Book review: China’s Silent Army - Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo

Huajian shoe factory in Dukem, one of six factories in a Chinese-built industrial park in Ethiopia. Picture: Getty
Huajian shoe factory in Dukem, one of six factories in a Chinese-built industrial park in Ethiopia. Picture: Getty
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Two journalists trace Beijing’s economic colonialism, and ask if the West should be afraid

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 Araujo

Allen Lane, 368pp, £25

‘China is not a superpower, nor will she ever seek to be one,” said Deng Xiaoping to the United Nations in 1974. If China should ever “subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation,” continued Deng, “the people of the world should identify her social- imperialism, expose it, oppose it, and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

To be fair, in 1974 Deng was not yet the Little Helmsman who would dismantle Maoism and introduce the market systems that within three decades turned China into a superpower with a growing appetite for social-imperialism. He was still lurking beneath the shadows of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four.

His words remind us nonetheless of how much has changed since the East was Red. They cannot come back now to embarrass Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997 at 92 years. His successors are doubtless grateful that the people of China and the rest of the world failed to take them to heart.

Deng’s protestations to the UN are quoted towards the end of China’s Silent Army. The thesis developed by Spanish journalists Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo in the course of their extraordinary international investigations is that China is creating “a new, informal empire”, and not only in the developing world.

Prudence and discretion are required of Europeans who accuse the Chinese of imperialism. Given the nationality of Cardenal and Araujo, they may expect to be informed that whatever else Beijing’s latterday conquistadores are doing in South America, they are not committing genocide. In our own turn, do the names of Jardine, Matheson and Gordon ring any warning bells?

Such qualms aside, the activities of superpowers demand monitoring. Cardenal and Araujo have identified an important fact: that the biggest nation in the world is experiencing an industrial revolution which it cannot fuel from domestic resources. China must perforce seek those resources abroad. Beijing does not despatch its gunships to secure timber from Africa, minerals from Peru and comestibles from across the world. It sends money and managers.

Cardenal and Araujo followed that money. It took them to some of the most desperate places in the world. Deng’s “aggression and exploitation” are understatements of what Chinese capital is sponsoring in parts of Africa and Asia. Heroin-addicted miners are required to survive the horrors of Burma’s jade pits. Mozambican and Zambian workers are paid so far below the poverty level – that is, the poverty level even in Mozambique and Zambia – that they have been provoked to violent unrest. As one such labourer said to Cardenal and Araujo, how could it be otherwise? China itself is still in large part a developing country. It cannot afford gifts.

Part of our outrage may be simple racism. Cardenal and Araujo do not investigate the working conditions at Nike’s sweatshops in Indonesia, Vietnam and even China. Part of it is political: China is not fussy about its trading partners and Chinese money props up some of the world’s most unsavoury regimes. Part of it may be liberal disappointment that a republic which was founded on internationalist egalitarian principles should dispense with them so lightly.

But the modern Communist Party is not hypocritical. It applies to its foreign employees the same standards which pertain at home. Those standards could be called capitalist, communist or Confucian. They insist that the current generation must sacrifice itself for the well-being of its grandchildren.

As Cardenal and Araujo argue, that philosophy has raised the money which finances China’s overseas investments. Thirty years ago, when Deng Xiaoping commenced the shift from communism to state capitalism, China had an “iron rice bowl” welfare state which guaranteed, among other things, health care and old-age pensions. The iron rice bowl was briskly removed, with the result that those Chinese who made some money were obliged to save, and those who did not have money suffered.

The savers made the difference. By the 21st century Chinese people were saving over 40 per cent of their earnings. They had little option but to deposit those cumulatively vast sums of money – a few grains of rice from each one of 1,300,000,000 citizens adds up to a mountain of cereal – in state banks which paid no interest.

Not even Sir Fred Goodwin could have made those banks a loss. Three years ago China’s two state investment institutions between them overtook the World Bank as the biggest lender on the planet. Unlike the World Bank, they are largely unhindered by notions of best practice or even by UN sanctions resolutions. Unlike the World Bank, they exist to further the interests of one people, one government and one state centred in Beijing.

The result is that China has been able to follow its apparently wilful imitation of the worst aspects of the western industrial revolutions with, as Cardenal and Araujo describe so well, an equally effective mimicry of European colonial exploitation. Should we resent, fear or even criticise their presence on the road we pioneered centuries ago? When Cardenal and Araujo lead us into a hell-hole of a Chinese mine in South America, are they showing us our future?

Probably, hopefully not. On this old route there is a third stage, which the Chinese Communist Party has not yet reached. It is characterised by the refusal of the current generation to sacrifice themselves for their own or anybody else’s children. Then occurs, in the words of Deng Xiaoping 39 years ago, the process of exposure, opposition and overthrow.

The first stage, exposure, will be slow to surface in China. China’s Silent Army is unlikely at present to find a publisher in Beijing. Cardenal and Araujo’s work is therefore doubly valuable. The day may lighten slowly from the east, but lighten it will.

In the meantime, get used to soft Chinese colonialism. We will see much more of it, much closer to home. Many of the world’s supposedly developed nations, including this one, are falling over themselves to be similarly colonised.