Crouching tiger, hidden agenda?

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, RRP£25/Crown, RRP$26, 368 pages

The rise of China has been accompanied in recent years by the equally rapid creation of a whole genre of literature that seeks to explain the global shift of power and influence to the east. China’s Silent Army is an ambitious contribution to this flourishing body of work by two Spanish journalists who have travelled to the far-flung corners of the earth to observe the effects of the country’s newfound reach.

Authors Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo are at their best when telling the stories of those who have exchanged the familiarity of China for foreign fields, from the slums of Cairo to the gas fields of Turkmenistan. They write powerfully about the environmental and social damage wrought by unscrupulous, often state-backed Chinese companies in the places where they invest and operate.

One example comes from the jade mines of Myanmar, where Chinese companies are destroying the environment in cahoots with their military partners and are accused of controlling the opium and heroin supply that keeps locals doped up and desperate.

Equally disturbing are the first-hand testimonies of workers in Chinese-owned copper mines in Peru or of labourers in Mozambique who recount their appalling treatment at the hands of Chinese companies accused of neo-colonialism and complete disregard for labour and environmental laws.

Both Cardenal and Araújo have worked as journalists in China and are open about the frustration they experienced when trying to cover the country’s infuriating, arrogant and secretive authoritarian government. Their anger at official opacity and Communist party intransigence is easy to understand.

Unfortunately, however, the authors’ impressive research is undermined by an undercurrent of innuendo that suggests a secret Chinese agenda of world domination. Perhaps the problem stems partly from the translation from the original Spanish, but I found that the choice of language and suggestions of ulterior motives came perilously close to xenophobia at some points in this book.

The growing Chinese presence in many countries is repeatedly referred to as an “invasion” or an extension of Beijing’s “tentacles”. Chinese investments in Latin America are dubbed “Trojan horses”. The construction of a gas pipeline through Central Asia is described as “just one more step in China’s strategy to become lord and master of the entire region”, while according to the authors, “there is no doubt that infrastructure construction plays a highly strategic role in China’s silent world conquest”.

Even the book’s title implies that all Chinese emigrants are members of a fifth column and will one day reveal their true allegiance, rising up to help realise Beijing’s secret goal of global domination. In an epilogue, the authors suggest that China’s “relentless advance” through the deve­loping world can “be seen as a prelude to a future conquest of western markets and, eventually, a new world order controlled by Beijing”.

Such dark warnings are not supported by many of the individual stories presented in this book. One example comes from the grandson of a Chinese emigrant to South Africa: “When I look in the mirror I see a Chinese face. However, we were born in South Africa and we have been here all our lives. I go to China once a year to buy goods, but I’m not used to the way of life in China. It’s not home to me.”

The authors provide many entertaining and humorous accounts of their travels and, although the narrative tends to jump around the globe too much, flitting from Central Asia to Africa and then Latin America and back again within a couple of pages, the amount of reporting that went into China’s Silent Army is truly impressive.

It is the sympathetic accounts of ordinary emigrants’ experiences that provide the backdrop for the real insights of the book. At various points the authors point out that the bad behaviour of some Chinese companies abroad often comes down to their willingness to cut corrupt deals with local elites, who benefit directly from Chinese investment while their own people miss out.

This pattern is exacerbated by the fact that authoritarian China itself lacks a strong rule of law, free press or civil society that can “keep watch, set limits, denounce or punish the inappropriate actions of China’s corporations abroad – as happens in democratic countries”.

As this passage suggests, it is actually the weakness of governance in China that allows the country’s companies, even state-owned ones, to behave badly in their pursuit of profits abroad. China’s Silent Army would have been more illuminating – albeit not as sensational – had the authors chosen to flesh out this concept instead of suggesting that the country’s growing influence in the world is the result of some dastardly secret plot.

Jamil Anderlini is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief

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