Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

[i]La silenciosa conquista china[/i] by Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo

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A flurry of new books dedicated to understanding the implications of China’s expanding global influence across the developing world has appeared in recent years. La silenciosa conquista china (The Silent Chinese Conquest), written by two China-based journalists, Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo, stands out for the investigative journalistic approach the authors have brought to the phenomenon.

Cardenal, who has worked for the Spanish newspaper El Economista, and Araújo, then with the Mexican news agency Notimex, set out to uncover the effects of China’s global expansion and its pursuit of raw materials, energy sources and new export markets. Their work is the product of five years of on-the-ground research across 25 countries and interviews with 500 people. While scholarly work has tended to focus on China’s relations with separate regions, Cardenal and Araújo bring together empirical evidence of the Chinese presence throughout the “Third World” in a single volume.

Apart from its own merits, the book has aroused wider public attention after the Spanish Embassy in Beijing denied the authors the use of its diplomatic facilities in April to present the work, arguing that “to do so could anger the Chinese government.” The Mexican embassy offered its own premises, and the controversy has helped the book’s sales. La silenciosa conquista china has now been published in five Spanish-language editions, and is being translated into other languages.

The authors did not begin with an explicit hypothesis. Nor did they use a sophisticated methodology to integrate their empirical findings. Instead, they followed journalistic intuition and a passion for, as they wrote, “going where the footprint of the giant is most evident: the developing world.” The result is part road trip chronicle, part anthropological study and part journalistic reporting—with a dash of concepts from economics and political science.

Cardenal and Araújo identify two key actors that drive China’s global ambitions. At a micro level, Chinese merchants travel to developing countries, establish fluid channels of commercialization for low-priced merchandise, and then repatriate the profits. At a macro level, state capitalism, through powerful public companies, negotiates investments in exchange for a constant flow of energy, minerals and food. The work of these companies is complemented by state financial institutions such as the China Development Bank (CDB) and China Eximbank. As the authors note, these two “policy banks […] have already managed to displace the World Bank as the top lender in the developing world.” At critical times, all of these players can count on the support of China’s network of foreign diplomatic delegations.

Throughout the book’s eight chapters, the authors balance the positive and negative aspects of China’s expansion. Cardenal and Araújo point to investment in infrastructure (e.g., highways, dams, airports, and hospitals) as among the most praiseworthy byproducts of Chinese overseas economic activities. Countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Angola and Sudan have received immense Chinese resources to restructure—and even create—new public works. This is in addition to Chinese donations of highly symbolic construction projects, such as a soccer stadium in Costa Rica or national theaters in various African countries. An additional positive consequence is the supply of inexpensive Chinese consumer goods to the low-income sectors of developing countries.

Despite these benefits, the authors note that “often, China’s actions are certainly debatable, when not openly polemical,” and they identify seven questionable characteristics of the Chinese presence. The first is the exchange of raw materials for industrialized products, a process that contributes to the de-industrialization of many countries, especially in Latin America. Another concern is environmental degradation, as exemplified by the destruction of jade mountains in Myanmar (Burma), and open-pit mining in Peru. Third, Chinese firms that operate abroad rarely adhere to established labor standards of fair wages and working hours. Among the examples cited are textile companies in Egypt, Chinese supermarkets in Argentina and the state mining company Shougang in Peru. Fourth, the lack of transparency within Chinese companies makes it hard to know exactly what they are doing. The authors report that companies persistently avoided talking with them, which may make the book a bit biased but also reveals the attitude and openness of Chinese business.

The fifth and sixth points are a little harder to quantify. Corruption and the dependence on personal connections (guanxi) often distort the partnerships between local firms and Chinese entities, an issue that is exacerbated in unstable and high-risk political environments such as the DRC and Angola. The authors also point out that the expanding Chinese commercial presence can inspire fear about infringements of national sovereignty. Russians, for example, worry about a virtual Chinese “colonization” of Siberia. Finally, the international community has been unsettled by China’s pragmatic willingness to strike commercial deals with “rogue” regimes shunned by other countries because of human rights abuses, such as Iran, Myanmar, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela.

Nevertheless, the book’s glib treatment masks some methodological imprecision and even factual errors. For example, the authors allude to a supposed “genetic code” thanks to which Chinese merchants take advantage of business opportunities that other businesspeople cannot detect. As a metaphor, the idea of the “genetic code” could work, but no one has yet demonstrated the existence of capitalist DNA.

The authors could also have widened their selection of countries where Chinese influence has been noteworthy. Most of the countries chosen (other than Russia, India, Taiwan, and South Africa) have in common a weak state and a primary-sector export economy. But it would have been interesting to explore countries with more sophisticated economic and political structures, such as Brazil or Mexico.

Despite these flaws, the book makes clear that China is—and acts as—a great power. That may not be a comfortable thought for everyone. At the same time, La silenciosa conquista china will displease unquestioning supporters of the theory of China’s “peaceful rise” (heping jueqi), under which Chinese actions in periphery countries represent a generous South–South cooperation in the best traditions of the Non-Aligned Movement and Chinese internationalism. This book, conversely, can lead to the conclusion that China’s global strategies don’t differ substantially from those employed by other great powers, both present and past.

La silenciosa conquista china complements notable scholarly analyses of the revitalized Sino–Latin American relationship that have been published since the middle of the past decade. To these academic studies, it adds the magnifying glass of the botanist—or to be more precise, of two sharp journalists.

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