In July last year this blog published a piece looking at some of the dominant narratives in international media reporting on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the world’s “best known, least understood foreign policy effort.” One year on, we asked the people behind some of those stories, international media correspondents, about their own reflections on the many challenges of reporting BRI and their ideal Belt and Road stories.
The interviews show some common issues that are reflected across the BRI-engaged media, civil society and researcher space, and some obstacles unique to the demands of an international news desk. They also indicate why some of the narratives identified in our article last year have stuck around, seemingly immune to a number of challenges and more nuanced arguments they have faced.
Ill defined and opaque
One theme highlighted by all the interviewees when we asked about the challenges of reporting the Belt and Road was the continued lack of an agreed, singular definition for the initiative and its lack of transparency.
We noted in our article last year that outlets often take on the task of and struggle to define the BRI. One year on, journalists are still struggling with this issue. From a journalist or investigator’s perspective, digging deeper into BRI issues is also a challenge when the definition – the starting point – is so hard to fix.
As one journalist commented, “are we reporting on Chinese infrastructure deals? On smart cities? On geopolitical rivalries? On industrial overcapacity?” For newsrooms that also raises a question of staffing – should BRI be the domain of political correspondents, economy correspondents, commodities correspondents? Or, indeed, has “Belt and Road” become a catch all notion for China’s foreign relations which in reality are multifaceted and not necessarily as coordinated as the word “initiative” implies?
In addition to this lack of a clear definition, reporting the BRI is also plagued by a lack of access to important information and sources. Journalists noted that some of the key stakeholders in the Belt and Road Initiative steer well clear of media engagement, including key government ministries, the state owned companies who dominate Belt and Road construction projects, and the policy and commercial banks who are providing billions of dollars of financing. Without access to these stakeholders, it is next to impossible to understand their motivations and perspectives, leaving a large part of BRI political dynamics shrouded in opacity, and also ripe for speculation in place of facts.
Lastly, many of the deals themselves lack transparency. While it may be known which companies and banks are involved in individual projects – usually details of project construction contracts are made public on both sides – the exact terms of financing often remain unknown, information which is particularly pertinent to verifying or disproving the “debt trap” theory.
The making of “sticky narratives”
Last year we commented that one of the key narratives defining Belt and Road in the international press was that of “great power rivalry”. This is still a prevalent narrative, increasingly dominated by the notion of the BRI “debt trap”. (Panda Paw recently took a deep dive into the “debt trap” here).
We asked journalists why such narratives stick around, in spite of numerous experts pointing out holes in or weaknesses of the factual basis for some of the key arguments. Their feedback indicated that, firstly, there is a trend in Belt and Road reporting to extrapolate specific stories and case studies into macro-trends, during the process of which the highly politicized and polarized nature of the narratives coming out of Washington DC and Beijing tend to sway their influence. This can be seen for example in the debt trap narrative, which is primarily based off one case study, the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, and a number of reports from critical DC think tanks such as RWR Advisory, as well as the speeches of Trump administration individuals such as John Bolton.
The scale, complexity, opacity and lack of data about the BRI also contributes to the problem, one journalist commented. It means that journalists tasked with writing on “the Belt and Road”, rather than stand alone case studies, become more reliant on others’ interpretations of the initiative.
In the newsroom, a Belt and Road story that ties in with some of the current dominant narratives is often an easier pitch to editors than one that digs into the contradictions and complexities of the initiative and its projects. One journalist commented that the BRI frame has actually made a lot of China foreign relations reporting more complicated because what were once seen as country-to-country deals, which could be written in detail and nuance, are now understood as part of a grand scheme, which lends itself to broad brush stroke reporting.
Another journalist commented that their perspective from Beijing is extremely limiting. As a China correspondent, they are expected to report on BRI, but realistically there is little new reporting one can do on BRI from a Beijing bureau other than on policy announcements or second hand information.
A lack of access to voices and perspectives on the ground in Belt and Road countries was also identified as a challenge. Many outlets do not have a strong representation of reporters in Belt and Road countries, and building up contacts with fixers, commentators, local sources is a long game made more difficult by not being physically present. Interestingly, interviewees did not see access to China-based experts as a particular challenge, with one respondent commenting that it actually seems easier to speak to experts on BRI than on other topics within their beat, such as domestic Chinese politics.
For those outlets that do have people on the ground, coordination across bureaus is still not an easy task. Convincing journalists and their editors that a BRI story, macro and grand in its nature, should take priority over their daily beat can be difficulty. Similarly, for those outlets who do not have people on the ground, convincing editors to allow them the time and resources needed for on the ground reporting, substantive investigation and the process of building up contacts is a difficult sell, especially when there are so many immediate issues going on in the daily China news beat.
Dreaming of better Belt and Road reporting
Almost all of the journalists interviewed said their ideal Belt and Road report would involve visiting project sites. Such visits would include getting first hand insight into the different perspectives on the ground – community, project management, etc. – and trying to work out what has been done right and wrong at specific projects. One journalist commented that they would like to track perspectives and understanding of a specific project from both local perspectives and the perspective from Beijing.
Practically speaking, a number of interviewees responded that they are keen to have more access to less politicized data on the Belt and Road, as a means to tackle the issue of the initiative’s opacity. One journalist also commented that a database of Belt and Road experts, commentators and news outlets representing a variety of viewpoints would be a useful tool to overcome some of the challenges.
Reporting on the Belt and Road isn’t easy. Its scale, opacity, the dominance of politicized narratives and its rapid development all present challenges to international news rooms. Our interviews showed, however, that many journalists are keenly aware of these challenges and are actively searching for ways to strengthen their Belt and Road reporting. With the limited space for Chinese media to report in an honest and impactful way on BRI, how international media outlets report on Belt and Road is of critical importance to information on and global understanding of the initiative, both for local readership and for policy and strategy maker audiences in China, BRI countries and the West.