Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Cheng Ho Gardens

Posted on 28. Jul, 2017 by in Personal essays

The dragon emerges. Cartoon: The Economist


China reveals an imaginative new tactic in its takeover of the South China Sea.


“I’m going to show you our plans.  I trust that you will be discrete with the information.”

My host was Horace Wee, chief executive officer of Nanyang, the newest Special Administrative Region of China.

I was way out of my comfort zone.

* * *

Usually I seek out the curious, the esoteric, the eccentric quirks of life in Asia.

This time I was dining with the big boys.

* * *

Let’s back up a few steps.  While researching a story on China’s role in the trade in tigers and snow leopards, I had met Hong Nei-yi, who is deputy minister of the Chinese equivalent of the attorney-general’s office.  Hong told me what his office was doing to try to shut down the trade — the laws they had passed, the beefing up of customs inspectors, the crackdown on traders, the educational campaigns aimed at consumers, the financial and technical support to the countries where tigers and snow leopards are found.  And I sort of believed him, at least enough to write a balanced article for The New York Times.

Hong and his colleagues appreciated that, with my conservation background and loud mouth, I had given them a chance to explain their side of the story and had treated them fairly.

Now I was in Beijing trying to meet senior officials in the Ministry of Defense to attempt to understand the psychology of China’s massive interventions in the South China Sea.

* * *

China is big, seems silly to say that, but everything about the place is huge. Just off Tiananmen Square, one of the world’s largest open urban areas, can be found government ministries that feature huge auditoriums, massive murals (romantic representations of the inherent goodness of the peasants is a common theme), and lots of meeting rooms where the chairs are covered with starched white cloth and green tea is poured in endless quantities.  It was in such a meeting room that I met Horace Wee.

Wee offered me cookies, asked after my family, joked about English football (like me, he roots for Arsenal), made fun of Donald Trump, and told dirty jokes in quite good French.  We bonded over our favorite Beatles songs. If he had been any more friendly I would have thought he was American. He is in his forties, and speaks with an American accent, not surprising since he did his undergraduate degree in history at Princeton, then an MBA at Wharton, and worked with Microsoft for ten years and Boeing for three, soaking up the good vibes of Seattle.

“I’m going to the South China Sea tomorrow.  You’ll come with me.”

It would have been churlish of me to refuse.

* * *

We flew in a military jet to the brand new military airport in the Spratly Islands, roughly equidistant from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, the southern Philippines island of Palawan, and the Sultanate of Brunei on Borneo.  The Spratly Islands have been one of several South China Sea locations where China has colonized scattered small islands, and considerably enhanced their real estate value by enlarging them through extensive land reclamation. They have created dozens of new islands where previously there was only coral outcrops.  This quiet takeover of a strategically- and economically-vital region, has resulted in complaints, whining and teeth-gnashing by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines, all of which have various territorial claims . Mosquito bites on an elephant. The United States armed forces have rattled their sabers, but the Chinese smugly continue their grand engineering projects knowing that the Americans, for all their bluster and B-52s, aren’t going to precipitate a shooting war.

* * *

The Chinese are creating a new form of empire building. Instead of marching into other people’s territory and taking over, ala Napoleon, Hitler or Genghis Khan, the Chinese are simply creating new territory (albeit on stretches of almost-empty sea claimed by others). And by occupying these territories and creating infrastructure (and what is more infrastructural than a military base, or the world’s gaudiest shopping mall, or a national tourism office?) other nations would have no choice but to acknowledge China’s sovereignty. This tactic is “geopolitical genius,” according to C.L. Ovis-James, a senior U.S. diplomat with extensive Southeast Asian experience.

* * *

We flew into the military airport in the center of the Spratly chain, using only a fraction of the 3,000-meter-long runway.  Horace Wee and I were billeted in the brand new Sheraton hotel, the first of what no doubt will be numerous joint projects. The hotel was not yet fully operational, but we settled in at the hotel’s Nine-Dash-Line coffee shop for a bowl of quite-good Penang laksa and Coke Zero with plenty of ice.

“Welcome to Nanyang!” Wee said brightly.

“Nice hotel for a military base,” I replied.

“We get a lot of high level visitors from Beijing,” Wee said.  “They might be Communists but even senior Party officials like a few comforts.”

* * *

Nanyang, literally “southern ocean,” is the term used to describe the geographical range of what are generally called overseas Chinese, mainly in the countries with competing claims to territory in the South China Sea.  Put another way, the term describes China’s demographic and financial influence in nearby countries in Southeast Asia.  Some 14 percent of Thais have Chinese blood, 25 percent of Malaysians, and 74 percent of Singaporeans. More to the point, throughout the region, and even in countries where there is a tiny Chinese minority (Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines each have just one percent Chinese population), Chinese businessmen control the economy.  One business journalist estimates that Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia account for just three to four percent of the population but control about half the total regional economy and eighty-five percent of  the financial industry. Overseas Chinese control business, they control natural resource extraction (which some people in the conservation world consider akin to rape and pillage) and, in many cases, control the government through spider-web-like business deals with powerful “indigenous” front-men.

* * *

The South China Sea is hugely important.  Some 40 percent of China’s oil imports pass through the Sea, part of a $5 trillion annual seaborne trade. Militarily, the armed installations China has constructed provide de facto control of a vital region.

And that was what was so surprising about my visit with Wee.  Up to now all the Chinese efforts have clearly been under the austere banner of The People’s Republic of China.

Wee, however, was telling me something different. Something scary and brilliant at the same time.

* * *

“What I’m  going to tell you is embargoed to tomorrow at 09.00 GMT”

I agreed.

“Not too far from here we are going to declare a new Special Administrative Region called Nanyang.”

I was dumbfounded. “So you’re creating a new territory which will have some flexibility in how they govern themselves, sort of like Hong Kong or Macau.”

“Something like that.”

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

Wee didn’t answer, at least not directly.

“We Chinese get a lot of bad press. We’re not evil.  We want to create a zone of capitalistic prosperity, open to everyone.”

I must have looked befuddled.

So Wee, with the patience of a teacher in a Special Ed class, explained the deal to me.

The island we were on, the one with the Sheraton and the runway considerably longer than the longest runway at New York’s JFK, with a harbor about the size of Rotterdam’s, would remain a military base, as would the dozen or so other  nearby islands created from sand dredged from the South China Sea. “Where we are now will be part of Yunnan Province.”

That in itself was big news — the idea that China had formally incorporated what used to be the Spratly Islands into the mainstream of Chinese administration.  A “subtle war,” one pundit calls it —  a 21st century land-grab without a shot being fired.
But then Wee got out some maps and architectural drawings.

Within a hundred kilometers of the Archipelago Formerly Known as Spratly, work was underway on an enormous construction project consisting of the creation of some thirty new islands.

This impressive creation was called Nanyang.

Here’s the plan.

On the large main island being dredged from the shallow sea, called Zhu Ying after a third century explorer, will be built an international airport with extensive facilities for private jets and helicopters.  A modern harbor.  Luxury hotels and casinos. A couple of golf courses and shopping malls that, Wee said, “will make Dubai’s shopping malls look like neighborhood strip malls.”  A lagoon for jet skiing and windsurfing.  Theme parks from the major film studios. They’re even creating an artificial coral reef to replace the natural one destroyed during construction. “It will be great for scuba diving, world class, better than Raja Empat or the Great Barrier Reef because we’ll create mini-super-bio-rich artificial reefs within the larger reef system,”  Wee said proudly.

“How will you do that?”

“We regularly confiscate enemy fishing boats and naval vessels which illegally enter our waters,” Wee explained.  “We clean out the fuel tanks — Nanyang will be highly eco-friendly — tow the vessels to the reef and sink them in twenty to thirty meters of water.  To make it even more interesting we’re going to use state-of-the-art animatronics to populate the wrecks with giant squid, octopuses, and sharks.  We’ll hold regular son et lumière shows — the first ever underwater.  Regularly we’ll conceal treasure — gold coins, genuine Ming vases, Greek amphora — inside the wrecks so divers can go on modern-day treasure hunts.  Fish and coral love shipwrecks. And people love to dive on them.”

“Everything anyone could want for the holiday of a lifetime.”

Wee ignored my irony. “And residents of Nanyang can avoid the irritations of meddling American tax agents.”  Nanyang, he explained without using so many words, was also everything anyone could want for laundering money — Nanyang would be home to whatever financial institution wanted to open its doors, under Chinese monetary authority supervision, of course.

* * *

This was exciting and exhausting.  But Wee wasn’t finished.

“What’s this area here on the map called Cheng Ho Gardens?” I asked.

“Ah, I’m really excited about this. I know good Party cadres shouldn’t have big egos, but I’m very proud of this.”

Cheng Ho Gardens, named after the famous Chinese Muslim eunuch admiral of the Ming Dynasty who explored much of the world, including Southeast Asia, in the fifteenth century (it’s a long story) was a combination retirement village, tax haven, and secure final living place for the world’s rich, famous, and unloved.

Horace Wee put a humanitarian spin on Cheng Ho Gardens. “Throughout the world there are men and women who have served their countries but have no where to live after they retire.  We’re providing a place where they can own property, safely invest their savings, build the homes of their dreams.”

“Can’t people do that anywhere?”

“Not the unfortunate people we’re targeting. Think of nation builders — Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and Zia ul Haq. Inspirational leaders like Hosni Mubarak and Baby Doc.  Freedom fighters Mobutu Sese Seko and Donald Rumsfeld, Joseph Kony and Charles Taylor. Augusto Pinochet. Muammar Gaddafi. Bringers of development to primitive people such as Taib Mahmud and Najib Razak.  Not to mention the entrepreneurs who deal in recreational chemicals —  Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega. Socially-conscious entrepreneurs like Donald Trump.  Spiritual leaders like Jimmy Swaggart and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The men and women who run multinational businesses that you Westerners sneer at and call evil — the Triads, the Cosa Nostra.  Good, hard-working folks with families who have no where to go — when so-called ‘civilized’ countries refuse these kind people safe  haven they are denying good men and women their basic human rights. We’re meeting a need the United Nations has ignored — safe haven for rich refugees. We hope to get the Nobel Peace Prize.”

* * *

What Wee left unsaid (more Chinese genius) is this. China is desperate for rare earth minerals, timber, oil and natural gas, uranium, precious stones, medicinal plants, and body parts of endangered animals. Many of these treasures are found in countries that are poor, disorganized, and run by rabidly corrupt despots.  China’s main tactic has been (and no doubt will continue to be) to infiltrate such mineral-rich/ethics-poor countries by offering to build airports, dams, train lines and roads in exchange for good terms on extraction rights.

But in addition to the airports and dams, which the dictator can point to proudly as examples of national development (and quietly pocket his ten percent commission), China offers these men (and a few women) a safe haven in Cheng Ho Gardens — a comfortable and secure refuge (with security guards trained by Israeli and Rhodesian consultants) in which to enjoy their golden years after the inevitable coup or downturn in business. “Win-win-win” as Wee explains.

* * *

With the panache of a huckster trying to sell time shares in an Orlando condo (“just six miles from Disney World, and two golf courses nearby”) Horace Wee explained the options.

First, the prospective buyer makes a non-refundable deposit of ten million dollars for his Nanyang passport. I assume that this fee can be offset against normal cost-of-doing-business bribes the Chinese pay for permission to rape and pillage the buyer’s country.

Then comes the fun part. The buyer can design his or her own island.  Nothing off-the-shelf for these folks, “One of our new citizens, from a wealthy East African country, wants an island in the shape of a male lion — the tail will be a links style golf course and the lion’s mane will conceal hidden beaches with air-conditioned pavilions where he can relax with his wives — I think he has six, plus another few in training.”

“Other designs are similarly intriguing?”

Wee went through some of the plans for  the 18 islands already committed.  One North African gentleman wants his island to be in the shape of his jowly visage, so visitors flying in to Cheng Ho International Airport can be greeted by his smiling face. Another opinion leader has commissioned Wee to build a tropical volcanic island, with a 2,000-meter-tall volcano in the center.”

“Which will explode?”

“Not in the geological sense.  But we will install a few things that he wants — a state-of-the-art pyrotechnics  center within the volcano’s cone, so the volcano will ‘explode’ fireworks on his birthday, and a roller coaster that will travel around and inside the volcano.  He’s going to call it the Vulcanoaster™.”

“Nice name,” I said.

“Yeah, my idea,” Wee offered.  “Please remember that we’ve registered the trademark so make sure you put in the little ‘TM’ thingamajig.”

Wee continued. “And there’s a gentleman from a northern Slavic country who doesn’t like sub-tropical weather, so we’ve created for him a series of gigantic terraces and mini-mountains.  Thanks to the extensive solar energy system — after all, we aim for all of Nanyang to be ‘green’ and for residents of Cheng Ho Gardens to be good Earth citizens — each of the vast terraces will be air-conditioned, and the ground soil, shipped in from Canada, I think, will be lined with refrigeration pipes and underground irrigation systems. The idea is to create a series of temperate landscapes where his gardeners can grow apples, cherries and roses.  He’ll have forests of maple, oak and pine. In some areas he’ll have snow for skiing and an ice rink where he can play hockey and his young figure skating girlfriends can spend their free time. We’ll introduce Northern Hemisphere animals so he’ll feel at home — foxes, rabbits, moose. His main house will be in the form of a Bavarian hunting lodge. Very tasteful.”

I was impressed.  But a bit apprehensive. Wee was revealing too much.

“Why are you telling me all this?  Surely not to get publicity in the Times.”

“Let’s grab a beer and I’ll answer your question.”

* * *

We shifted a short distance to the Nanyang Sheraton’s Peranakan-themed “Becak Bar.”

“I enjoyed your articles about Savantis,”  Wee said.

“You read those?” Wee was referring to the pieces I wrote years ago about a new country that was being planned by the reconstituted Knights Templar.

I had replied to a tiny classified ad in the International Herald Tribune that had offered “an economically available, State Sanctioned Hereditary Knighthood.”

Some wannabe nobles had resurrected the Knights Templar, a prominent and powerful group of medieval Christian noblemen who protected pilgrims on the crusader routes to Jerusalem.

A group of mostly-British visionaries recreated the Ancient and Noble Order of Knights Templar as a non-profit organization in Israel.  For just a single $5,000 fee, and fees of $500 year (less than my golf club fees), I could be honored in an investiture involving apanages and escutcheons. I’d get to wear a special ring and have use of two castles and the opportunity to buy privately bottled Knights Templar Bordeaux.

And even better, the title came with citizenship of a new country they’re creating, code-named Savantis.

“Only five people know where it is,” said Knights Templar Chancellor Savant Graham Renshaw-Heron.  But from reading between the lines I figured they were buying an island in the Philippines or the Caribbean.  According to Sir Graham, the thousand or so locals who enthusiastic about becoming Savantists and living under five dukes who would control the country. The nation would become a beacon of hearty, mostly British-bred, capitalistic enthusiasm, with economic benefits accruing from the planned casinos, resorts, golf courses, offshore banking and flags of convenience shipping.  Sort of like Nanyang.

Savantis, Sir Graham assured me, was “just an inch away from receiving United Nations recognition.”

“I’ve read most of the things you’ve written,” Wee continued. “As I recall you didn’t accept the invitation Sir Graham offered to join the Knights Templar and become a citizen of Savantis.”

“They weren’t terribly serious,” I said.

“No, and you’re a serious guy.”

I had a feeling what was coming next.

“I’ll cut to the chase.  I’d like to offer you a job.  It comes with a Nanyang passport. I’ll give you a long-stay suite in one of the new hotels being built in Cheng Ho Gardens — you can choose the Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons or Aman.  Full membership in the golf club.  Annual salary of, say, half-a-million. Of course that’s tax-free, and concealed from prying eyes.”

“That’s very generous.  But to do what?”

“Be our director of communications.  Not everyone in the outside world understands our humanitarian vision, our commitment to nature conservation, our intent to develop and showcase the most innovative architectural designs. You understand our positioning. You are a friend of the new, improved, user-friendly China. People trust you.”

“Surely you, or one of your colleagues could do that,” I said.

“Technically, perhaps. But look at us. We’re Chinese — physically and culturally.  People wouldn’t believe our sincerity.  But you’re from New York. Everybody trusts New Yorkers.”

“Does it come with a title?” I asked.

“Like I said, director of communications.”

I made a face.

“Or if you prefer we could call you senior vice president for media relations. How about that?”

“I was actually thinking of some kind of royal title, you know, like a knighthood.”

It was Wee’s turn to make a face.  “Impossible my friend.  We haven’t had royalty since the Ching Dynasty.  Nanyang might have some, er, unusual laws, but it’s still part of the People’s Republic of China.  One for all and all for one.”

“Pity, I’ve always wanted to be called the Prince Formerly Known as Artist.”

We talked for a while and I said I’d let him know.

Which I did, a few days later.  I told Wee my journalistic ethics wouldn’t allow me to “switch-sides.”  That I didn’t particularly like the idea of living on an isolated island. That I couldn’t abandon my roots.

Wee understood and promised we could remain friends.  “I’ll invite you to the opening of the hotel complex,” he said.  “I’ll introduce you to Paris Hilton and Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian.”


A four-part version of this article has been published in News-Decoder.


Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer whose books include An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, Distant Greens, Curious Encounters of the Human Kind, Redheads, Share Your Journey, and Soul of the Tiger (with Jeff McNeely).  The satirical piece “Cheng Ho Gardens” is excerpted from Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia which will be published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017.  Paul can be contacted at: