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China organizes hasty retreat from Libya

Dmitry Solovyov / NBC News

A crowd of Chinese evacuees from Libya line up at the Malta International Airport to fly back to China Thursday.

By Martin Fletcher, NBC News Correspondent

VALLETTA, Malta – How things have changed. When the 2004 tsunami hit the Indian Ocean, America sent the Seventh Fleet of the U.S. Navy to help evacuees. China sent a cargo ship.

Now to evacuate American workers from the crisis in Libya, America sent a chartered ferry too small to ride the rough seas of the Mediterranean.

China chartered a giant ocean cruise ship, 20 civilian aircraft, four military aircraft and moved 35,860 of its citizens out of danger in Libya as of Wednesday, within a week of starting the process, according to the Chinese foreign minister.

I’m thinking of the comparison as I wait for my plane in Malta, one of the evacuation hubs. Lined up in complete silence and total order are hundreds of Chinese workers wearing red caps, obeying ladies holding up red and yellow Chinese flags like any tour group at the Vatican. They follow instructions, wait in long lines, and shuffle forward when told. On command, a long single file strides through the concourse like an unstoppable column of ants. I am reminded of the 1927 German movie Metropolis.

What a difference. Not one is wearing headphones or playing with a telephone or digital device. They are all slim and fit, no sign of impending obesity. Their bags are bound with cellophane. Some are still in their orange work suits and carrying orange hardhats. They were working in Libya’s oil, rail, construction and telecommunications industries.

Dmitry Solovyov / NBC News

Chinese evacuees from Libya line up at the Malta International Airport Thursday.

China’s government chartered a fleet of planes to carry them to Shanghai. Quietly, effectively, without fuss, China is evacuating all its workers to safety. It is the silent contract between state and worker: You work abroad, we’ll look after you.

China’s People’s Daily boasted that it was the “largest and most complicated overseas evacuation ever conducted by the Chinese government.” And China’s foreign minister gave credit for the speedy and efficient evacuation to “China's peaceful foreign policy, which makes China a popular country in the community of nations.”

There are an estimated 50,000 Chinese workers in Nigeria, 35,000 in Sudan, 40,000 in Zambia, 30,000 in Angola, 20,000 in Algeria and thousands more dotted around the African continent. They are the face of Chinese industry, investment, diplomacy and eventually, power.

But what strikes me is the efficiency and order and calm. Nobody was arguing with the airline staff, objecting to orders, struggling with too many bags and bulky packages. Rather just a line of calm, single men with small cases, waiting patiently to be told what to do and where to go.

It occurred to me, is this the future?

China has invested heavily in Africa while the West turned elsewhere, and Chinese companies are spreading rapidly and silently through Latin America, too. Their insatiable appetite for coal, copper, bauxite, oil, iron ore and almost every other mineral is leading them on an economic conquest like no other. Their workers lead the rush, and their government spreads its wings to protect them, wherever they are.

As 200 men lined up in a silent single file that snaked through duty-free, with nobody eyeing all the luxuries on display, waiting for a man with a Chinese flag to raise his arm and tell them to move, I didn’t know whether to be filled with admiration or trepidation.

I did think, we better keep them on our side.