Journey to the West: What China tells itself about the Belt and Road Initiative

Ever since President Xi Jinping unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in late 2013, the massive infrastructure and connectivity initiative has captured the world’s imagination. Supporters see it as a timely injection of fresh energy to global development long held back by the West-dominated Bretton Woods institutions. Detractors, meanwhile, warn about the plan’s risk of raising developing countries’ debt burden, its potential climate impacts and the military – or even “imperialist” – ambitions of a rising great power.

Just as the international media has busied itself with deciphering, interpreting and guessing the intention of the BRI grand plan, China’s domestic media is also trying to make sense of the initiative. Not surprisingly, however, its point of departure and framing is markedly different from its peers in other countries. Putting aside state media outlets such as Xinhua and People’s Daily, which clearly have a mandate to positively portray the BRI, a scan of domestic media on the topic shows that Chinese media are producing information, observation, reflection and commentary that connects public perception with policy making, much like they would with day-to-day domestic news reporting.

With the BRI involving some of China’s most prominent financial and business entities, many of these media outlets are finance and business-oriented – China’s Bloombergs and WSJs. A review of four years of Belt and Road coverage, from when the initiative was first announced to end of 2017, by China’s two elite business weeklies, Caixin Weekly (财新周刊) and Caijing Magazine(财经杂志), gives us a glimpse of how the initiative is being portrayed inside China. Both news organizations, well respected for their journalistic professionalism, have produced a substantial body of coverage on the topic over that period, including feature stories, standard news pieces, opinion pieces and editorials. More than 100 such published pieces focus exclusively on the subject, a not so small portion given their weekly nature. On-the-ground reporting, though still relatively rare, constitutes an integral part of this growing coverage, with the footprint of Chinese reporters reaching countries as far as Tanzania and Sri Lanka.

CaixinCaijingcovers
Belt and Road stories on the covers of Caijing Magazine and Caixin Weekly

Contesting Ideas

Firstly, it is worth noting that the body of Caijing and Caixin media coverage shows clearly that Chinese discourse around Belt and Road is far from a coordinated monologue. Criticism (or rather “contesting ideas”) abounds, especially in the opinion pages. Scholars, officials and commentators use such media outlets as platforms to offer their views about how China should roll out the plan, sometimes challenging “mainstream thinking” on the issue.

When it comes to busting prevailing myth of the Belt and Road Initiative, such commentaries can be brutally direct. For example, Mei Xinyu (梅新育), a Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM)-affiliated researcher, took aim at a popular perception of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in particular the China-invested Gwadar Port. Many hailed it as a strategically brilliant maneuver to secure energy supply from the Middle East. Mei, however, directly critiqued the idea as prohibitively costly and, ultimately, a red herring, as Western “hostile forces” could anyway shut off oil supplies at source. Furthermore, Mei warned of the “excessive hyping of CPEC” by interest groups and suggested Chinese investment in Pakistan should hue more closely to commercial logic, rather than wild geopolitical strategy.

Broader critiques from a range of experts and think tankers have  questioned the wisdom of including the “Road” (the “Maritime Silk Road” that goes from the southern coast of China, through Southeast Asia and all the way to East Africa) in the Belt and Road Initiative, highlighting that it significantly increases the geopolitical complexity of the program (as compared to a much more focused Belt, connecting China’s landlocked western provinces with Central Asia and European markets). Others highlighted the risks associated with low returns from large infrastructure projects in developing countries and with the over-emphasizing of exporting overcapacity to other countries.

By publishing such critical voices, the two media outlets have maintained their status as the go-to platforms for critical observation and ideas. But in the larger context it is also more or less playing its accepted social role of “loyal admonishment”, an honest effort to correct and refine the course of a national undertaking, without totally rocking the boat. In other words, they are performing a valuable service to the greater national goal.

“Poster boys”

Despite its global publicity, the actual nature and content of the Belt and Road Initiative is still vague. Besides grandiose declarations of its general vision, no charters, institutions or elaborative policy papers exist that define the precise contour of the initiative, leaving it to mean everything and nothing to the outside world.

In response to this nebulousness, a considerable amount of Caixin and Caijing‘s reporting on the subject is organized around just a few high-profile, symbolic cases. In doing so, the news organizations help give form to the BRI, providing valuable “handles” for people to grasp onto when trying to understand the massive program. Going through the reports, a few “poster boys” stand out as major narrative shaping projects that the Chinese business media keep coming back to. These include China’s high speed rail projects across the globe, the deep sea ports of Hambantota and Gwadar in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and investments in Myanmar, among others.

The cases depict a picture of the BRI as fundamentally about export (of technology and manufacturing capacity) and import (of resources), which will improve China’s security and positioning in the global market.

The high-speed rail stories run by the two media organizations over the past four years provide the most concrete and detailed account so far of a major, high-priority BRI effort. The “product” (China’s high-speed rail technology and the system attached to it) represents the epitome of “made-in-China 2.0.” No longer a low-cost labor-intensive mass product, it is a complex system of high-tech engineering-heavy industrial components that can compete with high-end manufacturing powerhouses such as Japan, Germany and France.

The stories also highlight one of China’s strategic goals in promoting BRI: moving China higher up on the global value chain. Instead of selling socks and T-shirts, China now exports standards (of railway systems) that would ensure advantage for a consortium of Chinese manufacturers, system designers, and maintenance technicians in overseas markets for years to come. And the goal is being pursued by a combined effort of high-level diplomacy (led by the Premier, Li Keqiang), financial backing (competitive loan packages from Chinese policy banks) and upstream-downstream coordination across the supply chain.

The pool of symbolic cases also contains tales of caution. A not insignificant portion of the Caijing and Caixin coverage is dedicated to failures, some of which are quite spectacular. Inside this “ledger of blunders” lie China’s botched effort to build Bahamas’ largest beach resort, its aborted attempt to open an iron mine in Gabon, and losses to the tune of 5.7 billion RMB in Brazil on agricultural investments. Such cases offer valuable lessons on potential risks along the Belt and Road, and shape domestic perceptions of the external environment, from political, legal and economic perspectives.

The quest narrative

Whether it’s loyal admonishment or lessons from symbolic cases, the stories on Caixin and Caijing share one common denominator: they picture BRI through the viewpoint of Chinese entities, companies, personnel or even products, and locate them in a journey that winds toward a predetermined destination.

The Caixin story of Mr. Chang Xuehui (常学辉) is emblematic of this storyline. The piece follows Chang’s career as a Chinese diplomat and corporate representative in Africa, which trails China’s involvement on the continent. He started his journey as a young medical aid worker to Djibouti in the early 1990s, later traded Chinese goods in Cameroon on behalf of an state-owned enterprise (SOE) from his home province and served as a commerce secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Gabon in the early 2000s to promote Chinese business. It was in Gabon that he became instrumental in securing a deal between the Central African country and China Machinery International, a Chinese SOE, to explore the controversial Belinga iron mine. The deal met with fierce resistance from the local community and environmentalists for its potential threat to the Invindo National Park and was later abandoned after Omar Bongo Jr. replaced his deceased father as President in 2009.

While the report highlights the environmental controversies around the project, it manages to present the controversies as setbacks in Chang’s quest for excellence as a broker of business between China and Africa. That quest ended tragically and violently in Mali, when Chang, then a senior manager representing China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), were killed in a terrorist attack at Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako. He was negotiating a railway deal with his Malian counterparts.

The life story, at points poignant and touching, is a mirror to the bumpy roads of China’s “Going Out” efforts. There are problems, environmental or social, but these are obstacles to be overcome. A grander version of that storyline can be found in the above mentioned high-speed rail reports. Both Caijing and Caixin have dedicated multiple feature stories tracking every step of Chinese products’ stumbling tour around the globe: the setback in Thailand, the success in Indonesia, the shut door in Poland, the confusion and frustration in Mexico and the United States.

Just as the protagonists in the Chinese classic Journey to the West had to overcome 81 obstacles to finally reach the true teaching of Buddha in India, Chinese goods, services and businesses also need to prevail over myriad challenges before arriving at their own celebrated destination.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach to Belt and Road reporting. After all, those Chinese players, large SOEs, state banks, or multilateral institutions such as AIIB, are indeed at the center of most BRI developments. Following their point of view does provide a valuable angle as most of them are hardly accessible to media from outside China. It is still remarkable, however, that the two elite news organizations, bastions of journalistic professionalism in China, adopt it as their main viewpoint when they cast their gase outside of China. In the eyes of of the westward traveler, everything else retreats into the background, either as hurdles to go over or as tests of his character.

The absent civilian

This perspective is in stark contrast to how both Caijing and Caixin report on domestic issues. For years, such outlets have differentiated themselves from state media in their representation of the “civilian” perspective, amplifying voices of the powerless, the disadvantaged and the underrepresented. The plight of “ordinary people” often occupies the pages of those media, pressing authorities to respond.

As recently as November 2017, Caixin was sending its journalists to the slums of Beijing to witness how the city’s eviction campaign to clean up sub-standard residential buildings were affecting downtrodden migrant workers. It also dispatched teams of reporters to cover the impact of the coal-to-gas policy on poor villagers around Beijing, who, for the sake of air quality, were told to shift from coal burning to natural gas for winter heating, only to be hit by an unexpected gas shortage.

But the “civilian” perspective seems to disappear as soon as these media step outside China’s borders. There, they almost automatically don the hat of the Chinese state and look around with its perspective. Granted, on-the-ground reporting in BRI covered countries is still relatively rare, which makes it hard for reporters to get in touch with non-elite stakeholders in a remote country. Distance is a natural barrier for collecting local opinions about China-backed projects, which are often built in hard-to-access regions of countries suffering from chronic political instability and economic deprivation. When Caijing journalist Hao Zhou (郝洲) went on a reporting trip in Pakistan to assess the progress of the CPEC, he wrote that he needed to be chauffeured by a team of armed military guards everywhere he went, even to go just across the street, at Gwadar port.

When reporters did bring local community issues into their lens, they sometimes treated their views like fire hoops for Chinese actors to jump through. In a Caixin report about Sri Lanka’s Colombo port city project, a landmark piece of the BRI, the reporter allocated a section for the concerns from local environmental groups and fishermen about the potential damage from sand dredging in the harbor. For every specific complaint that the locals raised, be it the impact on coral reefs, or interference with fish migration routes, the report managed to get a response from the Chinese engineering company that claimed them addressed, one by one.

As Caijing‘s international affairs editor Yuan Xue (袁雪) noted in one of her reports about Chinese involvement in Tanzania, there is already awareness among Chinese players overseas that the lack of interaction with civil society and local communities would become a limiting factor to how far China could go with its development agenda along the Belt and Road.  If that is really the case, then for the Chinese media, telling “civilian-centered” Belt and Road stories to their Chinese audience, as they do with domestic stories, could be a good starting point to create the initial society-to-society bonding that would be the building block for sustainable and inclusive development supported by China overseas.

At Caijing, there are already attempts to put civil society at the center of reports. Sun Aiming(孙爱民)’s report on the growing pains of Myanmar’s booming NGO sector is a good example of how such storytelling delivers insights about the lens through which local civil society sees Chinese projects. It is more stories like this that would be a real service to the nation.

 

This blog aims to promote civilian-centered storytelling by providing a platform for documenting, reflecting and critiquing Chinese “storytelling” about its footprint overseas, and by engaging active Chinese storytellers such as journalists, editors, NGO workers, think tank researchers, etc. in a dialogue with their international peers.

Author: TJMa

A blogger at large. My areas of interest include China's overseas footprint, environmental governance and online public opinion. Twitter: @TJMa_beijing

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