When he was in power, the megalomania of Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was so artless it was almost endearing. His clan come from the southern coastal village of Hambantota, a fishing village buffeted by fierce Indian Ocean waves and as far from the island’s centres of power as you can get. But, like many local politicians before him, the village boy made good wanted to improve things back home. Now the visitor with sufficient time and curiosity can explore his legacy: the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium, the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port – all located in Hambantota.
None of them is a great success: money can buy you a port and an airport, but in the long run it can’t buy you aircraft and passengers. And while Sri Lankans love cricket, they have excellent international grounds in Colombo, Galle and Dambulla without trekking all the way to the remote south coast.
How did the big man, who put his own moustachioed image on the nation’s banknotes, succeed in funding these barmy vanity projects? Enter the Dragon: Rajapaksa was just China’s cup of tea, a strong and apparently popular ruler who knew how to end a war, bend a constitution, lock up inconvenient judges and generals, and frighten the wits out of local journalists.
The Rajapaksas – Mahinda’s ruthless brother Gotabhaya was his defence minister – brought the civil war with the Tamil Tigers to a bloody finale, and when they spurned Western attempts to find out what happened in the war’s last weeks, China was happy to take up the slack left by fleeing Western investors. The Rajapaksa peace dividend was made in China, from his eponymous boondoggles to revamped railway lines, new motorways and a planned port city in Colombo.
But then suddenly Rajapaksa was gone, blown away by popular distaste, much of which focused on China: its tendency to suddenly inflate the interest rate of its loans to the state, its clunky, malfunctioning power station, and in particular the Colombo Port City plan, in which China – taking a leaf out of Britain’s imperial book – proposed keeping half of the land reclaimed from the sea on a 99-year lease.
The Sri Lankans, colonised successively over 400 years by Portuguese, Dutch and British, did not relish the prospect of a new overlord. As Rajapaksa’s election opponent (and former aide) Maithripala Sirisena put it in his manifesto: “The land that the White Man [sic] took over by means of military strength is now being obtained by foreigners by paying ransom to a handful of persons.” The “ransom” referred to claims of corrupt payments by China to obtain favoured status. And in January, to Beijing’s horror, the electorate threw Rajapaksa out, barely three months after President Xi Jinping’s visit to the country, and China’s projects went into the deep freeze. China tends when investing overseas to create firm ties with the ruling elite but otherwise to have little to do with local politics, so once Rajapaksa was gone they had no fallback position.
But now the Chinese are back, and the Colombo Port City plan is expected to get under way in February. Bashing China was useful when Mr Sirisena was trying to win the election; now he’s in power, having a partner with deep pockets who is not in the habit of asking awkward questions has its advantages. Besides – as the rest of Asia is discovering – what China wants, China gets.