MANDALAY, Myanmar (Reuters) - The stalls of Mandalay’s biggest market are lined with Chinese-made clothes, appliances and cosmetics — a clear sign of the grip Myanmar’s giant neighbor has over the city.
“You think of me as Chinese, right?” said Xiao Wei, one of many ethnic Chinese merchants at the Zeigyo market in Mandalay, a bustling city and former royal capital in central Myanmar.
“When I am in China, no one believes I am a foreigner until they see my passport,” said Wei, a member of a community from northeast Myanmar whose descendants moved there from China hundreds of years ago.
Chinese influence in Mynamar is in the spotlight as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives there on Wednesday for a visit that could do much to end its isolation and ease it away from its reliance on its northern neighbor.
That influence has been particularly strong in Mandalay, perched beside the broad Irrawaddy River, 264 km (165 miles) southwest of the border with China’s Yunnan province.
Ethnic Chinese families have lived in the city for generations and Chinese dialects are commonly heard. Many shop signs and advertisements are in Chinese.
But relations between the neighbors have not always been cozy. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, an age-old suspicion of China runs deep.
Anti-Chinese riots erupted in the 1960s and for years afterwards China supported communist guerrillas battling Mynamar’s military government from northern hills.
But after the United States imposed sanctions on the country, also known as Burma, after a military crackdown on student-led democracy protests in 1988, Mandalay, and Myanmar itself, slipped deep into China’s embrace.
Now many ordinary people feet stifled by that and analysts say Myanmar’s rulers, including its military men who have officially handed power to a civilian government, want to loosen their dependence on China and balance out foreign relations.
That’s why Clinton should get a warm welcome when she visits the capital, Naypyitaw, and main city Yangon.
Her trip follows a decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to open the door to expanded ties, saying he saw “flickers of progress” after reforms by the government that took office in March.
While for many in Myanmar, from hardline generals to reformers and pro-democracy campaigners, China has become a symbol of angst, it is bound to remain hugely influential, no matter how warm relations with the United States might grow.
Chinese money is financing new ports, highways and dams across the resource-rich country of 50 million people. Those projects underpin more than $14 billion of pledged Chinese investment for the fiscal year ending in March, making China by far the biggest investor in Myanmar.
But in a sign Myanmar wants a little less of China, President Thein Sein in late September halted construction of a $3.6 billion dam being built by China in northern Myanmar because of public anger over its impact downstream on the Irrawaddy, seen as a holy river.
Once home to English writer George Orwell, Mandalay was heavily bombed during the Japanese occupation in World War Two. When Allied forces re-took the city in 1945, snipers fought running battles in the grid-like streets.
The city, under the shadow of Mandalay Hill and a giant Buddha statue at the top, was home to Myanmar’s royal court until the last king was deposed and exiled by the British in the 1880s.
Though the monarchy was banished, Mandalay remained the centre for Buddhism and about 60 percent of Myanmar’s monks are said to live in the city.
It also provides an insight into China’s sway over Myanmar.
Shops in the ancient monastic centre are packed with Chinese businessmen, many of them seeking their fortune in jade and other gemstones dug from Myanmar mines.
Wang Yihong, from China’s Jiangxi province, said he had invested $1 million in a gold mine about 150 km (100 miles) from Mandalay.
“There are definitely business opportunities,” the 51-year-old businessman, puffing on a cigarette, said at Mandalay airport after arriving on a flight from China’s Kunming city.
“Burma is rich in resources and China needs these resources.”
According to official figures, there are 400,000 ethnic Chinese in Mandalay province, including 70,000 in the city, but researchers said the real number could be much higher because many Chinese have registered themselves as Burmese.
Whatever their numbers, it’s clear that the Chinese, whether newly arrived or residents for generations, are better off than ethnic Burmans. It’s the Chinese own villas on the outskirts of the city and visit its upmarket shops.
Chin Han, a motorcycle taxi driver dressed in a traditional Burmese sarong, said he could make a better living if he spoke a Chinese language.
“I’m making $200 a month now, but if I could speak Chinese, I think I could make at least $300 a month,” he said, waiting for customers in the shade of a tree.
“That’s why I’ve sent one of my sons to learn Chinese. Chinese people are really hard workers, while we Burmese people spend too much time on tea and drinks, and even pray. Maybe we should learn something from the Chinese.”
In the city’s gem market, sellers are often indigenous Burmese wearing sarongs and slippers. Chunks of the milky green stone are on display at stand after stand.
The buyers are usually Chinese, wearing trousers and shoes, who sit at long flat tables, checking the jade with small flashlights and bottles of water with a little holes in the top to wet the stones and judge quality.
Once a deal is made, a bundle of kyat, Myanmar’s currency, is exchanged.
“We buy the jade here but the processing here is not good enough, so we take the jade to Guangzhou to process and resell,” said a Chinese merchant from Guangdong province near Hong Kong, who only gave his family name Li.
There are many Chinese schools in Mandalay.
Feng Huaiwei, an administrator at one of them, said he had suffered discrimination for many years.
“Things for Chinese here are getting much better,” he said. Behind him, Chinese proverbs hung from the wall, and there were notices inviting students to join winter camps in China.
While Mandalay is peaceful, distrust of China and the Chinese simmers.
Dan Na, a 32-year-old woman chatting with friends at a temple, said she did not respect the Chinese even if they were more prosperous.
“They are not Buddhists, not Christians, they just make money,” said Dan Na, wearing thanaka on her face, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark.
Speaking broken English, Dan Na said she sold fruit on the streets for a living but she took comfort from her religion.
“I believe in Buddha and my next life will be great.”
Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Dean Yates and Robert Birsel