Cheng Ho Gardens: China’s subtle land-grab (Part II)

China

A man points to a Japanese World War Two-era map purporting to support China’s claims to vast parts of the South China Sea, 14 July 2016 (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

This is the second part of a four-chapter story by the American writer Paul Spencer Sochaczewski.
In the first installment, an inquisitive Western journalist/conservationist meets a chummy, U.S.-educated Chinese apparatchik, who flies with him on a secret mission to a remote island in the South China Sea.
We offer the story to readers looking for a lighter, satirical look into an international dispute over the Spratly Islands. We will publish the remaining two chapters in coming days. The characters’ names are fictitious.

By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

“What I’m  going to tell you is embargoed to tomorrow at 0900 GMT,” Wee said.

I agreed.

“Not too far from here we are going to declare a new Special Administrative Region called Nanyang.”

I was dumbfounded. “So you’re creating a new territory which will have some flexibility in how they govern themselves, sort of like Hong Kong or Macau.”

“Something like that.”

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

Wee didn’t answer, at least not directly. “We Chinese get a lot of bad press. We’re not evil.  We want to create a zone of capitalistic prosperity, open to everyone.”

I must have looked befuddled.

* * *

The South China Sea is hugely important. Some 40 percent of China’s oil imports pass through the Sea, part of a $5 trillion annual seaborne trade. Militarily, the armed installations China has constructed provide de facto control of a vital region.

And that was what was so surprising about my visit with Wee. Up to now, all the Chinese efforts have clearly been under the austere banner of The People’s Republic of China.

Wee, however, was telling me something different. Something scary and brilliant at the same time.

* * *

With the patience of a teacher in a Special Ed class, Wee explained the deal to me.

The island we were on, the one with the international hotel and the runway considerably longer than the longest runway at New York’s JFK airport, with a harbor about the size of Rotterdam’s, would remain a military base, as would the dozen or so other nearby islands created from sand dredged from the South China Sea.

“Where we are now will be part of Yunnan Province.”

That in itself was big news — the idea that China had formally incorporated what used to be the Spratly Islands into the mainstream of Chinese administration. As big a story as Russia annexing Crimera.

But it was done quietly, “a subtle conquest,” one pundit calls it —  a 21st century land-grab without a shot being fired.

But then Wee got out some maps and architectural drawings.

Within a hundred kilometers of the Archipelago formerly known as Spratly, work was underway on an enormous construction project consisting of the creation of some 30 new islands.

This impressive creation was called Nanyang.

***

Nanyang, literally “southern ocean,” is the term used to describe the geographical range of what are generally called overseas Chinese, mainly in the countries with competing claims to territory in the South China Sea.

Put another way, the term describes China’s demographic and financial influence in nearby countries in Southeast Asia. Some 14 percent of Thais have Chinese blood, 25 percent of Malaysians and 74 percent of Singaporeans.

More to the point, throughout the region, and even in countries where there is a tiny Chinese minority (Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines each have just one percent Chinese population), Chinese businessmen control the economy.

One business journalist estimates that Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia account for just three to four percent of the population but control about half the total regional economy and 85 percent of  the financial industry.

Overseas Chinese control business, they control natural resource extraction (which some people in the conservation world consider akin to rape and pillage) and, in many cases, they control the government through spider-web-like business deals with powerful “indigenous” front-men.

***

Here’s the plan that Wee outlined for me.

On the large main island being dredged from the shallow sea, called Zhu Ying after a third century explorer, will be built an international airport with extensive facilities for private jets and helicopters.

A modern harbor. Luxury hotels and casinos. A couple of golf courses and shopping malls that, Wee said, “will make Dubai’s shopping malls look like neighborhood strip malls.” A lagoon for jet skiing and windsurfing. Theme parks from the major film studios. They’re even creating an artificial coral reef to replace the natural one destroyed during construction.

“It will be great for scuba diving, world class, better than Raja Empat or the Great Barrier Reef because we’ll create mini-super-bio-rich artificial reefs within the larger reef system,”  Wee said proudly.

“How will you do that?”

“We regularly confiscate enemy fishing boats and naval vessels which illegally enter our waters,” Wee explained.

“We clean out the fuel tanks — Nanyang will be highly eco-friendly — tow the vessels to the reef and sink them in 20 to 30 meters of water.  To make it even more interesting, we’re going to use state-of-the-art animatronics to populate the wrecks with giant squid, octopuses and sharks.

“We’ll hold regular son et lumière shows — the first ever underwater. Regularly we’ll conceal treasure — gold coins, genuine Ming vases, Greek amphora — inside the wrecks so divers can go on modern-day treasure hunts. Fish and coral love shipwrecks. And people love to dive on them.”

“Everything anyone could want for the holiday of a lifetime,” I quipped.

Wee ignored my irony. “And residents of Nanyang can avoid the irritations of meddling American tax agents.”

Nanyang, he explained without using so many words, was also everything anyone could want for laundering money. Nanyang would be home to whatever financial institution wanted to open its doors, under Chinese monetary authority supervision, of course.

(To read Chapter Three, click here.)


Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer whose books include An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, Distant Greens, Curious Encounters of the Human Kind, Redheads, Share Your Journey and Soul of the Tiger (with Jeff McNeely). This satirical piece is excerpted from Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia, which will be published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017.  Paul can be contacted at: www.sochaczewski.com.

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