China’s second coming

2 February 2013

9:00 AM

2 February 2013

9:00 AM

China’s Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who are Remaking the World in Beijing’s Image Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo

Allen Lane, pp.368, £25

It’s a new version of the Yellow Peril. The Chinese are taking over the world, starting with the nasty bits, like Burma, Sudan and Iran, which we are boycotting for all kinds of high-minded reasons. Two Spanish journalists, Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo, have returned from an exhausting trip round the globe to tell us how it’s being done. After carrying out 500 interviews, the authors seem outraged by the corruption and environmental devastation they witness, but also awed by the sheer guts and industry that individual Chinese show in doing business where so many others fail.

The authors believe that something is going on in the global economy that is altogether different, bigger and possibly uglier than anything seen before. The first waves of Chinese emigration took place in the autumn of the Qing dynasty when indentured labourers were shipped out to mine gold in California or Australia; they also built railways in the Wild West and in Malaya tapped rubber trees or mined tin. This influx alarmed some countries so much that they restricted further Chinese immigration for generations.

In Southeast Asia, the Chinese continued to arrive in the first half of the 20th century, often as penniless coolies, but they died as millionaires. They have taken control of the trade and commerce of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. There have been periodic attempts to expel them by the Burmese and Vietnamese, and Malaysia still discriminates against its ethnic Chinese citizens because they are too successful.

Could the same pattern repeat itself globally? These days the Chinese are turning up in places like Egypt, the Congo, Mozambique, Russia’s far east, the oil-rich steppes of Central Asia, the Middle East and Central America. Some are also starting out as penniless coolies, building roads, railways and pipelines, or felling forests. Others are like the 25,000 Chinese women in Cairo who go door-to-door selling clothes that they have sewn in tiny workshops.

The authors have penned engaging and sympathetic portraits of some of the 750,000 Chinese who have set up retail businesses all over Africa selling the flood of consumer goods that pours out of China’s factories. They visit some of the new Chinatowns springing up like the Dragon Mart emporium in Dubai, which is the size of Wembley Stadium. And who knew that in Argentina the new Chinese immigrants now run 9,000 supermarkets and have ousted the shops set up by former Spanish and Italian immigrants?


What the authors find more alarming is the huge and often malignant imprint of China’s party-state. China has overtaken the World Bank as the biggest lender on the planet, granting over $110 billion in credit in 2009-10 alone, to buy land, minerals, oil and gas fields, iron ore and copper mines, forests, and to build some 300 dams.

The authors see this as a ‘lethal financial weapon’, a ‘silent conquest of our planet’, and a neo-colonialist plot. They say these giant state-owned enterprises are marching across the globe remaking the world in Beijing’s image, which involves the secretive and pervasive bribery of political elites, rapacious environmental devastation, and harsh, slave-like working conditions for the disenfranchised masses.

The Spanish journalists travel to Peru to listen to the bitter grievances of miners working for the Capital Iron and Steel Works (Shougang) which bought the iron ore concession at San Juan de Marcona from an American multinational. ‘We feel like we are living in a Chinese colony,’ complains one of the workers, who now wishes the gringos had not gone home. His Chinese employers show the same disdain for trade unions and democratic voices here as they do at home.

China’s vast economic displacement enables it to swamp the United Nations’ sanctions against rogue states like Iran. Annual bilateral trade is worth an estimated $50 billion — a critical lifeline for the ayatollahs. The scale of what China is doing in Iran, Sudan and so many other countries continues to overturn diplomatic assumptions which we have lived with for generations.

China, not the West, is now Africa’s biggest trade partner, doing business trade worth $166 billion a year. The same is true of Latin America. In a dozen countries China has supplanted America as the most important economic partner. And the trend has not peaked. Beijing has loads of money, while we are all now hopelessly and comprehensively broke.

The end of the Cold War, which had allowed the Third World to play one side off against the other, brought hopes of a new era of wiser and cleaner development. Yet when countries like Angola find international conditions too onerous, China is quite happy to step in with loans and related assistance. In fact, the book suggests that the Chinese are making a mockery of our quixotic efforts to punish companies which resort to bribery to win contracts in Third-World kleptocracies.

Underneath the fascinating and vivid reportage is the journalists’ conviction that China’s ‘total war’ strategy, the fusing of the party-state, military, banks, companies and population behind a single purpose, makes it destined to ‘conquer the world’. Certainly, China’s steely and cynical calculation of its interests makes an unnerving contrast with Britain’s woolly-minded foreign policy and its League of Nations-style delusional idealism.

But I wonder if the Spanish journalists are right. They reveal that in Angola and the Congo, China has failed to deliver on its promises. They visit white elephant developments like the giant airport built at the Merowe Dam in Sudan which stands empty, and they observe that in many countries the Chinese are becoming quite unpopular.

And they fail to mention how often the Chinese have ended up nursing heavy losses and fleeing in panic when the rotten regimes fall. Who backed Saddam Hussein to the bitter end? Or Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic? Or Gaddafi? And who is now the last best friend of Syria’s President Assad? Anyone might begin to wonder if the Chinese truly understand where their long-term interests lie.

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Show comments
  • Peter_T

    yes let’s leave out all the hardships Chinese faced in those early years facing racism and prejudice the authors apparently have.
    Now drumming up Chinese neo-colonialism where again Chinese tread in dangrous environments and making themselves successful using hardworks. Many Chinese immigrants with business are private, not state corporation related and yet this author and other put them in the same category as state corps to “support” their “evidences” of Chinese neo-colonialism. It shows again with the mentioning of Yellow Peril the sad racism and prejudice against the Chinese once again on the rise.

    • Sergei Rafaël Xavier Kogeldans


    • Eddie

      Oh come off it! The biggest racists of all are the Chinese in my experience – or can a white European or a black person move to China and be treated as an equal, huh?
      We are witnessing the rise of Chinese uber-nationalism, which perhaps in its amorality has more in common with fascism than anything else.
      You attitude is like that of extremist Muslims who claim anyone who criticises them are somehow Islamophobic and racist.
      Red herring, mate. Not yellow peril. People are criticising the behaviour of the Chinese, not their skin colour.

      • Peter_T

        Hello, the author specifically mentioned the in the first sentence “It’s a new version of the Yellow Peril”. How are you argue it is not yellow peril? Are you blind?
        Onto your other topics.Of course Whites and Black can move to China and be treated as equal provided they do so legally and do not offend Chinese culture and its people while living in China. It is is the same expectations to Chinese that moved to Africa or European/USA countries.
        Rise of uber Chinese nationalism = amorality and in common with facism? You are divorced from reality to link them in such a fashion. What is your evidence that Chinese nationalism links with amorality? What morality standard are you referring to? What parts are related to facism?
        My attitudes are nothing like these exterme Muslims. If you haven’t read the author’s article I suggest you read it before writing about me. I only responded to author’s extremely biased and prejudiced view on the Re-rise of Chinese and linking them toward the racist Yellow Peril while igorning the suffering of Chinese in European/USA countries during that era including under the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act which the author included as an non-offending immigration act!
        My reaction and reply is to the author not to the People that you are referring to. The author said 2nd Version of the Yellow Peril which is racist already. So please go read first before jumping the gun and quick to defend racist attitudes. It makes you look bad too

  • Pyi Pyu Jue

    I find it funny that the authors failed tk mention that the reason so many Chinese emigrated during the qing dynasty wasbecause of western imperialism and poverty that was brought soon the Chinese in the first plaCe.

    we Chinese have also learnt that the journalists cannot be reasoned with and continue to smear China’s and demonize the Chinese people. there is a listbeing compiled now and a Chinese style mossad of hundreds of thousands of people will be out to actively exterminate these individuals and their genetic lines. in any case what harm is there to Chinas reputation? the media already paints a falsely awful plcture of it anywway

    • Eddie

      Actually, our media and our politicians paint a positive picture of China most of the time and do not tell the truth, because they are all afraid of being ostracised and having their businesses hurt (sometimes deliberately via hacking by the Chinese government) – and their national economies hurt – by Chinese financial power.
      It is our politicians fault anyway. They should not have allowed some awful uber-nationalist amoral backwards-thinking dictatorship to get rich by mass-producing consumerist rubbish to sell back to us.
      What exactly has China contributed to the world in the last 30 years? It has invented, innovated and created nothing; it has destroyed so much in the environment and made many animals extinct.
      It is time we told the truth about China: it is a vile dictatorship and its influence on Africa and elsewhere is largely negative.

      • Peter_T

        Are you asking that the current China that emerged from the rubble, mired in 30 years of political turmoil and only opened to the world 30 years ago to invent something? Did USA in 1800-1806 mass innovate after 30 years of Independence? Did Japan innovate anything after WWII between 1945-1975? How about India after its independence from UK? You know you set high standard to China to belittle it while not giving the same high standard to other modern countries. it is very unreasonable of you.
        It has invented and innoved and created nothing? Have you read about their bio-creativity on how they raise crop yields by creating better wheat strain? Creating short maturity tree specie to use for paper? How about self-cleaning clothing? etc.. This is all from 30 years of nothing. You should ask again in 30 more years what Chinese has invented in the 60 years since they opened to the world, if you live that long.
        Sorry your “truth” is not convincing. It reeks of hawk and extreme right-wing attitudes which you had accused me of. I guess you didn’t take a look a mirror first before accuse others of being an extremist.

  • islander

    The true peril is not yellow. It is racism and jealousy of former colonialists who are now waning imperialists. The Chinese work harder, save, more, and are willing to take on difficulties that Westerners detest. The Chinese are now beating the westerners in their own capitalist game so that the losers want to change the rules r load the dice. The world that has been cast for so long in the Western image is now developing a more Asian personality. Westerners are used to being the global boss for so long they have to relearn being second fiddle again.

    • Eddie

      The world is in no way culturally influenced by China and does not ‘have a Western image’.
      Chinese politicians wear suits as Westerners; all learn and speak English; all buy and use Western (often British) inventions like TVs and computers.
      In terms of hard cash, China has a lot BECAUSE of the West – we stupidly allowed the Chinese to get our money and send us mass-produced consumerist crap. Our governments betrayed us all by doing that.
      But really, China has cash but NO cultural influence. After all, who wants to be Chinese? Most Chinese aspire to Western looks and lifestyles.
      And you seem to forget that in ‘beating the westerners at thier own capitalistic game’, they are doing so by imposing vile working conditions on people, exploiting and killing workers, allowing no protests at all, stealing people’s homes, and behaving like Stalin or Hitler did. The Chinese admire that. I do not. And no decent person should forget the foundation of skeletons that Chinese industrial and economic success is built on.
      The light at the horizon is this: unlike in Western countries, most Chinese are poor with peasant mentalities. Thus, they are not even where the west was in the 17th century. When their population grows, China will implode too.

      • Peter_T

        Of course if you want to compare a 60 years old modern China with 300 years of old modern western nations that’s your unequal comparison. Old Western build their modern states on the backs of non-western worlds. We shouldn’t forget that either.

        China is barely into the door step of industrailzation in 30 years. It’ll need at least another 60 years to become equal to the West of now in terms of industrialization.

        Of course Chinese industralization is build on the backs of Chinese and no Chinese would forget that either.

        Chinese admire Hitler and Stalin? Who in current China admire either of them? Are you insane? what are you evidences here?

        Thus, they are not even where the west was in the 17th century (1600’s)? Then why need to fear China and Chinese if they are 400 years behind the West?

  • Trofim

    I deeply admire the Chinese. They are doing all the things we should be doing, and should have been doing for a long time. ” unnerving contrast with Britain’s woolly-minded foreign policy and its League of Nations-style delusional idealism . . . ” -you couldn’t have put it better.

  • real__world

    With a bit of luck their polluted country will see an end to Chinese dominance when the longevity ages for death plummet due to lung diseases. You reap what you sow !

    • Peter_T

      Pollution had not killed USA and European’s Industrial Revolution and follow up environmental protections. It won’t kill China’s as they travel the same path but with better environmental protection technologies available to them.

  • Mark

    C’mon let face it that every countries or society with Spanish heritage are so corrupted and walking backward. Mexico produce wetback, Philippine as housemaid producer, Colombia… U name it. Every nation with Spanish heritage have’nt achieve anything that deserve respect. I honestly prefer Chinese industrial much better than those shitty Spanish crap.

  • zhu jiang

    So many writers try to scare us with the “Chinese Hegemony” scenario
    and it’s just laughable. If you’ve ever lived in China or lived amongst
    the Chinese diaspora (as I have) , one of the first things you learn is
    that they are absolutely not interested in changing or ruling any alien

    Their own language and traditions are far too difficult to
    comprehend and adapt to allow them to be the world’s gatekeepers. They are
    interested in one thing only, and that is making money.
    The majority of the aforementioned diaspora who have become ultra rich, have no
    desire to blend into western society and cultures. Their kids do to a
    certain extent, but the pull of a separate society within a
    society remains extremely powerful. ( you only have to visit New York’s
    Chinatown for proof)

    Money means the same to the leaders and the
    general populace , it means security , self sufficiency and the ability to protect the borders from invaders.

    If they have these key elements in their lives, the rest of the world can do
    as it likes , as long as they leave them alone.

    They don’t care what social systems are in place in the countries with whom they trade, “just tell me what the price is for product landed in our ports and
    keep your problems to yourselves. ” And , by the way, don’t tell us how to run our country!

    We’ll look after our own problems and manufacture the stuff the you want. If things get too hot to handle with our supplier’s countries we’ll look somewhere else, but
    we want no part in trying to run someone else’s country thank you very
    much… Leave that to the Western Powers.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see the leaders building the modern equivalent of another Great Wall once they feel they’ve got enough money in the bank.

    Until that time they feel it is safer to keep their money outside of China, not because
    of their visions of world power. It’s just that they wouldn’t be able to
    get it out if a new regime should miraculously surface.

    • Eddie

      So, the Chinese are amoral and will do business with anyone, thereby undermining morally admirable Western efforts to stop vile murderous despots and dictators in thhe Third World. Great huh?
      The Chinese have no morality; they just want to make money. You are right there.
      But the DO want everyone to kowtow to them, JUST like in the past – remember why the opium wars happened in the first place eh?

      • Peter_T

        Chinese do business with anyone including western countries without telling them they are bad. Morally admirable western efforts? It is called if you don’t align with me politically and listen to everything we say to change your “barbaric ways”, we’ll change your government one way or another. Look how “noble” western governments behaved when in the cold war with equally “noble” USSR. Western governments can stop such despots but prop similar despots at the same time such as Saudi Arabia (oil), Qatar (oil), Bahrain (military base), current Libya (oil) etc.. Why? Because they have something they need. So admirable western efforts such as democracy and human rights disappears if national interests like oil is involved.
        Now you talking about Opium Wars? It was mostly an economic war backed by military. Of course I would understand if you defend UK militarily forced China to allow Opium trade and sign unequal treaties since you are highly protective of anything western including their colonialism and gunboats diplomacy it seems.

      • zhu jiang

        Dear Eddie

        The problem with a debate over the internet is that assumptions are made without the benefit of discussion. I don’t feel that the Western moralising efforts are admirable, indeed in most cases they install and support the vile despots while they give out a different story to the general public.
        The difference in the Chinese way of doing things is that they don’t moralise, even if their own people are exploited in foreign countries .
        As far as the reference to the “Opium Wars” is concerned, I think that that particular episode goes to prove my point; They wouldn’t allow foreigners to do direct trade with Chinese enterprises because of their isolationist DNA (it was a crime to teach foreigners their language until relatively recently) and as a result they were partially colonised.
        They don’t want to be colonised again so they build up their military, but they certainly don’t want to expand their Governmental powers beyond their own borders.
        That doesn’t mean that the leaders want to stop their entrepeneurs from going into the outside world and gaining influence, any outside success makes them more powerful at home, which is where all the kowtowing has meaning.
        Ask yourself this question; how many expatriate Chinese do you see in the world of politics?
        The answer should get you to thinking about their desire to manifest a second coming ( if there was ever a “first coming”)

      • Sumait Naratiwat

        You sound like one of those sore losers who only know how to fight back against the coming of the Chinese by talking bad about them in every possible way. Negative words will not save you from joining the ranks of the umemployed and, eventually, the street people. If you represent the cross-section of population in your country, the sinking feeling is pretty real and the horizon looks very dim indeed!

  • Peter Terpstra

    Peter_T is probably a Chinese agent working for Xinhua. I would call him mister Lee as i reconsecration this way of writing from internet conversations i had in the past.

    Take Care!

    • Peter_T

      I can call you names too but what does that accomplish? Accusations are a dime a dozen on the internet. Very cheap

  • Roland Glasser

    Pity the reviewer omitted to mention the book’s fine translator, Catherine Mansfield. Books don’t magically jump from Spanish to English on their own, you know!