More than 8,000 miles (12,800 km) from Beijing, Chinese workers are putting the finishing touches on stadiums for a sport they’ve never played.
Living in temporary plastic huts and taking a single day off each month, about 1,000 employees of state-owned Chinese companies have sweated away the past year on the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Antigua and Grenada as the West Indies prepare to host the cricket World Cup, the game’s premier international event.
Their presence has more to do with China’s drive to isolate Taiwan, the democracy it considers a breakaway province, than with what the Chinese call shen shi yun dong, or “the noble game.” China is using its economic might to break alliances Taiwan forged in the Caribbean to counter its status as a diplomatic outcast.
“This is a diplomatic move,” says John Tkacik, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based research group. “There’s no other reason for China to go horsing around in the Caribbean. The more countries that abandon recognition of Taiwan, the less international status it has.”
The 2007 World Cup, a seven-week, 16-team tournament, opens on 13 March in Kingston, Jamaica. Organizers expect it to lure 1 lakh tourists and a television audience of 220 crore. China has contributed about $132 million (Rs585.4 crore) for facilities, tournament officials say. Hosting the event required cooperation among nine independent states.
“They knew we didn’t have the money,” says Winston Baldwin Spencer, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. “If we didn’t have the Chinese workers we wouldn’t have been able to complete the stadium.”
China, the world’s fastest-growing economy, is spreading its global influence by stepping up donations to developing countries. Aid is disbursed through China’s commerce ministry, which says it doesn’t disclose assistance figures. China hands out about $2.7 billion a year in Africa alone, up from $100 million a decade ago, according to an estimate from the US military’s Washington-based National Defense University.
“China is projecting her power internationally to win friends,” says Clem Seecharan, professor of Caribbean history at London Metropolitan University. “It’s a China that is feeding on a kind of magnanimity of helping the poor. That is the kind of image that China is projecting to counter the American image of a communist dictatorship.”
The Caribbean has become a focal point for China because it contains four of the 24 states that still recognize Taiwan. Stepped-up Chinese investment has already persuaded two nations in the region to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Three years ago, Dominica ended its recognition of Taiwan and will receive $117 million of aid over six years. Grenada was won over after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which damaged more than 90% of the homes on the island. China’s offer of a $100 million building programme, including $40 million to replace a cricket stadium destroyed by the storm, helped prompt a change of allegiance the following year.
Taiwan successfully sued Grenada in US district court in New York for the return of $20 million that a Taiwanese bank had loaned the government, partly to fund the stadium. “The big thorn in Taiwan’s side is that they are suffering not just insult but injury,” Tkacik says.
Controversy also surrounded the official handover of Grenada National Stadium in February. As the Chinese ambassador and scores of blue-uniformed labourers entered the arena, the Royal Grenadan Police Band greeted them with the Taiwanese national anthem, prompting an apology from Prime Minister Keith Mitchell. The opening of the $60 million Sir Vivian Richards cricket ground in Antigua on 10 February went smoothly.
Chinese Ambassador Ren Xiaoping presented an oversized red key to Prime Minister Spencer at a ceremony honoring the 400 Chinese workers who toiled on the project. “Their sweat has soaked this land,” said Ren, as fireworks exploded in the night sky. “During the past year, five of these workers have lost their parents and seven became fathers for the first time. But none of them went home. Why? Because they knew their responsibilities.”
Taiwan split from China in 1949, when communists led by Mao Zedong took control of the mainland. The US initially sided with Taiwan, providing money and military supplies. In 1971, China replaced Taiwan as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Eight years later, the US recognized China and severed its ties with Taiwan.
Antigua and Barbuda was the first Caribbean country to officially recognize China in 1983. “We moved from a situation where we were flirting with Taiwan to declaring our full support for the ‘One China’ policy,” Spencer says.
Since Grenada’s defection, Taiwan has used the cricket tournament to help hang onto its Caribbean friends. Taiwan funded the $12 million Warner Park in St Kitts and Nevis, and a Taiwan construction company helped build facilities in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The World Cup has accomplished what the UN couldn’t: over the past few years the two diplomatic rivals have attended planning meetings as equals, says Chris Dehring, chief executive officer of the event. He says the tournament benefited from competition between the foes.