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Let a Billion Flowers Bloom

Monday 17 June 2013

In Sudan, a Chinese farmer grows 1,400 tons of vegetables every year. A marketplace in Dubai only sells ’Made in China’ goods.


In 2009, journalists Juan Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo, who had become fascinated by China’s "rapidly growing influence" around the world, had an inspired idea. They would set off on a world-wide journey to study this phenomenon up close. The search took the pair from Turkmenistan to Iran and Angola to Argentina via planes, trains and long-haul buses.

They visited a large farm in Sudan where a Chinese businessman oversees the growing of 1,400 tons of vegetables every year. They discovered a massive Dubai marketplace where only "Made in China" goods are sold. In Burma, they talked with an environmentalist appalled that deals between corrupt Burmese officials and Chinese mining companies were laying waste to nearby mountainsides. In Cairo, they spent time with a couple who left Liaoning Province, near the border with North Korea, to become part of a group that Egyptians call the shanta sini, or "Chinese bag-people"—poor migrant workers who have taken over the Egyptian textile market with nothing other than business acumen and personal determination.

The result, after two years of nonstop and sometimes hazardous travel, is "China’s Silent Army," a fascinating book about a topic of great importance but one marred by the authors’ belief that China’s leaders aim for nothing less than "world conquest." If the West doesn’t wake up, the authors claim, we will end up controlled by Chinese overlords. That’s a breathless way to put it, but this is a breathless book. It has sections titled "Chinese Neo-Slavery in the Heart of Africa" and "Bleeding India With 10,000 Cuts." The authors present China as a confident colossus that extends its oil-seeking "tentacles" into distant lands, leaves behind "giant’s footprints" and deploys its vast reserves as a "lethal financial weapon."

"China’s Silent Army" also devotes its concluding pages to attacking a straw man. The authors insist that they belong to a small group of clearsighted people who appreciate that the world is rapidly being remade in Beijing’s image and that the main alternative view, put forth by "all kinds of experts," is that "China is destined to gradually become a Western-style democracy." Yet that is hardly the consensus that I see among astute analysts of the region: Even if the Chinese political system changes quite dramatically in the coming years, few expect it to morph into anything much like the American or any European one.

The value of the authors’ reporting is diminished not just by its alarmist and sensationalist language but also by sweeping generalizations about the Chinese people. Aside from brave dissidents and activists, the country’s diverse populace comes across as just a very large cluster of interchangeable Borg-like beings. "China’s expansion would not be what it is today," Messrs. Cardenal and Araújo write, "without the support of millions of anonymous people"—the foot soldiers in the book’s eponymous "silent army." What allegedly unites nearly all Chinese is an unstinting devotion to the motherland, an intent desire to improve their own material condition and, most bizarrely, a tendency while abroad to "safeguard their Chinese DNA like a precious treasure."

Could Messrs. Cardenal and Araújo, clearly diligent journalists, have crafted a book that expressed deep concern about China and yet avoided reducing Chinese actors to faceless automatons? Yes. In fact, just such a book has been published about the same time as theirs, by environmental journalist Craig Simons. "The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens Our Natural World" covers broadly similar terrain to "China’s Silent Army" and is also based on far-flung travels, including a trip to New Guinea rain forests being denuded, in part, to feed the desire of Chinese nouveau-riche consumers for high-end furniture.

I have quibbles with "The Devouring Dragon," mostly stylistic ones. I don’t like the title; many other tired titles invoke the same totemic animal. The book also can be repetitive, with facts, scientists and settings being introduced that were already fixed in my mind thanks to earlier mentions. Still, Mr. Simons handles one big issue just right. While critical at times of Chinese state policies and strategies for development, "The Devouring Dragon" continually returns to the larger point: What could make China’s rise most dangerous to the rest of the planet, Mr. Simons suggests, is the global spread of wasteful lifestyles that first took root in the West. Mr. Simons reminds us that, while we may lament China’s increasing use of fossil fuels, we should be aware of how much the country’s embrace of the automobile is rooted in a desire to emulate American lifestyles. We may shake our heads at New Guinea villagers selling land to Chinese loggers, but they do so partly because they want things we take for granted. Mr. Wasserstrom is the author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know."

A version of this article appeared April 23, 2013, on page A21 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Let a Billion Flowers Bloom.

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