Compared to other Central American countries Panama has a substantial population of Chinese origin numbering over 200,000, making it the largest Chinese community in the region. The number of Panamanians with some Chinese ancestry, however, may be significantly higher.
The Chinese have been in Panama since the mid-19th century; however, with the opening up in recent decades of China and the easing of travel restrictions as part of that country’s post-Maoist reforms, Chinese immigration to Panama experienced a notable increase after the 1980s. Most of the population of Chinese descent is concentrated in Panama City and the provincial urban centres and work primarily in commerce. Many recent Taiwanese and Cantonese-speaking immigrants from the Hong Kong and Guangdong provinces, constituting 99 per cent of the new arrivals, have also settled in the capital.
The first Chinese immigrants came to Panama in 1850 as contract labourers to work on the trans-Panama railroad. They numbered only 1,000 and increasing deaths from disease caused the contractors to move the majority to Jamaica. In the 1880s, a few hundred more Chinese arrived to work on the ill-fated French effort to construct the transoceanic canal. Many of these labourers remained in Panama after their ‘contracts’ expired. Other immigrants came later.
In 1903, after Panamanian independence, a law was passed prohibiting Chinese immigration. Despite these government constraints, however, Chinese immigration continued throughout most of the 20th century helped by those already in the country.
Many Chinese immigrants became involved in commerce, specializing in small retail businesses. This became a significant part of the local culture to the point where the Panamanian Spanish term for retail or ‘corner store’ is ‘el chino’.
After 1940 nationalist President Arnulfo Arias took control of Panama and passed a new Constitution that revoked the citizenship of non-Hispanic immigrants. For Chinese Panamanians these drastic state actions were coupled with rising resentment against Chinese control of the Panamanian grocery trade. This peaked in 1941, when approximately 1,000 Chinese were forced to leave Panama and Chinese immigration was entirely cut off. Chinese Panamanian citizenship was restored in 1946 under a new Constitution which gave citizenship rights to all people born in Panama.
Most persons of Chinese origin including admixtures are now generally integrated into mainstream Panamanian society. However, there is some discrimination against the country’s newer Chinese immigrants. This is primarily because of cultural and language difficulties since second and third generation Chinese immigrants are seen as distinct from recent immigrants and are generally accepted into Panamanian society if they choose to assimilate.
Since the mid-1980s Chinese Panamanians have been organized in ‘Overseas Chinese’ associations. These socio-cultural advocacy groups have been mainly concerned with complaining about discriminatory laws, general social discrimination and efforts to improve the image of the Chinese in Panamanian society. They have frequently raised money for Panamanian charities and donated the money in the name of the president and first lady. Nevertheless memories of the rise of nationalism in the 1940s have left a legacy of insecurity.
The Panamanian Chinese community has also become the focus of both the government of the People’s Republic of China and that of the Republic of China on Taiwan in those countries’ efforts to influence the process of formal diplomatic recognition from the Panamanian government. The People’s Republic finally prevailed, with Panama breaking diplomatic links with Taiwan and establishing relations with Beijing in June 2018.
Anti-Chinese sentiments are still prevalent in Panama. Like Afro-Panamanians, Middle Eastern and Indian residents, Chinese in Panama also experience racially motivated discriminatory treatment. Racial slurs directed at Asians are used openly among the general population. The prevalence of anti-Chinese sentiments was evident in widespread demonstrations in 2016 concerning the regularization of thousands of Chinese citizens. Critics argued that the regularization of their immigration status was illegal and unfair to Panamanian workers.
The tensions have in part arisen from increasing migration to Panama from China, much of it undocumented. In the past, the possibility of eventually migrating to the United States was a strong attraction for many Chinese immigrants to Panama. However, with the handover of the Canal this option no longer exists. Nevertheless, because of its location Panama remains a key transit point for illegal economic migrants on their way to the US, some of whom are trafficked for debt bondage.
Many aliens who are being smuggled through Panama are Chinese nationals arriving from Asia and South America in route to the United States. Human rights monitors have indicated that some Chinese migrants are being trafficked for debt bondage, but these reports are mainly of an anecdotal nature.
While outgoing President Juan Carlos Varela has considered the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China as a key priority for Panama, there is strong public opposition. The proposal to use the causeway along the shores of the Canal as a new site for the Chinese embassy has sparked considerable debate. In September 2018 members of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the general public planted Panamanian flags on Amador – another name for the causeway – to express their opposition. Opponents that such a prominent location would detract from Panama’s sovereignty.
Legal as well as illegal Chinese immigrants are accorded fewer legal protections for their trade activities than Panamanian citizens. New Chinese immigrants are forbidden from owning retail businesses, while Chinese-Panamanian citizens are free to do so. Chinese immigrants also sometimes encounter bureaucratic difficulties in practicing professions Although the Panamanian Constitution forbids any non-Panamanian from owning a retail business, this practice is not strictly enforced. Chinese immigrants who cannot hold sole proprietorship to their businesses can legally seek out a local partner. However in general the established Chinese Panamanians prefer not to be associated with recent arrivals from China.
Regarding official recognition, in 2004 the Panamanian Congress designated 30 March as the ‘National Day for the Chinese Ethnic Group’, recognizing their long contribution to Panama’s development. More recently, in 2015, the Ministry of Social Development created the National Council on the Chinese Ethnic Group as a consultative body, acting as an advisor for the promotion and development of recognition and integration mechanisms.
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