The global trade in Chinese indentured labourers, or coolies, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century casts a long shadow. The depiction of these workers in popular culture and historical records continues to colour thoughts of China and it’s people’s role in the world today. It remains common for the Chinese to be depicted in ways which suggest they are part of a whole, and that individually they are passive, featureless and expendable.
While China might be a country developing enormous hard military power (take note of recent American fears of a Chinese initiated ‘pearl harbour in space’) it’s easy to overlook the other ways that Chinese influence is spreading across the globe. A significant example is the large and growing number of overseas projects, from dams in South America to an opera house in Algeria, initiated by the Chinese government, and invariably planned, manned and managed by Chinese workers. Iraq is no exception, with the state-owned China Machinery Engineering Corporation involved in the construction of a US$1.2 billion power plant in Samarra.
In this photo seven workers from that project pause in a hotel lobby. They are waiting to be evacuated as the ISIS rampage across Iraq continues and the security situation becomes increasingly dangerous, but there is nothing to hint at this instability apart from the soldier in the far right, his Iraqi flag badge also giving the only indication of location. Apart from a mural in the top left the lobby has the boring corporate neutrality of most hotels, and the location could be practically anywhere in the world. This photograph could just record the end of a normal, if rather tiresome, trip.
In front of the soldier the three men on the sofa seem aware of the photographer, but their responses differ considerably. The one on the furthest left seems most assured, relaxed, his demeanour and receding hairline are resonant of Ge Xiaoguang’s portrait of Mao Zedong on the Tiananmen gate. The man on the far right is hard to read, hidden as he is beyond his aviator sunglasses, which give him the air of a guard or sentinel. Like the men to his left (one playing on a mobile, another in a branded t-shirt) the glasses are a hint at the individualism, affluence and perhaps aspiration of this group. While they might be waiting passively for evacuation, it seems it would be a mistake to see these workers as anything like the coolies of the last century. As the Band of Brothers shirt hints, they are much more like the pathfinders or forward element of a new empire, and the diversity of this group reflect many of that empire’s contrasts and contradictions.
The fact they are in the process of being evacuated greatly speaks to that value. In the ancient world the phrase ‘civis romanus sum’ – or ‘I am a Roman Citizen’ – was meant to offer the speaker a measure of protection, reflecting the far reaching power of his state. It was an idea the British Empire took on at the height of its power in the nineteenth century, at times intervening militarily on behalf of its citizens around the world and using the same credo to justify its actions. This great military power also gave rise to what euphemistically referred to as the Pax Britannica (or British peace), a period of relative calm on a continent torn apart over the previous centuries by rival empires and coalitions.
A time when China has the clout and confidence to project power and protect its far flung citizens in this way seems to be drawing closer and closer, assuming that as this photograph suggests it’s not already here. With America’s commitment to it’s role as world policeman seeming to falter in the moral vacuum of the post-9/11 world (and the world’s willing to acquiesce to that power equally absent) it’s not hard to imagine a new global watchdog might be on the rise, with ‘civis sinæ sum’ a part of it’s new lexicon.
(this post was originally written in June 2014 at the start of the ISIS offensive in Iraq but not published until early 2015 due to scheduling constraints)