China’s Silent Army
By Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo
Published by Allen Lane
In China’s Silent Army, Spanish journalists Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo examine China’s huge influence abroad and in developing markets, such as Africa, in particular. The book, drawn from hundreds of interviews carried out across the world, makes “lively and humane, albeit grim reading”, says Frank Dikötter of the Literary Review.
The authors’ main concern is the power China wields abroad via its state-run companies. “In return for manufactured goods, large state corporations guarantee a continuous flow of raw materials” from host nations into China. Chinese state banks “offer quick and easy money, always at preferential rates, in exchange for the right to exploit another country’s resources”.
The problem, say the authors, is it comes with strings attached. Domestic criticism has forced Western firms to improve labour conditions, but China’s firms have no such scruples. “Chinese companies abroad simply reproduce the same labour pattern that has been in force in the People’s Republic for the last 30 years.”
This includes “paying their local employees too little to meet even their basic needs”, or not paying promised wages at all. The environment is also a low priority: China has funded dam projects “potentially so dangerous to local people and the environment, that the World Bank and other organisations have refused to get involved”.
China’s investment clout “enables it to stop the United Nations’ sanctions against rogue states like Iran. Annual bilateral trade is worth an estimated $50bn – a critical lifeline for the Ayatollahs”, notes The Spectator’s Jasper Becker. Policy is as much about geopolitics as about economics, and is based around the “fusing of the party-state, military, banks, companies and population”.
Not everyone is convinced. The book’s “impressive research is undermined by an undercurrent of innuendo”, says Jamil Anderlini in the Financial Times. Instead of hinting at “some dastardly secret plot”, the writers should have focused on “the weakness of governance in China that allows… companies, even state-owned ones, to behave badly in their pursuit of profits”.
And China, for all its ambition, is by no means infallible, notes Becker. It has often backed the wrong horse, leaving it “nursing heavy losses and fleeing in panic when the rotten regimes fall” – for example, “who is now the last best friend of Syria’s President Assad”?
But whether you agree with the central thesis or not, the book, says Dikötter, contains “essential information for all who wish to learn how the global reach of China Inc is transforming the lives of everyone on this planet”.
• 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, is published by Allen Lane (£25).
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