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.