Papua New Guinea and China’s New Empire

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As he completes nearly seven years as The Globe and Mail’s Beijing bureau chief, Geoffrey York: MADANG, Papua New Guinea — Globe and Mail Last updated on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2009 09:30PM EDT.

When Chinese engineers landed in Papua New Guinea in 2006 to inspect their latest mineral acquisition, they faced an arduous journey through the tropical wilderness. They drove over crumbling roads to the Ramu River, then found natives with dugout canoes to paddle them upstream. Next, they hired another team of locals with machetes to slash a rough trail for eight hours through the steamy jungle, dodging poisonous snakes and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

“It was terrible,” recalls Wang Chun, the chief engineer. “You couldn’t breathe.”

Today, less than three years later, a series of small Chinatowns has emerged in the jungle — complete with Chinese food, Chinese satellite television channels and crews of Chinese migrant labourers living in cheap dormitory huts. Where once was wilderness, you find the workers of China Metallurgical Group Corp., toiling seven days a week and chattering about their families back home in Beijing and Sichuan.

It hasn’t been easy. The state-owned mining company has dealt with violent clashes with local landowners, striking workers, attacks from the media and unfriendly police who arrested more than 200 Chinese technicians on charges of illegally entering the country. But today it is transforming the economy of Papua New Guinea. Its $1.4-billion nickel and cobalt mine (all figures U.S.), the biggest construction project in the country, will employ 4,000 people at its peak, adding at least 10 per cent to the national economy every year.

Already, its workers have built the country’s longest bridge, eliminating the need for those canoes. They have built the country’s biggest wharf. They have carved out a 25-kilometre access road in the mountains. And now they are working on a 135-kilometre pipeline to the company’s new refinery on the coast.

This remote Pacific country is the latest outpost in the New Chinese Empire — a far-flung network of trade and investment that also generates political power.

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