Book review: China's Silent Army, by Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 6:17pm

China's Silent Army

by Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo

Allen Lane/Penguin Press

In a four-room apartment in a Cairo suburb rented by a Chinese businessman, five Egyptians sew women's clothes then pack them for delivery.

The clothes are delivered to their Egyptian customers by an army of "Chinese bag people". An estimated 15,000 Chinese make a living selling door to door, speaking little or no Arabic. The secret behind this business? Many local women do not want to show their bodies in a shop.

These salespeople are among tens of thousands comprising China's Silent Army: the Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who are Remaking the World in Beijing's Image. The book, by Spanish journalists Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo, was first published in Spanish; it has just been brought out in English.

It is an excellent piece of investigative journalism. Over two years, the two visited 25 countries in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, and Latin America to meet the members of this army and the local people among whom they live. They went from Peruvian mines to Siberian forests, from Sudanese dams to jade mines in Myanmar.

Silent Army is the first book to give such detailed coverage to the greatest Chinese emigration in history, which is changing the world, and to record the voices of those who are taking part. It deals with investments by major state companies in oil, gas, minerals and other raw materials, funded by generous loans from China's state banks; these are partially covered by the mainstream media.

But the most fascinating sections of the book deal with the other side of this migration: the individuals who are willing to go anywhere to escape poverty at home and seek their fortune, however unfavourable the conditions.

One such migrant, who had little formal education, arrived in Egypt more than a decade ago and identified the market for women's clothes; he now has eight factories and 60 warehouses across the country. He ships silk, polyester and wool in containers to Libya, from where it can be imported without duty into Egypt.

Using the company name, he obtains visas which he sells for 5,000 yuan each to people in his native northeast China, where millions have lost their jobs in state firms. The Egyptian press estimates the number of "Chinese bag people" at between 60,000 and 100,000.

Another Chinese in Cairo tells the writers she has started importing beautiful Chinese prostitutes; they receive €75 (HK$776) per date, of which she keeps a third.

In November 2010, 10 Chinese police arrived in Kinshasa to break up a network that brought women from Sichuan province as prostitutes. But the women refused to leave the country, saying they earned US$50 a time, compared to a monthly wage of US$300 at home.

There is excellent frontline reporting, often in countries that are difficult or illegal to reach. One example is the description of China's investment in the gas industry in Turkmenistan; the China Development Bank has lent US$8.1 billion to Turkmengaz.

The two visit four camps of the China National Petroleum Company in the middle of the desert that is home to 1,000 people, most of them Chinese. The camps have air conditioning, satellite internet connection, plasma televisions, basketball courts, ping-pong tables, greenhouses to grow Chinese vegetables, and a restaurant with Sichuan chefs.

The book also examines the major issues raised by this extraordinary expansion - environmental degradation, labour conditions for Chinese and local workers, and who benefits. They conclude that Chinese companies have reproduced abroad the same work patterns in force at home for the past 30 years. If you want to understand how China is changing the planet, read this book.