Portrait of Huang Nubo, Iceland’s Chinese conqueror

November 17, 2011

Southern Weekend has published a profile of Huang Nubo, the real estate magnate whose bid to buy a large chunk of land in Iceland to build a mega-resort has raised predictable waves and conspiracy theories about China’s government involvement (Huang has been a Propaganda Department official). The profile, translated on China Dialogue, makes for fascinating reading.

The man, it turns out, is a serious mountaineer and one of the few people who have been to both the South and the North Pole. He is almost 2m tall. His 16th-floor office has four cats, a rabbit, two monkeys and two parrots: “not the traditional office of a Chinese businessman.”

Maybe it’s just the Nordic connection, but the picture reminded me of Henning Mankell’s description of the Peking office of the evil tycoon who is the protagonist of his novel The Man from Beijing. That tycoon, connected to the highest officials in the Party, plans a mass resettlement of Chinese farmers in Africa even as he arranges for a series of revenge murders in Sweden. The Guardian called the novel “admirable in its concern about corruption, colonialism and ­cruelty.” The two businessmen are very similar: starting from officialdom, they become cosmopolitan globetrotters — Huang actually says he decided to quit government service after reading Chekhov’s Death of an Official! — but it is just this seeming cosmopolitanism that makes them such good subjects of conspiracy theories.

The Iceland venture was facilitated by the wife of an Icelandic friend Huang had met at Peking University. She later became mayor of Reykjavik and a government minister. (This detail reminded me of Dan Holloway’s short story in which a Spanish official decides the only way to save his hometown is to invite Chinese investors to build a car factory that will destroy the local landscape. The head of the Chinese delegation is a businesswoman who was Ignacio’s lover during his studies in China.)

According to the article, in 2005, Huang tried to invest in tourism development at Issyk-Kol Lake in Kyrgyzstan but withdrew after media spread the story that the project was a cover for China’s nuclear submarine programme and Kyrgyz officials began asking him for their cut. (I visited Issyk-Kol around the same time and wished there were somewhere to stay apart from Soviet-ere sanatoria.) “I got scared — you can’t go so far as to bribe people.” Then Huang tried to invest in a resort in Hokkaido but found that Japanese workers didn’t want to work for a Chinese boss or a woman.

See, he says all the right things for liberal Western readers. Suspicious, huh?

To the three c’s of corruption, colonialism and cruelty, let’s add two more: cosmopolitanism and conspiracy. All combinations allowed.

Chinese investment in Africa and Europe

September 13, 2011

An article by Peter Apps in today’s International Herald Tribune (“Chinese Cash Welcome — To a Point) uses the example of Huang Nudo’s purchase of a 300-ha farm in Iceland to illustrate a European Council of Foreign Relations report that compares China’s “approach” to Europe to its approach to China.

It is not clear what is meant by this. The article seems to suggest, rather, that Europe’s approach to China is similar to Africa’s (and different from America’s) in that it is happy to get the cash without thinking of the consequences. Hence what the author suggests is the coming backlash.

I think it’s likely that if a Chinese businessman buys 300 ha in Iceland and says it’s for tourism development, then it is. When I went to Iceland early last year, Chinese tourists already were among the most prominent soakers in the famed hot springs.

But in a way, I think “China” is trying to do similar things in Europe as in Africa. Notably, it is taking the package approach to the peripheral states of Europe — offering infrastructure + loan + debt-purchase deals to places like Hungary — with the idea that these, particularly within the EU, can function as good manufacturing footholds (what with relatively cheap labour and no export tariffs) and testing grounds for operating in more mature markets. At the same time, in mature markets like the UK of France, China is behaving more like in South Africa, i.e. more or less joining the game under the existing rules.