One Saturday, at a barbecue on the lagoon, the host asked me why I didn’t try to report a piece for some magazine back home about what he called “the Chinese gulag.”
“What gulag?” I said.
“The construction crew,” he said: the men in blue jumpsuits from China. Their barracks were straight out of a Russian novel, he said, puffing on a cigarette. Didn’t I know I was living smack in the middle of a huge story?
Of course, I’d noticed the workers. Who hadn’t? Every day they hurtled down the waterfront road, piled in the bed of white Ute trucks. They were bound for the capital’s central business district where they were building a colossal edifice to house the Tongan government’s premier and all its ministers. The project had been a dream of the Kingdom’s late monarch George V, but the $11 million price of the St. George Palace, as it would be dubbed, was not coming out of the Kingdom’s coffers. Instead, it was being funded—and constructed—entirely by Beijing. It was a tiny fraction of the estimated $5 billion China spent on international aid that year, but it equaled 2.6 percent of Tonga’s GDP.
Still, I hadn’t really stopped to ponder why Chinese workers—and not the many underemployed Tongans—would be doing this work or why the tiny government needed such a massive building. It just seemed like another sign of “development,” the kind of modernity which eventually reaches even tiny islands in the middle of a vast ocean.
In 2016, on the handful of settled islands in Tongan archipelago, those signs were everywhere: New cars jammed the roads, sand miners were stealing the island’s beaches and New Zealand loggers hauled giant trees by boat from the Kingdom’s last rain-forested island. Methamphetamine wasn’t just passing through Tonga, once a backwater transit hub for drugs en route to Australia and New Zealand, it was burrowed in. Youngsters were using it and crime was rising.
But underneath it all, the growing presence of the Chinese government in Tonga pumped tension into the life of the island nation that anyone could feel. This tension had started long before I arrived in 2014, the year the Chinese Communist Party’s brand-new leader Xi Jinping announced his “Asia-Pacific Dream” of cooperation and launched a tour of the South Pacific countries where he met with Tonga’s soon-to-be-crowned King Tupou VI. Xi came to power in 2013, when Tonga signed the deal with Beijing for construction of the St. George Palace that the men in the blue jumpsuits were now building.
Chinese immigrants ran 80 percent of the shops, draining Tongan money back to China and pumping cheap exports through the islands. In 2006, pro-democracy riots tried to stoke local anger at Chinese and Chinese businesses, and yet in their wake, Beijing paid to rebuild and immigration had resumed.
My barbecue host was Australian. I’m American. We were both Western guests in Tonga, and maybe we didn’t have a right to feel nervy about China being on the move there. Nonetheless, we apparently both did. The importation of a big labor gang to build a government palace felt like a symbol of an empire on the move and maybe I was missing a complete global shift. So after I shipped out my meager partial ton of vanilla and could relax a little, a Tongan friend and I went to investigate the gulag on a sunny weekday afternoon.
The barracks sat in plain view: simple, spare and clean.
A thin wall wrapped around a courtyard. There were tables for eating and sinks for washing up. A long line of doors opened into human-sized cabinets, shelved with beds for the men to sleep in. A couple of men stopped washing dishes at the courtyard sinks and, hearing my English, called someone else to show us around. The new guide was friendly but confused about why I wanted to see the camp. He didn’t like personal questions about himself, saying only that he traveled the world to work on projects for his government. He said nothing about his bosses. I looked them up later. Beijing had contracted one of China’s state-owned conglomerates, the Shanghai Construction Company, to build the palace.
There was nothing wrong with the camp. There was nothing right about it either, with its cramped quarters and its separateness from the rest of the island life. It looked more like a jail than Tonga’s actual prison, which sat on a few lush acres with bungalows for the prisoners and a van to take them on unshackled trips into town. You never saw the Chinese workmen roaming free anywhere. We wondered if they even got to visit the Chinese brothel on the other side of town. We wondered if they got to do much other than labor. They seemed to work like no one else on the island—six days a week, I guessed, with Sundays off because Tongan law ordered it so.