China’s Silent Army

In the official realm, the PRC’s omnilateral diplomacy has produced a hyperactive collection of initiatives from FOCAC to the SCO. On the ground, Chinese companies and Chinese migrants are active and increasingly visible on every continent, often in locales that their western counterparts have given up on or wouldn’t consider in the first place. China’s Silent Army, written by two Spanish China correspondents, provides a taste of this new wave of Chinese outward migration.

The authors’ self-funded fieldwork takes them around the world on an impressive odyssey; to the casino resort of Boten on the China-Lao border where the Chinese Golden Boten City Co. runs an entertainment resort for Chinese that is reminiscent of the treaty ports of another era; the nightmarish Hpakant jade mine in Burma where impoverished miners endure frightening conditions to dig for “Blood Jade”; the Dragon Mart in Dubai, the massive market and warehouse for Chinese goods, a desert Yiwu where traders from across the region come to buy goods; to Sudan’s Merowe Dam (described byInternational Rivers as “one of the world’s most destructive hydropower projects”), reminiscent in ambition and disruption of the Three Gorges dam; to San Juan de Marcona in Peru home to the Shougang Hierro iron ore mine.

Along the way, the authors come into the orbit of numerous Chinese companies; Sinohydro building dams in Africa; the China Investment Fund, a shady Hong Kong-based institution that is disowned by Beijing but is apparently used for channelling and processing money for overseas projects; Beidahuang the state owned farming conglomerate, and world’s biggest soya producer, which is buying up agricultural land in Australia, South America and Africa to irrigate and grow crops on; and Anhui Waijing, one of the state owned construction companies laying down infrastructure across the developing world. Back in China, the authors also run across a labour export company, whose agents go around the countryside recruiting workers for projects overseas, reminiscent of the “immigrant hunters” a century earlier.

If Chinese companies are generally given short shrift, the authors appear sympathetic to the Chinese individuals they meet along the way: From the Shanti-sini, the Chinese rag traders who roam Cairo selling clothing from big bags on their backs to dorm-dwelling miners, groundsheet traders and even sweating, uncomfortable diplomats struggling to stick to the official line, the authors recognize the difficulties, the sacrifices and the straightforward intentions of most Chinese migrants. These “labourers, engineers, tailors, traders, cooks and entrepreneurs” are praised for their courage; but the authors ruin the compliment by calling them the “human face of China’s conquest of the planet” (p. 253). Continues here

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