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Frank Dikötter

New Trade Revolution

China's Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who Are Remaking the World in Beijing's Image
By Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo (Translated by Catherine Mansfield) (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 357pp 25)
A Chinese and a Sudanese worker near Khartoum

One of the most gripping views from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong is the South China Sea, its green islands shimmering in the distance on a clear day. Another striking spectacle is the ceaseless transit of container ships spreading 'Made in China' to the rest of the world. One cannot help wonder whether what is in these containers - rubber sandals, plastic toys, enamel washbasins - will end up in a Marrakesh bazaar or a Croydon street market. Cheap products from the People's Republic have been around for decades, but a new export is now extending China's global influence: an army of migrants willing to set up businesses in the most unlikely places around the planet. Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo spent two years travelling through twenty-five countries, capturing the voices of the ordinary people who are at the heart of China's current expansion.

In Egypt alone, it is estimated that 15,000 Chinese traders - possibly as many as 100,000 - make a living as door-to-door salesmen. Many do not speak a word of Arabic. In total some 750,000 traders from China officially live in Africa. They are emigrants determined to escape poverty at home and willing to adapt to their new surroundings when they step off the plane with no more than a bundle of personal belongings. A few of those willing to brave the streets and peddle their wares eventually manage to start their own factories, often after investing their life savings. Others set up shop, selling shoes, clothes, bags or jewellery. These can be small affairs, for instance the hundreds of Chinese-operated boutiques along the tree-lined Allées du Centenaire in Dakar (now known to some locals as the Boulevard Mao). The Dragon Mart in Dubai, by contrast, measures 1.2 kilometres in length and covers an area more than three times the size of Wembley stadium, housing 4,000 Chinese shops 'selling every imaginable kind of product'.

But the biggest players are state-run companies. The world's second largest shipping company, the Chinese state-run COSCO, handles transportation to the Dragon Mart. In return for manufactured goods, large state corporations guarantee a continuous flow of raw materials into China. From the copper mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the natural gas holdings of Turkmenistan, a giant octopus extends its tentacles, trading finished products for natural resources. In South America 90 per cent of exports to China are unprocessed or barely processed natural resources. The proportion is about the same for Africa. China not only extracts, it also constructs. In what the authors call 'stadium diplomacy', dozens of 'friendship stadiums' are presented as gifts to countries around the world. Critics characterise them as Trojan horses used to conquer local markets. There are railway projects in Argentina and Venezuela, oil and gas pipelines in Sudan and Kazakhstan, and several thousand kilometres of roads in other parts of the world. On the surface, some of these undertakings seem laudable enough - for instance the construction of housing in war-torn Angola. But so vital is access to natural resources for China that the country also has a hand in undertaking much more controversial infrastructure projects in return for preferential access to the wealth lying beneath the earth's surface. It has been involved in 300 dam projects in 66 countries worldwide, many of them potentially so dangerous to local people and the environment that the World Bank and other organisations have refused to get involved. Chinese state banks also offer quick and easy money, always at preferential rates, in exchange for the right to exploit another country's resources. Banks, corporations and diplomats collaborate to implement commands from the Communist Party, forming a powerful alliance that is unique to China. And in the absence of a free press, a thriving civil society or opposition parties, the Party can carry out its projects abroad pretty much as it feels fit. It seems especially at home in countries with unsavoury regimes. It courts the ayatollahs in Iran and lends a helping hand to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. From Sudan to Zimbabwe, the most powerful overseas companies hail from China, with the China National Petroleum Corporation extremely prominent among them.

One question Cardenal and Araújo pose throughout this book is just how beneficial or advantageous are the opportunities that China offers the developing world. Their description of what happens on the ground is far removed from the official rhetoric that flows from Beijing. In the course of their research, they interviewed hundreds of ordinary people, from employees in mines run by Chinese companies to local union leaders and civil rights advocates. The conclusion of their fieldwork is that Chinese companies abroad simply reproduce the same labour pattern that has been in force in the People's Republic for the last thirty years. 'They fed us rotten rice. We were working for fourteen hours or more each day. They didn't pay us the salary stipulated in our contracts. We were slaves. That's what our boss told us and that's how we felt.' These are the words of Chinese labourers recruited in Gabon to work for a Chinese construction company. Local workers generally fare no better. While the sign over the entrance of the Maputo National Stadium proclaims that 'friendship between China and Mozambique will prevail like Heaven and Earth', the Chinese companies pay their local employees too little to meet even their basic needs.

Systemic corruption compounds the problem. In the words of one Mozambique campaigner against deforestation: 'Other foreign companies are also corrupt in some ways, but the Chinese have a whole system of corruption in place so that the industry will work for them.' So intense is logging, legal and illegal, that if current trends continue, Mozambique's entire reserves of hardwood will have been devoured in less than a decade. In a long list of other countries, from Russia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Gabon to Papua New Guinea, comparable devastation of forest cover is in train. The only beneficiaries are rapacious local elites and the Chinese state. Until recently this was also true of Burma, but the plunder of that country's hardwood, jade, oil and gas was so intense that, since this book was written, its military leaders have shifted their commercial allegiance away from the People's Republic to embrace Europe and the United States instead. As Ana María Gomes, author of a report on China's impact on Africa, bluntly stated: 'Development cannot be achieved without good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law.' Burma's change of heart gives a glimmer of hope to those who share her belief.

China's Silent Army makes for lively and humane albeit grim reading. It offers essential information for all who wish to learn how the global reach of China Inc is transforming the lives of everyone on this planet


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Frank Dikötter's most recent book, Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 , is published by Bloomsbury.


John Murray


Royal Literary Fund