness of environmental issues, which could have motivated the townspeople to oppose DMC. Second, the town has a history of environmental advocacy. In 1998, community efforts succeeded in having Puerto Morelos’s coral reef designated a marine protected area. Thus, residents had a record of concern for environmental health and had experienced success in their advocacy efforts.
However, over the course of 80 interviews with mostly working-class inhabitants of the Cancún/Puerto Morelos area, it became evident that strong environmental conservation rationale was negligible compared to other considerations. Particularly apparent was the nationalistic rhetoric used by interview subjects. This nationalism manifested itself in two ways: support for economic protectionism and anti-Chinese language.
Interview subjects voiced concerns that DMC’s part-Chinese ownership and exhibition of Chinese products would hurt their wallets and the Mexican economy. Many interview subjects were involved in the sale of artisan goods and worried that DMC would facilitate the sale of cheap, Chinese knock-offs that tourists would buy instead of their wares. They also noted the cheap price of Chinese goods in their daily lives and felt that “Mexican-made” products were being pushed out of stores and rendered unaffordable compared to Chinese manufacturing; having a store directly selling these products to consumers would only make things worse. The residents of the Cancún/Puerto Morelos area most likely did not know the specific history and development of Mexico’s trade deficit with China, but they were aware of the Mexican manufacturing industry’s open opposition to the project and of increased Chinese product presence in the area. The people I interviewed worried about the hardships they might face because of an abundance of Chinese products, and they expressed their concerns regarding Mexican manufacturing and how that would impact el pueblo mexicano—the Mexican people. They were anxious about unfair competition.
Their comments showed the importance of nationalist sentiment in the economic opposition to DMC. Using the phrase “el pueblo mexicano” both indicates concern for the Mexican people as a whole and unites the working class and business owners into a homogenous “pueblo.” By calling the economic competition that DMC would have brought “unfair” to Mexico and Mexicans, interview participants framed the potential economic harm in patriotic, nationalist terms. Interview subjects made it clear that they were angry that this gigantic project had initially been approved as they saw no benefit in it for Mexicans. They wanted government action to protect and support Mexican business, not facilitate foreign competitors.
Once I began to probe these nationalist sentiments, the people I interviewed often described fears of a Chinese colony being built to house the workers and vendors who would work in DMC. Interview subjects saw this as a problem because the Chinese were considered “unwilling to assimilate,” “dirty,” and “greedy.” One person even noted that “Mexicans don’t trust the Chinese and would make it difficult for them to assimilate even if they wanted to. We have even had problems with anti-Chinese violence in Mexico.”
Robert Chao Romero and Julia Maria Schiavone Camacho give detailed accounts of the development of this anti-Chinese sentiment in Mexico in their respective books The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 (2010) and Chinese Mexicans: Transpacific Migration and the Search for a Homeland, 1910-1960 (2012). They tell the story of more than 60,000 Chinese migrating to Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at least partly caused by the United States’ passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. They then describe, along with Elliot Young, how anti-Chinese sentiment coalesced in northern Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
The Mexican Revolution was, at its core, an uprising of the lower classes against the excesses of wealthy landowners and bourgeois class interests. One target of this ire was foreign corporations that had been free to make vast profits off Mexican land. Elliot Young documents in Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era Through World War II (2014), how this backdrop, combined with the relative financial successes of the Chinese immigrant businesses in northern Mexico, led to a crystallization of anti-Chinese racism. In some towns in northern Mexico, organizations were set up to protect Mexican businesses and to oust Chinese-Mexican businessmen. These anti-Chinese groups quickly spread to southern states and amassed over two million members in the 1930s. These organizations fomented feelings of nationalism by asserting that the economy should be structured around benefitting mestizo Mexicans (those with a mix of European and Indigenous heritage), not recent Chinese immigrants. These businessmen of Chinese heritage mainly ran small-scale businesses rather than the multinational corporations that amassed large profits off Mexican soil and labor. Nevertheless, in writings and in cartoons, people of Chinese ancestry were portrayed as immoral, unclean people and parasitic to Mexican businesses and Mexican prosperity. These insults levied against Chinese Mexicans a century ago bore a striking resemblance to the wording used by interview subjects.
The modern-day characterization of the Chinese, and especially Chinese businesses, in a negative manner shows why this earlier period can help us understand the opposition to DMC. Just prior to the Revolution, large multinational corporations were major exploiters of Mexican land and resources; interview subjects predicted a similar result when discussing the implications of DMC. Just like many Mexicans were frustrated with money flowing out of the country in the early 1900s, many interview subjects felt the DMC would facilitate Chinese profit extraction from Mexico. In both cases, the Chinese populations played minor roles, but served as easy scapegoats. In the early 1900s, the Chinese Mexicans were occupying a petite-bourgeoisie class that sold services and small wares to customers —they were not business executives or heads of extractive industries in Mexico, but were nevertheless objects of ridicule during and after the Revolution. With DMC, the Chinese company backing the project only had a 10 percent stake in the project and no plans for a “Chinese colony” were ever presented, but fears of economic opportunity going to foreign workers stoked racial resentment. In both cases, the Chinese served as targets for anger stemming from government policies that inadequately supported the working class.
Yet, rather than voice grievances tied to socioeconomic class, interview subjects illustrated that race and nationality were the important factors connecting them to a larger identity. By defining, or imagining, themselves in relation to people from a different race, with different customs, and a different culture, interview subjects sidestepped power and class divides in Mexican society in order to construct a unifying rhetoric in opposition to a project that they felt would benefit the Chinese more than it would Mexicans. Interview subjects did not have any special affinity for Mexican manufacturing, the entity that was perceived to be put most at risk by the project, but still spoke about protecting Mexico’s economy and its people.
These opinions and conceptual frameworks point to a larger, deeper dissatisfaction with the type of trade liberalization that DMC’s director touted, and that Mexico has aggressively pursued since the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s. Liberalization of the Mexican economy in the past few decades has opened more sectors of the economy to competition from foreign firms, putting Mexican workers at risk. These feelings of frustration and anger have been reflected in recent years on a worldwide scale. Populations that have felt abandoned by their governments’ disbursement of economic gains have turned to right-wing populists who promise a brighter future for them through racial exclusion and economic protectionism. Unless leaders of countries, such as Mexico, do a better job implementing initiatives that equitably allocate the economic gains of globalization, they should expect a similar flavor of opposition to that faced by DMC—claims of unfair competition and the surfacing (or resurfacing) of racial prejudices.
Emiliano Valle is a graduate of Harvard College ’16 and entered Harvard Medical School this fall.