Free Stadiums, At a Price: China’s Global Stadium Diplomacy

The chief of the Royal Grenadian Police Band was immediately relieved of his duties. His musical troupe had made a major diplomatic gaffe: at the grand opening ceremony for the Caribbean island nation’s rebuilt national cricket stadium, they had played the National Anthem of the Republic of China, to the considerable discomfort of the dignitaries present who hailed not from the Republic of China (Taiwan) but from the People’s Republic of China. An embarrassment all the greater given the latter had paid for and built the stadium, a great boon for a nation recovering from the devastation wreaked on its infrastructure by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, including the severe damage to its national cricket stadium.

Grenada National Cricket Stadium. AP Photo/Harold Quash.

The mistake was, perhaps, understandable. After all, it could just as easily have been Taiwan who had funded the stadium, and in part, they had. In December 2004, not long after Ivan had hit the island, Grenada’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell made a surprise visit to Beijing, upsetting Grenada’s political establishment. They had forged close relations with Taiwan, with whom they had formed diplomatic relations in 1989, and had already received a pledge of $40 million in aid to rebuild the hurricane-wrecked national stadium and other infrastructure.

On hearing of Mitchell’s trip, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry tartly severed relations with Grenada and stated that “The government of the Republic of China regrets Prime Minister Mitchell’s lack of foresight. We have stated sincerely our intention of not participating in a meaningless game of “dollar diplomacy” with China, and will never let Grenada waver between the two sides of the Strait in order to seek profits. The government of the Republic of China expresses its serious protest against, and condemns, the People’s Republic of China for its use of “dollar diplomacy” to drive us out of the international community.”

Taiwan realized they had been trumped. Mitchell had worked out a better deal for Grenada from Beijing. Stung, Taiwan has since been trying to recover $28.1 million in loans dating back to the 1990s, even attempting to seize Grenadian properties in the United States. That loan had funded the cricket stadium’s original construction in 1998.

Meanwhile, 500 Chinese workers toiled day and night for a year to build Grenada’s new stadium. And elsewhere in the Caribbean, another cricket stadium showcased in the 2007 World Cup also came courtesy of China, Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua, at a cost of $21 million.

Sir Vivian Richards cricket stadium, Antigua

Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, Antigua. AP Photo/Jonhnny Jno-Baptiste.

Taiwan, though lacking the extensive reserves and free spending ability of its rival, also scored with the $12 million renovation of the Warner Park cricket facility in St. Kitts & Nevis.

Warner Park Stadium, St Kitts and Nevis.

Warner Park Stadium, St Kitts and Nevis. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky.

This stadium construction rivalry is the result of each nation’s aim to receive “one China” recognition from the Caribbean nations: with the latter trading an unusual resource, the identification of sovereignty, for financial assistance.

Asia and the Africa Cup of Nations

Outside the cricket-mad Caribbean, twenty-first century dollar diplomacy has had a similarly dramatic impact on football stadium infrastructure, and is proving particularly significant for the Africa Cup of Nations. Andrew Guest wrote extensively about that on this space two years ago, looking at China’s role in building the stadia used for Angola’s hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations. Andrew focused on China’s motivation from a different diplomatic angle, noting that the stadium could be seen as a chip in China’s bid for access to Angolan oil in competition with the United States.

Estádio da Tundavala, Angola

Estádio da Tundavala, Angola. AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell.

Angola is far from alone in benefiting from China’s “dollar diplomacy”, whether motivated by competition with Taiwan or the United States. Zambia’s shiny new 41,000 capacity Ndola Stadium came at a cost to the Chinese of $65 million, while in 2012, we will see another Africa Cup of Nations played at a Chinese built stadium in Libreville, capital of Gabon.

New Stadium in Libreville, Gabon

Stade d’Angondjé, Libreville, Gabon

As well as the politics in play, the construction of the stadia themselves raise some questions. Typically, these Chinese-funded stadiums are built relatively cheaply and quickly, and a large part of the reason for that is China’s use of its own workers and technicians in large numbers, instead of training local workers. And when local workers are used, problems have arisen.

In Zambia, for example, the construction of a Chinese-funded shiny new stadium has not allayed suspicions in the country about China’s motives and methods of assistance. Just two months ago, Michael Sata – a vocal critic of Chinese investment – was elected as the country’s president. He has in the past demanded the deportation of Chinese workers, and accused Chinese companies of mistreating Zambian workers (it should be said, whispers have long persisted that Sata has received funding from Taiwan). Sata, though, has toned down his criticism of China in recent months – perhaps a sign that China’s dollar diplomacy is, indeed, working.

Yet on a local scale, serious questions are still being raised in Zambia. China’s Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company has overseen fatalities and strikes that have raised major question marks about the conditions workers have been placed in at the Ndola stadium construction site. Workers downed tools in the spring over unpaid wages, with one worker saying “We don’t know what will become of us. This stadium is finishing in two months time, so who is going to pay our benefits? Is it the Chinese or the Zambian government?” He continued, “We are not ready to go back for work until we get answers from government and the same government should tell their Chinese friends to improve our conditions of services.” This came shortly after a fire killed two workers at the site.

In Costa Rica, similar controversy has arisen. Eric Beard on the Football Ramble covered this superbly recently, noting the concessions Costa Rica’s then-president Oscar Arias made to China in return for the “donation” of a new 35,000 capacity home for Costa Rican football, Estadio Nacional.

“Arias agreed that Chinese workers could build the stadium, despite the fact that Costa Rica was stricken with unemployment from the global economic crisis,” Beard writes. “He allowed the Chinese company in charge of the project, AFEC, to entirely bypass Costa Rica’s labor laws, which are notoriously strict. Though Costa Rica is a proud advocate of human rights, Chinese employees of AFEC worked inhumane hours right under the nose of the Costa Rican democracy. There was even one casualty on the project, as 37-year-old Liu Hong Bin was hit by a construction vehicle in November 2010. Putting human rights aside, the stadium barely stimulated Costa Rica’s economy, as even most of the materials used were shipped over from China.”

And as is the case elsewhere, a sparkling new stadium came at the cost of disrupted relations with Taiwan and with a free trade agreement with China, along with questions about labor rights and worker safety. As China’s international power grows, expect to see China’s stadium diplomacy to continue its controversial path.

Comments are closed.