More than 12,800km from Beijing, Chinese workers are putting the finishing touches to 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 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," said 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 ICC Cricket World Cup, a seven-week, 16-team tournament, opens on Tuesday in Kingston, Jamaica. Organizers expect it to lure 100,000 tourists and a TV audience of 2.2 billion. China has contributed about US$132 million 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 & 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 US$2.7 billion a year in Africa alone, up from US$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," said 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 US$117 million of aid over six years. Grenada was won over after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which damaged more than 90 percent of the homes on the island. China's offer of a US$100 million building program, including US$40 million to replace the cricket stadium destroyed by the storm, helped prompt a change of allegiance the following year.
Taiwan successfully sued Grenada in the US District Court in New York for the return of US$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 said.
Controversy also surrounded the official handover of Grenada National Stadium last month. As the Chinese ambassador and scores of blue-uniformed laborers 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 US$60 million stadium in Antigua on Feb. 10 went more smoothly. The Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Ground is named after the country's greatest cricketer, a batsman known as the "Master Blaster" who helped the West Indies to two World Cup triumphs in the 1970s. The 20,000-seat complex includes two video screens and an artificial beach for spectators.
Chinese Ambassador Ren Xiaoping (
"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."
When communists led by Mao Zedong (
In 1971, the People's Republic of China (PRC) replaced the ROC as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Eight years later, the US recognized the PRC and severed its ties with the ROC.
Antigua & 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 said. "They would like all Caribbean territories to be supportive of mainland China, and I believe that eventually that is going to be the case."
Since Grenada's defection, Taiwan has used the cricket tournament to help hang onto its Caribbean friends. Taiwan funded the US$12 million Warner Park in St. Kitts & Nevis, and a Taiwanese construction company helped build facilities in St. Vincent & the Grenadines, where warm-up matches are being played this week.
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 historic foes.
"It's been quite fun in a meeting to express how well the Taiwanese are doing on a stadium and you see the Chinese contractors looking at each other and making up the time very, very quickly," Dehring said. "They certainly wanted to demonstrate that they were equally capable."
The World Cup offers an opportunity for the West Indies, once international cricket's dominant force, to regain respect. The team hasn't reached the final of cricket's showpiece since 1983 and has slipped to eighth in the international team rankings. Australia, the bookmakers' favorite, is gunning for its third straight title.
"For every sporting nation there comes a time when there is a lull and your performance drops below par and you have to rebuild," Viv Richards said of the West Indies's chances. "I believe we have a team that can bring the bacon home in terms of winning the World Cup."
When the event kicks off, one nation that won't be involved in the action is China, where cricket is currently played by about 1,000 of the country's 1.3 billion people.
China aims to have 150,000 players, a league and a "credible" national team by 2020, said Calvin Leung, a spokesman for the Chinese Cricket Association. Athletics officials are introducing a training program in schools to meet those aims.
"It's quite hopeful we'll qualify for the 2019 World Cup," Leung said. "If we move ahead at a quicker pace then maybe we can do it."
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