In the past six months, Xue Bing, China’s ambassador to PNG, has had six meetings with members of Prime Minister James Marape’s cabinet, including two with the Prime Minister himself. Airport runway expansions, seafood export deals, COVID-19 medical aid and construction of the national courthouse are all under way with multimillion-dollar capital injections from the Chinese government.
Increasingly, PNG national media outlets are publishing opinion pieces from Mr Xue, promoting Beijing’s record in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and suppressing the coronavirus.
PNG, which from 1914-1949 was a part of Australia, is the only close trading partner to support China’s new national security laws in Hong Kong. PNG voted with Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and 53 other countries at the United Nations in July to back the legislation that criminalises dissent in the former British colony with sentences of up to life in prison.
Former Australian high commissioner to PNG, Ian Kemish, said the school betrayed China’s broader intentions in the region.
“That soft-power capacity has been something over a longer period we have seen develop,” the Lowy Institute non-resident fellow said.
The World Bank says most of PNG’s 8 million people live in rural communities and face significant challenges in health, education and economic opportunity. In its construction proposal, the Chinese government described PNG’s national education outcomes as being low level, said its “teaching environment and facilities are extremely backward” and that the overall educational environment of the economy needed to be improved urgently.
Melveth Peakari, a former teacher at the school, said its facilities were excellent and the school was in high demand.
“The parents’ biggest wish is for their kids to attend Butuka. They think because of the facilities, their kids might have an advantage,” she said from Port Moresby. “They think that the Chinese government is helping a lot.”
PNG is set to introduce a new curriculum in 2021. The Butuka Academy was praised by Education Minister Nick Kuman in 2018 for having all the facilities to implement the country’s new strategy focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Plans submitted by the China Construction Steel Structure Corp show Butuka is being used as a model for other projects in the region. CCSSC General Manager Ma Shuai told PNG media outlet The Loop in May that the project would benefit PNG for a long time and develop relations between Port Moresby and Shenzhen, the Chinese city splashed across football stands.
“After several years, some of them will be the middle class or even the high class of this country; they will all remember this is a donation from Shenzhen and from China,” he said. ”
The links between Butuka and the government in PNG appear to run all the way to the top. The chairwoman of the academy, Lady Ni Yumei Cragnolini, is also president of the PNG Chinese Association, leads former prime minister Peter O’Neill’s foundation and is on the board of trustees of the National Gaming Control Board.
Chinese state media has said the chairman of the academy is Sam Lora, also PNG’s Assistant Education Secretary. Lady Ni and Mr Lora were contacted for comment.
Lady Ni, who migrated from Beijing to PNG in 1989, replied to a letter from President Xi to the school on July 6 praising his “great power”, development of the academy and the care and love for the growth of youth in PNG.
“It will live up to President Xi’s expectations, continue to run well the academy, and strive to cultivate the talents needed for sustainable development for Papua New Guinea. It will inherit the friendship between China and PNG,” she said, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
President Xi visited the site of the academy in 2018 during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit. The meeting, where the President received a full military honour guard and 21-gun salute at PNG’s parliament, was regarded as a turning point in China’s soft-power relations in the Indo-Pacific.
Mr Kemish said PNG’s temptation to engage with China was growing as an election neared and the country faced the crippling economic effects of the coronavirus amid a spike in case numbers.
“Incumbent governments need resources and financial resources to win an election. With nothing happening in the economy, the temptation has got to be there, for some politicians at least, to reach for China,” he said.
He said Australia had been focused on health initiatives and building capacity over time through education.
“The Chinese approach has favoured infrastructure because it delivers a sugar hit in terms of public relations and leaves behind a standing symbol of China’s support,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison committed $45 million on August 4 to fund technical and vocational training in PNG as it looked to further negotiations on a bilateral security treaty and a naval base on Manus Island.
Former PNG prime minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu had earlier warned the joint base could be in breach of the country’s “friend to all, enemy to none” foreign policy.
Mr Kemish welcomed the Morrison government’s $500 million Pacific step-up program and said it was a “long time coming”. He said the government should remain vigilant.
“We are talking about our nearest neighbour,” he said. “We don’t need to conduct a mini-Cold War in PNG — it just needs consistent focus.”
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.