What we know about the second Belt and Road Summit in April 2019?
On Jan 7, a note appeared on an obscure website for exhibition-related information saying that the National Conference Center in Beijing would clear its schedule for the entire April. Events that had booked the Center for April dates would have to give way to a major one associated with “the Party and Nation’s economic and diplomatic strategy.” The 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (hereafter “Belt and Road Summit”) is finally coming.
Dubbed the most important “home-field diplomatic event” of the year, the Belt and Road Summit has sucked up much oxygen from China’s diplomatic and propaganda space as soon as clock started ticking for 2019.
On Mar 8, at a press conference held during the annual National People’s Congress sessions, Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted three features of the Summit: higher level (more heads of state compared to the first one); bigger crowd (thousands of participants from 100 countries) and more activities (12 sub-forums and a gathering for entrepreneurs).
While the Summit will certainly be presented as a huge success domestically, the world would probably judge it with a difference set of standards. The information that is available so far can provide some guidance as to what to expect from the Summit.
As Wang Yi’s press conference has shown, the number of leaders attending is a key indicator of the global political support the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has garnered and will be keenly watched by observers around the world.
29 heads of state (and heads of government), not including President Xi himself, attended the 1st Belt and Road Summit in 2017. This year’s Summit will very likely beat that record given the fact that in the 2 years since 2017, more countries have signed up to the BRI. At the time when the 1st Summit was held, 39 countries or international organizations were on board. According to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), now 123 have formally reached understanding with China with regard to their involvement in the BRI. A portion, if not all, of the new sign-ups will certainly translate into head-of-state participation in the Summit.
But quantity is one thing, some guests are more equal than others. For a BRI that has been dogged by negative media coverage internationally on its setbacks and a “hidden agenda”, high-level participation by certain countries has the narrative busting effect that would define how the Summit is viewed from outside.
Based on existing Chinese language media reports, the leaders who have confirmed attendance include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov. While these “old friends of China” can be seen as usual suspects and do not change the dynamics of the Summit, other participants are more interesting. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for example, has accepted the invitation despite his rollback of China invested pipeline projects. The Prime Minister’s renegotiation of Belt and Road deals that his predecessor had reached with China was widely interpreted as an indictment of BRI as pushing unsustainable debt burdens onto other developing countries. His presence at the Summit will help assuage some of the concerns that Malaysia is backing out of the BRI.
Another interesting guest is Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose government’s recent decision to formally endorse the BRI with an MOU drew pressure from Germany and the United States for undermining a Western united front, particularly the G7 group. Italy was reportedly frustrated with the EU’s inaction about its trade deficit with China.
It is worth noting, however, that both Mahathir and Conte’s predecessors were represented in the first Belt and Road Summit 2 years ago. Their appearance this time help to consolidate the BRI’s reception by their respective countries. But at this time of increasing global questioning of the BRI, particularly from the US, what China needs more is probably a breakthrough that resembles Britain’s surprising signing-up to the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015. But a polarized us-versus-them atmosphere around on the initiative would make such a breakthrough extremely challenging.
An evolving agenda
Beyond the political symbolism, what the Belt and Road Summit can actually achieve is another question that observers will be asking. For example, Will Mahathir use the occasion to determine the fate of the controversial East Coast Rail Link project that has been hanging in balance ever since his election?
China has its own criteria to gauge success. Dialing back to 2017, the first Belt and Road Summit produced two key documents, a Leaders’ Joint Communique and a List of Outcomes that contains 5 categories, 76 items and 279 action points. NDRC has apparently been tracking the completion of those action points. By Jan 22, 2019, 96.4% of them had either been completed or incorporated into the routine workstreams of the Chinese government.
The List of Outcomes provides a framework of understanding how the Summit’s substance is conceived and organized. The five categories (strategic and policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, investment & trade expansion, finance cooperation, and people to people connection) correspond to the “5 Pillars” of the BRI. And the 76 items help translate those grand ideas into concrete, measurable steps:
Reuters recently got hold of a draft of the MOU that is being negotiated between China and Italy, which illustrates with a concrete example how “strategic and policy coordination” is being formalized at bilateral level. The draft is notably broad stroke but gives a prominent nod to sustainability, Paris Climate Accord and environmental cooperation, invoking an image of “high quality Belt and Road” that Beijing has been touting. While the basic framework of the MOU follows the 5 categories above, Environmental Cooperation is remarkably given a standalone place in the document, no longer a part of the “people to people connection.” The green message is more salient when compared to earlier MOUs China signed with other countries. A 2015 MOU with Poland, for example, was much more rigidly modelled on the “5 Pillars” with a heavy emphasis on infrastructure/investment and no sustainability component.
Some recipient countries have also been pushing to redefine BRI on their own terms. Indonesia, for one, recently laid out four conditions for its BRI projects, which include use of environmentally friendly technology, maximize hiring of local labor, technology transfer and added value for local industry. It is a sign that countries are maturing in their approach to BRI by voicing their own demands and conditions, which may find their way into the BRI agenda reshaped by bilateral and multilateral interactions.
Minister Wang Yi’s press conference also indicates that this year’s Summit might run with an “evolved agenda” by going beyond the original “5 Pillars” and providing more air space for topics that were grouped together before. At the first Summit, 6 parallel sessions corresponding to the 5 Pillars plus one on think tank collaboration were organized. This year, besides the main forum and the Leaders Roundtable which Xi will preside over, 12 sub-forums plus one entrepreneurs convention will also be offered. Information from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment seems to suggest that an ecological sub-forum is definitely being planned. Other topics of sub-forum might emerge in the coming weeks. The general trend appears to be for the Summit to go more granular on issue topic discussions.
Green Belt and Road?
The general elevation of green issues in official rhetoric, MOUs and forum agenda begs the question if any concrete outcomes on the green governance of the BRI will come out of the 2nd Summit.
At the beginning of this year, Minister of Ecology and Environment Li Ganjie announced that the International Coalition for Green Development on the Belt and Road (hereafter “Coalition”) would be formally launched in 2019. The Belt and Road Summit will be an ideal occasion to do that. The Coalition has been at the center of a controversy involving the United Nations Environment Program (in particular its former head Erik Solheim who was forced to resign for violating UN codes of conduct), the United States and China. The UN agency was questioned for its appeared coziness with the strategic initiative of a single member state. Whether China will successfully rollout the Coalition despite the setback is worth watching at the coming Summit. According to Solheim’s vision for the Coalition, which he laid out just before his departure, it should take up the roles of promoting green finance, creating basic principles and standards, and bringing in third parties to help countries along the Belt and Road achieve green development.
It is unclear at this moment whether specific environmental issues will be given a spot in the agenda. For example, China’s involvement in fossil fuel projects along the Belt and Road has received much global spotlight lately. Any institutional development under the BRI on climate change beyond a rhetoric nod will be significant progress toward harmonizing the initiative with the Paris Climate Accord. We have seen some concrete developments on the issue of desertification, where Chinese institutions have mobilized finance, technology and civil society support for afforestation projects along the Belt and Road. The Belt and Road Summit can benefit from an articulation of China’s commitment to “ecological civilization” in the implementation of the BRI.
Longtime Belt and Road observer Zhang Hong shares her insights about the historical evolution of China’s “Going Out”
Within the Chinese journalistic community, a “foreign correspondent” is a rare species. Unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese media do not have a long history of dispatching reporters globally to cover events from where they are unfolding. Due to resource constraints and, more crucially, a lack of strong domestic demand for news thousands of kilometers away from home (with the exception of a handful of countries such as the United States), media organizations in China invest grudgingly into overseas operations. The situation differs between state-owned outlets (such as Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network), which in recent years have increased their global presence, and more independent outlets (such as Caixin). For the former group, the need to establish Chinese image overseas, more than the improvement of Chinese understanding of foreign affairs, has been the driving force of its global expansion. For the latter group, with all the intention of doing better international reporting, the lack of state support in setting up a stronger footing in foreign countries cripples its international ambition.
Zhang Hong (Stella) was, in her own words, one of the first-generation foreign correspondents working for a non-state Chinese media organization. Stationed in Europe and North America for Caixin Media between 2009 and 2014, she filed stories for Caixin’s readers on topics ranging from reforms in Poland to the Crimean crisis. She described her years in London and Washington as “drifting”, having to conduct journalism in a foreign land without much institutional support from home. While reporting from one country to another, she picked up an emerging theme that later became her research focus as a PhD candidate at George Mason University: the growing presence of China beyond its border and its political and economic implications.
In an interview with Panda Paw Dragon Claw, Stella shared her observations about China’s “Going Out” from both her standpoint as a journalist and a researcher. She believes a “China model” is indeed discernible from the practices of China’s state capital overseas, even though it doesn’t entirely fit the predatory image that Western media are accustomed of depicting lately.
Panda Paw Dragon Claw(PPDC): When you were a foreign correspondent for a Chinese media outlet, what was your mission?
Zhang Hong (Z): My intention was to write stories with more independence than what we usually saw in Chinese state media. I always believe that international news reporting should help our Chinese readership, citizens of a great power, to obtain an understanding of the world that matches China’s global status. A citizenry without empathy for its peers around the globe would become dangerously self-centered and hubristic.
But I found that I couldn’t do what I intended to do and was affected by a sense of powerlessness. Compared to Western foreign correspondents, we did not have the kind of institutional history and tradition that guide our operation overseas. Most non-state Chinese media only began to dispatch correspondents to other countries in the second half of the last decade, after a relatively liberalized period built up their coffer and ambition. When we were stationed in a foreign country, most of us did not have an office and had to build our sources and network from scratch. Since we were not part of China’s official media establishment, we were excluded from correspondence from Chinese embassies and consulates. We were largely “on our own.”
Situation of state media colleagues were slightly better, even though they were very much shaped (and constrained) by the nature of their outlets. Many of them couldn’t do reports that were at odds with the domestic and foreign policy agenda of the Party. And they were often stationed there to spread China’s own voices, more than they were required to do high-quality reporting about that country. For example, state media reporters were sometimes tasked to publish op-eds in local media, a not unimportant part of their job description.
PPDC: What kind of China “Going Out” stories did you cover when stationed overseas?
Z: I left journalism in 2014, and before that I was mainly based in Europe. It was before the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) became an international spectacle. The pre-BRI stories about China’s “Going Out” that I ended up covering were mainly about Chinese companies shopping for European businesses and assets that were on sale after the debt crisis of 2009. The image of China around that time was that of a “nouveau riche” foreign investor. The Europeans were a bit skeptical of the Chinese’s ability to well manage what they had acquired. And that was the main discussion about China’s overseas adventures.
PPDC: Understandably, that story changed with the BRI…
Z: The BRI focuses very much on infrastructure building, with the Chinese state, not just Chinese companies, at the center of it. The level of Chinese overseas involvement (and the stake) is much higher now than when I was covering the space.
PPDC: With the BRI now so prominent on the global agenda, and popular narratives about it being reinforced by talks of “debt traps” and US-China arm wrestling, what do you think are elements missing in the current conversation?
Z: I think the first element that is not well understood and covered is the historical aspect. BRI should be viewed in the context of China’s multi-decade political and economic evolution. Modern China began its adventure into the global market in the 1990s, and not until 1999 was the concept of “Going Out” as a strategy first laid out. Major Chinese energy companies started to systematically move into other markets around that time. In preparation for the accession to WTO in 2001, a set of policies were also created to facilitate integration into the global market. The period laid the ground for an explosion of “Going Out” activities in the 2000s. On the one hand, China’s economic reform turned the country from a closed autarky to a world factory, driving up demand for resources from around the globe. On the other hand, Chinese companies, nurtured by strong domestic demand, ventured out for new markets and supplies. BRI is an extension to that two-decade journey. To some extent, China is almost driven by an urge to compensate for being absent from the global scene for too long. It is still retaking the globalization class.
Another aspect that’s worth emphasizing is that BRI reflects the “long view” that is embodied in the Chinese political system. China’s one-party system allows the ruling Communist Party to make long term plans and strategies. That’s why you find strong continuity from the “Going Out” strategy to BRI. This is not to say that Chinese leaders in the 1990s were particularly prescient. But it does appear that the approach of “crossing the river by touching the stones” works pretty well in China’s internationalization process, where later leaderships could build on the programs of their predecessors and adapt their strategies by studying the lessons learned.
In my opinion, the reason why stories of “debt traps” or China’s “predatory” behaviors become prevalent is that the international community does not fully understand this historical evolution. And the lack of transparency on the Chinese side is also to blame. When people cannot comprehend the seemingly “sudden” appearance of China on the horizon, they respond with fear and apply familiar narratives to make sense of it.
PPDC: Besides its historical context, what else is unique about the “Going Out” process? Is there a “China Model” being exported?
Z: What I’ve taken note of, as I have written in an article about Chinese investment in Sri Lanka, is the central role played by Chinese state capital in the “Going Out” process. Their prominence does speak to a powerful “formula” of economic growth in China, whether or not you’d like to call that a “model”. This formula is obsessed with infrastructure development, as this is where state capital has comparative edge over private capital. The vehicles of China’s state capital, the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), are a new class of international players in the global economic system that we have never seen before. Fed by a massive internal market and their monopoly status in key sectors, they have grown into gargantuan corporate conglomerates within a short period of time. With that much of capital on hand, they were able to take advantage of the vacuum left by the 2008 financial crisis and extend their tentacles to new places in the world, building and consolidating their access and control of world’s resources.
These conglomerates enjoy unique advantages in the current global economic structure. Backed with the state’s financial and political support, they are much more risk-tolerant than their Western competitors, which enables them to go into the infrastructure sector in developing countries with highly uncertain economic outlooks. Engaging in such strategic sectors in turn locks in long-term structural opportunities for China in these countries. For example, after building the standard-gauge railway for Kenya, Chinese companies will remain in Kenya for years to train the locals how to operate the system according to Chinese protocols; the next generation of Kenyan engineers will know more about how to build things according to Chinese technical standards than European ones.
PPDC: How does the Sri Lanka situation illustrate the model you outlined above?
Z: The Sri Lanka case demonstrates how certain elements of the “China Model” can indeed be exported through BRI. Under a strictly defined “market economy”, the construction of Hambantota Port does not make much sense. There is no natural demand supporting a major port built out of a traditional fishing village. But China’s state capital, coupled with its existing global network, may create demand to match the supply (a new port facility on the Indian Ocean). China Merchants Group, the state-owned Chinese conglomerate that will be running the Hambantota Port, could rearrange some of its global shipping routes to go through Hambantota, creating business for an industrial zone that is to be built adjacent to the port. With CMG’s global reach and resource allocation abilities, there is a fair chance that the Hambantota port may take off as a major trade node.
In this sense, China’s development model does have some “exportability”, even though China’s one-party system itself can hardly be recreated elsewhere.
PPDC: You speak of the Chinese leadership taking a “long view” when it comes to Going Out. Is exporting the China development model the ultimate goal?
Z: I guess the ultimate goal is the so-called “national rejuvenation”. As stated by the Chinese leadership, it is to build China into a real global superpower. Probably due to the Party’s Marxist ideology (which emphasizes the economic base as a determinant in all human activities), there seems to be a firm belief that the goal needs to be achieved through economic means rather than military means. Previous socialist regimes, such as the Soviet Union, never managed to plug itself so deeply into the global economy, let alone occupying structurally important positions. For China, becoming a global superpower in the new era means attaining a strategic, structural advantage in the global economy. And its SOE-driven state capitalism is an instrument to that end. In Party talks, there is already explicit language calling for SOEs to have “capabilities of global resource allocation” and “occupy a privileged position in the global value chain.”
PPDC: As you said, the understanding of those dynamics is still very poor outside China. Do you think there is a role that Chinese media, think tanks or others can play to help shape global perceptions of the BRI?
Z: There could have been a role for them to play, as theoretically speaking they should have better access to the Chinese actors participating in BRI, providing insights that outsiders often do not have. But in reality it is hardly the case due to the generally closed culture with regard to the press. It seems Chinese journalists (barring those from the state media tasked with propaganda) hardly have better access to Chinese companies and government officials than their foreign counterparts. This might also have to do with the fact that reporter tends to be an entry-level job in China; veteran reporters either get promoted to editorial roles (so they are no longer on the frontline doing reporting) or leave the profession after being disillusioned (I myself being an example). So you are left with young reporters who are energetic and passionate about doing good reporting, but without the necessary experience. Plus, Chinese media, when doing stories, still have the tendency of writing to the ears of the decision makers, hoping to have some influence there. So I am not quite sure the Chinese media as a whole is capable of shaping the conversation as part of the global civil society.
PPDC: In 2012, you’ve written a blog titled “the Cambodians who don’t want a dam”, which documented local resistance to a China-built dam and the rejection of China’s development-first mindset. Do you think Chinese media can play the role of safeguarding against the negative impacts of the Going Out process, as many have hoped?
Z: I’m not very optimistic that they can. Having left China’s media industry, I am not in a position to comment on my colleagues’ works today, as I understand that the room for independent reporting has shrunk even more compared to five years ago. However, I am a little disappointed that, for all the attention BRI is getting across the globe, we can think of very few cases of systematic and methodic reporting of BRI from the Chinese media that can draw wide attention. I get the sense that non-state media today are becoming more and more like their state media peers in reporting only one kind of BRI story: that of Chinese investment bringing benefits to other parts of the world. I understand the limitations Chinese journalists are facing, but for someone who used to have high hopes for the profession, this is disheartening.
PPDC: If media is not there as watchdogs, how should the Going Out process been governed given its massive political, social and environmental impacts?
Z: Scholars have described Chinese players as being more elastic with rules: they can follow higher standards when they enter developed markets but are more than happy to do the bare minimum when local governance is weak. At the end of the day, without strong regulation at home, adhering to high standards of corporate conducts is only “optional.” Paradoxically, for all my skepticism about Chinese state capital’s impact on the prospect of global human development, I think it might be easier to induce responsible behaviors in China’s SOEs than private firms in the short term. I think there is real appetite for it right now as the leadership wants China to be seen as a “responsible power.” SOEs are encouraged to take measures to protect the environment and provide services to local communities where they operate. Therefore, if the international community continues to push for these issues, they might gain enough traction in the political agenda, which can then be translated into requirements for SOEs’ overseas operations. That said, having the regulations is one thing, how they are implemented is another. To fundamentally create a system where Chinese players can be held accountable for their overseas activities, deeper governance reform and cultural change within China would be necessary.
What a new genre in Chinese social media tells us about how the Belt and Road Initiative is perceived domestically
*Note to readers: I wrote this article originally for my other blog Chublic Opinion, titled “Anxieties of development: emerging voices in Chinese social media.” But the themes explored here are also relevant for readers who are interested in learning where China’s overseas initiatives sit in domestic public opinion.
In August 2018, an online post by “Shenzhen Ningnanshan” (深圳宁南山, hereafter “SN”) piqued the interest of Global Times chief editor Hu Xijin, who pointed his followers to the lengthy list of complaints about high property prices and education costs that, according to SN, threaten to sap the morale of an “urban middle class that has fundamental faith in China’s developmental trajectory”. Hu, who often presents himself as an interlocutor between the regime and the public, acknowledged the complaints’ “authenticity” and “sincerity”. In a published response, Hu reminded government officials to read SN’s article carefully, as it represents “the real worries of the People’s Republic’s hardworking constructors.” These people should be heard and shown the country’s future directions.
The exchange underscores the weight assigned to urban middle class voices by a political elite keen to monitor a constituency consequential to national progress and stability. But SN is no ordinary disgruntled working man. At the beginning of his post, he wrote that his articles were often read by “people up there”, meaning Party leaders and officials, and he hoped that this one reached them too. SN’s extraordinary influence in social media is part of a bigger story of development blogging‘s ascend in Chinese cyberspace. It has become a genre, fueled by the economic slowdown and heightened trade tensions with the United States. Microbloggers such as SN dedicate their social media space to big questions like China’s place in the world and if it can overcome the middle-income trap. And they find a growing audience, including “people up there”, tuned in to listen to their diagnoses of China’s ills and prescriptions for cures.
The escalation of the US-China trade tension in early 2018 became an assembly rallying cry for these online voices, who collectively shaped how the Chinese public perceived the clash between the two countries. SN’s Mar 24 post “Trade War: an interlude in China’s rise to surpass the US” was one widely read online analysis of what the trade war was really about. It distinguished itself from two kinds of “extreme voices”. On the left, Maoists were calling for China to go back to autarky, a state of non-trading economic self-sufficiency, while on the right, people were advocating for deep concessions that would surrender much of China’s industrial and technological agenda. SN’s views were essentially realistic nationalist, conceding that China was not ready to take on the US at this very moment but firmly believing in the inevitability of national rejuvenation through the conquering of technological commanding heights in multiple key industries.
The history of “online statecraft” by Chinese netizens dates to the dawn of China’s Internet age, as early users of chatrooms and BBS forums heatedly debated China’s geopolitical strategies and military posture. The perceived futility of such online discussions in a country with very limited political participation has been a subject of ridicule, as manifested in a popular online joke about a “basement-dwelling patriotic youth“, who preoccupies himself with questions of national security but can’t even guarantee his own personal safety against the intrusions of the state.
Different from the brand of juvenile statecraft that resembles an online projection of masculinity, the emerging development bloggers build their profiles to exude maturity and credibility. SN’s Zhihu page (Chinese equivalent of Quora) describes himself as a “middle class person moving bricks in Shenzhen” (“moving bricks” is a humorous online reference to making money). His Weibo account carries a tag line that says “re-recognizing our own country.” Although his true identity remains unknown, many believe that he works with supply chains in Shenzhen, giving him first-hand insights about the frontier of Chinese technological advancements. A Zhihu user tried to paint an imagined profile of him: “around 40 years old, grew up in a modest family, graduated from a top Chinese university, works at a major manufacturing company and earns 1 million RMB a year.” Some of SN’s peer bloggers are more upfront about their real-life identity. A group of Weibo accounts which frequently interact with and promote SN’s posts, self-identify as the Society of Wind and Cloud (风云学会), which is supposed to be associated with the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). One of the key voices from the group, Chen Jing (陈经), is research director at Asia Vision, a company specialized in Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Beijing Saidong (北京塞冬, hereafter as Saidong), another popular development blogger who has friendly interactions with SN both online and offline, is a Peking University-educated computer scientist who works in the Internet sector.
Their technology/industry background gives them credibility when they write on issues related to China’s growing industrial might or its competition with other countries in developing next generation semi-conductors, even though their topic areas go way beyond their professional domains. Chen Jing, for example, writes extensively on microeconomics, trade, and… football. In 2016 he even published a book called “China’s government-organized economy” that claimed to have discovered the secret of China’s economic miracle: an economic model that is neither market nor planned, but run by multiple levels of the government using market-based approaches. The idea is not entirely new but it shows the appetite of typical development bloggers, who enjoy throwing out grand theories about China’s rise. They sometimes refer to themselves as the “industrial party”(工业党), people who firmly believe in a country’s industrial might as its passport to success.
The “industrial party” bloggers share a lexicon of terms such as “per capita GDP”, “demographics”, “supply chains” and “national fortune”, which reflects a tendency to think in aggregates and a competitive arena-shaped world view. Their interest in (obsession with) nations, their rise and fall, prosperity and poverty, fill their Weibo/WeChat pages with lengthy, data-heavy accounts of national competition and dominance. Popular posts written by SN in the past year include titles like “The competitiveness of China’s low-end industries“, “China’s development and the East Asian hell model“, and more bluntly, “Challenging white superiority: the competition a thousand miles away“. Collectively they depict a picture of a merciless ladder called “development” on which nations laboriously climb. At the top of the ladder sit countries with the highest per capita GDP, enjoying comfortable privileges, while other lower income countries fight to occupy favorable positions underneath. “Overall, the white world, Europe+North America+Australia/New Zealand+Israel, still makes up the top echelon of nations,” writes SN in a post responding to an IMF data release, “when per capita GDP goes above 40,000USD, only very few non-white nations can enter that area… Japan and a few ethnic Chinese economies, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore managed to achieve that. We should have confidence in ourselves.”
The racial message is even more explicit in his wildly popular post on how China could break from the East Asian model. A sense of injustice oozes from the text when he observed how, in the past two decades, the 20 or so countries that surpassed Japan in per capita GDP were mainly European. “The life of Europeans is really laid back, while East Asians, whose intelligence and hardwork are universally recognized, have to endure intensive, hellish work hours.” He continued, “there must be a problem when a lazy people’s economic performance goes beyond a hardworking people’s.”
The problem, as SN saw it, was an “invisible hand that pinned East Asian economies on a few narrow and fiercely competitive industrial tracks”. Most of them lack vast agricultural lands or natural resources that support lucrative businesses such as agrochemicals or energy extraction, sectors dominated by Americans and Europeans. More importantly, he asserted that military shackles placed by the United States on East Asian states, particularly Japan and South Korea, suppressed their technological potential, as military-to-civilian transfer is a major pathway of technological innovation. He also maintained that Western capital had been extracting disproportionally high returns from investments in premium East Asian companies such as Samsung, exploiting their “capital superiority.” Those restrictions and suppressions limited East Asian states to a small number of industries such as semiconductors, forcing people in those countries to compete fiercely for a finite number of middle-class jobs generated by those sectors. China, free from the above constraints, could be the only East Asian nation with the potential to redefine an East Asian developed economy, he declared.
If this sounds alarmingly like a (milder) version of Japan’s complaint about a suffocating “Anglo-Saxon encirclement” prior to World War II, fellow bloggers only reinforce the impression by repeatedly invoking the imagery of shrinking “development space” for China. Only in this case, the “space” is not so much the physical territory that pre-war Japan was paranoid about, but rather the remaining seat at the table of developed economies in a game of musical chairs. The sheer size of China’s population makes some wonder how the current global order can accommodate another billion people to join the high-income club. “It took a world-class conglomerate like Samsung to pull 50 million of South Koreans into developed status. China has a population 28 times larger. How could the world absorb another 28 Samsungs?” wrote Weibo user Qingpuluo the day after Trump declared a trade war on China, using very rough mathematics. He believed that China would not reach developed status within the existing global framework by simply “trading with developed economies.” It needs new space.
This is also a theme that SN often explores, although his views are colored by a more ideological tinge. Again using back-of-the-envelope calculations, he asserted in one of his posts that 1.4 billion newcomers to the industrialized club would “completely change the face of “developed economies”, which currently cover just 800-900 million people. Racially speaking, Asians would replace Caucasians as the majority. Politically speaking, the West’s control over the world would be much diminished as China becomes the first developed Asian power that’s not subject to Western military control. Culturally speaking, the “cultural composition” of what it means to be “developed economies” would fundamentally change with China’s entry. He insisted that the white-majority developed world wouldn’t tolerate such tectonic shifts and would be prepared to stave off China’s rise.
In keeping with the industrial party’s manufacture-centric world view, some bloggers looked at the issue through a “global value chain” framework. Citing a recent report in Japanese media, Machinery & Engineering Strategy (机工战略), an industry voice represented on Chinese social media, observed how US companies took in as much as 40% of total global corporate profits (of 18,000 publicly listed companies from 100 countries). Another blogger distilled the phenomenon into a globalization pyramid made up of 3 camps of countries: at the top are technology and capital providers, in the middle are labor providers and at the bottom are natural resource providers. China’s struggle to move from camp 2 to camp 1 and grab a bigger share from the highest tier of the value chain is considered a major uphill battle that the country has to fight. Saidong has found a real-life illustration of the battle in the global value chain of electronics, where China has evolved from an assembler to a major parts supplier and brand owner, chipping away, bit by bit, the economic cake from Apple, Samsung, and Japanese/Taiwanese manufacturers. “The extensive electronics value chain creates high-end R&D jobs, mid-level trade and logistics opportunities and low-end assembly line employments that can accommodate a huge and diverse workforce,” he argued, “it’s a godsent for any developing economy.”
The idea of “development space” shapes the thinking of development bloggers when they consider major strategic topics such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To be clear, unlike the way it is scrutinized and debated in the West and in recipient countries, the BRI is barely an issue on Chinese social media, likely due to its lack of connection with the day-to-day experience of ordinary Chinese netizens. One notable exception is the “industrial party”. Deeply concerned about China’s future position in the world, these bloggers quite often engage in intellectual exercises about China’s adventures overseas and what they mean for the country.
In a recent long post for the Society of Wind and Cloud, Saidong did an extensive analysis of Africa’s future demographic changes and their implications for China. With multiple graphs, he highlighted the pyramid-shaped population structure of today’s Africa and marveled at how it resembled that of India 40 years ago. Based on a few bold assumptions, he calculated in a quick-and-dirty fashion, that Africa’s total population would reach 2.5 billion in 30 years while its GDP per capita would enter the 3000-4000 USD terrain. “We will witness the emergence of an Africa that’s 2.5-4 times the economic size of today’s India”, he predicted. By then, the continent would have produced a group of mega-population countries. Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt would all boast populations over 200 million. As he saw it, in 2050, these countries would still be relatively poor and not fully industrialized. Yet their vast internal markets would make ideal destinations for Chinese industrial products, infrastructure construction capacities (and overcapacities), and Internet services. “Africa, with its size and potential, represents a new market that a late comer like China can more easily access,” Saidong argued, apparently alluding to the resistance China may face when it enters existing markets with established players. At the end of the article he reminded his readers that in the 21st century, China’s “national fortune” would be decided by how it approaches the “6 billion people in African and Asian developing countries.”
When they apply such a world view inward to scrutinize China’s domestic developments, the development bloggers constitute a formidable force on the Chinese Internet, challenging some of the Communist Party’s most important policy agendas. Just as they are sensitive to demographic changes in other developing countries, they are keenly aware of China’s rapidly aging population and are some of the most vocal online critics of family planning policies. The perception of growing populations as a source of national strength and growth potential shapes their attitude toward the one-child policy. In a widely circulated Weibo post, SN took on China’s population control and real estate market at once. “Years of propaganda in our country treat population purely as a burden,” he wrote, “but a large and growing population can actually bring lots of benefits.” These benefits, in his mind, include a great number of entrepreneurial opportunities and the job creation ensued, cheap labor and service that propel new business models, and higher returns from property booms kept afloat by the continued urbanization process. Because of the depth of China’s domestic market, it has the guts to confront the United States without the fear of “economic collapses experienced by Turkey or Iran”.
In the same vein, development bloggers are perpetually worried about China slipping into the same demographic predicament of its neighbors, Japan and South Korea. The abject lives of Japanese retirees and the country’s looming pension crisis are constant reminders of what China’s own fate may look like down the road. At the beginning of 2018, confronted by China’s newly released birth statistics of 2017, Saidong warned that in 5-10 years China’s demographic atrophy would be as severe as, if not direr than Japan’s, thanks to 30 years of arbitrary acceleration of a natural process of lowering birth rates and other driving forces of an aging society.
In addition to their intellectual propensities on the population question, their own status as members of an upper-middle class rooted in China’s booming high-tech sectors seems to have made them advocates for certain middle-class-centric policies, all of them centered around child-rearing. The underlying message appears to be that, since high-tech manufacturing is the pillar of China’s next industrial revolution, people employed by such sectors need to be well taken care of by the state for them to concentrate on their excellent work. For instance, reforms in China’s pre-school system and primary education in recent years that tilt heavily towards burden-shedding for kids meet with heavy criticism from this group. Letting children off school at 3pm instead of 5 or 6 creates extra work for parents who need to find ways to fill those hours for which schools no longer bear responsibility. It also creates a massive extra-curricular education market that exploits parents who fear that their kids are not being given sufficient tutoring to prepare them for fierce future higher education competitions. The group also considers rising property prices in Chinese cities a major sore point for this social class and a drag on demographic improvements. Not only is living space being squeezed due to ever higher real estate prices, making it difficult to raise more kids under one roof, but also marriage and child bearing ages are being pushed back as young people have to work longer before accumulating enough capital to form families, if they do so at all.
Complaints like these, and the resonance they generate, tend to produce response from the likes of Global Times’ Hu Xijin. But as Hu himself reminded SN in his piece, the distribution of wealth in today’s Chinese society had made readjustments around issues like property price particularly challenging. While a city’s new comers may look for cheaper paths to property ownership, the city’s propertied class may, in contrast, hope for even higher real estate values for themselves. Measures favoring one side of the equation may stir discontent in the other.
Hu’s response highlighted the social class signature of SN’s brand of development blogging on which its critics often focus. Some of the more visible detractors claimed that, constrained by the narrow interest of their social class, policy prescriptions offered by SN and his peers are biased and could harm the nation as a whole. Maqianzu, a blogger associated with the left-leaning Guancha.cn, has argued that measures to lighten the burden on urban middle class, as SN advocates, would undermine overall social mobility. High property prices in big cities, as he sees it, are a way to continue funding infrastructure expansions in underdeveloped parts of the country and they will provide upward movement channels for the poor. He also has dismissed SN’s complaint about overburdened middle class parents, claiming that ultra-competitiveness in basic education is a result of more qualified students entering the system, another sign of positive, upward mobility in the society. “China has no hope if its middle class is allowed to have a laidback lifestyle,” he wrote provocatively. Instead, the country’s long-term prosperity depends on an over-worked mortgage-bearing middle class that’s constantly kept on their toes. For Maqianzu, the idea that the offspring of today’s middle-class are entitled to effortlessly inherit the social status of their parents is borderline reactionary.
More scathing criticism condemns SN’s writing as nothing more than a kind of “development porn”, using selective, misleading materials to depict an overly rosy picture of China’s economic prospects and industrial prowess, stirring up cheap nationalistic sentiments as its online predecessor, “military porn” often did.
Even if it is just another type of intellectual opium that the Chinese Internet routinely produces, if “people up there” are really paying attention to what the SNs are blogging about these days, they may find it reassuring that a not so small segment on social media is fully supportive of the leadership’s push to bring Chinese manufacturing to the next level against a strong trade headwind. They may be alerted by the intensity of frustration this group of people feel about the Party’s track record in managing the country’s population, education and property market. They may also be encouraged to find a reliable cyberspace ally more powerful in many ways than the official propaganda machinery in its ability to coalesce the hardworking middle class around an assertive agenda of Made in China 2025, Belt & Road Initiative and geopolitical adventures that reclaim China’s development space in the world.
As China celebrates 40 years of reform and opening up, the BRI needs to find its own place in and beyond Deng Xiaoping’s legacy
On December 18, 1978, the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party began its four-day deliberation at the Jingxi Hotel in Beijing. These were the coldest days of a year. But Chinese history books often associate the meeting with the image of thawing ice. It marked the official launch of a grand transformation of China that has since been known as “Reform and Opening Up.”
The 40th anniversary of the historic event dominated the political and media agenda of last month. And it is worth noting how the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was presented against the backdrop of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy.
At a high-profile gathering commemorating the anniversary on December 18, President Xi Jinping referred to the 1978 moment as a “great awakening of the Chinese Communist Party”. Whether or not the Party was asleep before that is debatable, but the significance of the historic watershed is unquestionable. In 1978, China waved goodbye to three decades of Maoist fanaticism and embraced a more pragmatic, common-sensical path toward development. The ideological restrictions on individuals, businesses and society were gradually loosened. The countryside quickly recovered from the shackles of collectivization. The private sector emerged and prospered. Foreign capital flowed in. And the result was a booming economy that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and enabled the Party to declare that a “national rejuvenation” was right around the corner.
The BRI naturally found its place in Xi Jinping’s speech that walked the audience through that journey again. It was presented as a logical extension to the decision to open up the country to the outside world, first through a few coastal special economic zones, then along the rivers that radiate inland. As China integrates into the global market, it’s time to go beyond its own borders and begin doing business around the globe. “We moved from letting in to going out,” as President Xi put it.
The idea of the Belt and Road as “Reform and Opening Up phase II” is not entirely new. Chinese experts had been making the argument ahead of the anniversary that BRI inherited and expanded the essence of Opening Up. In a narrow sense, one of the stated strategic objectives of BRI is to link China’s landlocked provinces to west-bound trade routes all the way to Europe through Central Asia. In a broader sense, BRI is seen as staying true to the reform’s key message of “integration”, fitting China into existing global institutions and frameworks such as the WTO.
At this point in history, emphasizing the continuity between BRI and the Opening Up would probably help remove some sharp edges of President Xi’s signature initiative in the eyes of external observers. But despite the insistence that BRI is the child of reform, it is undeniable that the initiative is not without tensions with Deng Xiaoping’s legacy. Its (perceived) geopolitical ambitions and challenge to existing international institutions and norms can be at odds with Deng’s teaching of “hide your capabilities and bide your time”. The dominating role played by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the initiative can also be read as a reversal of policies encouraging and nurturing the private sector.
Those tensions were tacitly touched upon in an earlier analysis by Chinese Academy of Social Science scholar Xue Li titled “BRI and the New Reform and Opening”. Xue argues that the BRI’s global impact is probably going to be larger than that of Reform and Opening Up. It continues on the path of opening the Chinese market (largely facing developed economies) but moves on to “unlocking others” (mostly developing economies). According to Xue, this is a departure from China’s traditional philosophy of “winning over others by perfecting one’s own virtues”(远人不服则修文德以来之). Instead, the new administration decides to go all the way to the distant “others” and help them with social and economic development.
He notes that China does not have the power/right to set development strategies for other countries and cannot force them into the BRI. The initiative is a “development strategy” for China, but can only be a “cooperation proposal” for the outside world. This leads to the elevation of “neighborhood diplomacy” in terms of strategic importance, another departure from reform-era diplomatic priorities that “put major power diplomacy, especially with the United States, at the absolute center.” The pivot towards neighboring developing countries, Xue contends, is a clear trend since 2016 and a response to the perceived shrinking/stagnating space for furthering diplomatic relations with more developed countries. His article also implies that China is no longer content with simply accepting the global frameworks and is making efforts to fix some of their flaws through negotiations rather than confrontations.
The analysis underscores the extent to which BRI needs to maintain a linkage to the 1978 legacy while distinguishing itself as an update and reinvention. And that need is not all externally focused (i.e. to placate Western critics). Internally, the public may also need some convincing that with a full-throttled push for the BRI, they are still on the Reform and Opening Up bus that they bought tickets for. One Weibo post captures the difficulty for the Chinese public to appreciate why they should be concerned with the development of, say, Africa or India. “40 years ago, our own opening up helped developed economies find an outlet for their capital and enterprises that their internal markets and free trade agreements within the OECD bloc could not provide.” Now, the Weibo commentator argued, it’s China’s turn to wanting that solution for its internal difficulties: employment, environment, etc, and the public should come on board with that logic in mind.
With all the talks of fixing the global order and “neighborhood diplomacy”, the celebration of the 40th anniversary was still largely a tribute to the past. One item of the program was the awarding of Reform Friendship Medals to 10 foreigners who had made distinguished contributions to Reform and Opening Up. They were American, Japanese, German, British, Swiss, Spanish, French and Singaporean. No one from the developing world received that recognition. It would be interesting to see if in 2028, when Reform and Opening Up policy turns 50, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans or Kenyans would be honored in the same manner for assisting China in its renewed quest for national glory.
CIDCA’s proposed Measures open a new window into Chinese foreign aid, but stakeholders should manage their expectations
by Ma Tianjie and Zhang Jingjing
China’s newly established foreign aid agency (China International Development Cooperation Agency, CIDCA) recently released draft Measures for the Administration of Foreign Aid to solicit public comments. This move understandably attracts international attention as observers are eager to learn how the new agency would operate, and, more importantly, how any external stakeholders (recipient countries, contractors, civil society, etc.) may participate in and influence the aid process.
Expectations are high. Chinese foreign aid has long been known for its opaqueness. For years, external researchers and observers had to rely on infrequent white papers to get a glimpse of the scope of the country’s aid program. Piecing together fragmented information on Chinese aid to render a more complete picture has become an effort that entire research programs undertake. With the release of the new draft rules, hopes are that Chinese foreign aid may become more transparent and accessible.
But before people get too excited about the opportunity to reshape Chinese foreign aid, it is important to clearly understand what the draft measures can achieve and their limitations.
What the draft Measures do
As a new agency born out of the ministerial reshuffle earlier this year, the new Measures define CIDCA’s core business: the process of designing, implementing and reviewing foreign aid projects.
It is worth noting that even though CIDCA is new, the draft Measures are not. Before CIDCA became China’s coordinating government body for foreign aid, the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) was the main aid distributor, while multiple other agencies shared bits and pieces of foreign aid responsibilities. The draft Measures are built on an earlier MOFCOM version, which was announced and went into effect in 2014, with new elements reflecting the agency’s expanded mandate.
Beyond taking over the supervision of four types of foreign aid projects previously overseen by MOFCOM (complete projects, material donation projects, technical assistance projects and capacity building projects), CIDCA also assumes an important strategic planning role, drawing up foreign aid strategies and plans at the national level. Plus, the multiple streams of aid-related finance, including grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans, will all be subject to CIDCA’s overall budgetary oversight. In the case of South-South cooperation funds jointly set up by CIDCA and other governmental departments, the agency will directly run and distribute those funds.
The draft Measures distills CIDCA’s mandate into a set of concrete policy items that will be created along the process of the agency’s fulfillment of its responsibilities. These include:
A top-level foreign aid strategy (unclear frequency, possibly approved by State Council)
A long-term to mid-term policy plan (unclear frequency, possibly approved by State Council)
Country-by-country aid policies
An annual foreign aid plan (possibly approved by State Council)
A foreign aid management system
Foreign aid international cooperation system
An annual foreign aid budget
Measures to manage the initiation and approval of aid projects
A project evaluation system
A credit rating system for project implementers
Foreign aid statistics collection
Many details are missing from the draft Measures, and some items, such as the process of initiating and approving actual foreign aid projects, require their own stand-alone measures to be fully hashed out. But still, a skeleton of the policy framework that will govern Chinese foreign aid in the future is visible from the draft.
Understanding the constraints of the draft Measures
Promising as they are, the draft Measures have a few built-in limitations that would put clear boundaries around ways external stakeholders may interact with Chinese foreign aid.
The first and foremost limitation lies in its relatively low legal force according to the Legislation Law. The draft Measures rank as a “departmental rule” issued by a ministry/agency under the State Council. Within the hierarchy of the Chinese legal system, laws passed by the National People’s Congress are bestowed with the highest legal authority. Beneath them are regulations created by the State Council (the Cabinet). While rules promulgated by government departments and local provincial people’s councils are lower on the legal ladder.
In principle, lower-level regulations and rules cannot go beyond what higher-level laws authorize them to do. In the case of CIDCA’s draft Measures, as a departmental rule, their legal force is circumscribed by a few higher-level laws and regulations, including, but not limited to, China’s Law of Administrative Permission, Law of Administrative Penalty, State Council Open Governmental Information Regulation, and Law of Administrative Reconsideration. The draft Measures are also bound by the agency’s approved mandate and duties set by the State Council.
Those higher-level legal instruments erect a wall around the Measures. For instance, many would like to see more accountability built into the Measures by creating stronger penalties for violating rules set by the Measures. Yet, the Law of Administrative Penalty and related State Council rules set a RMB 30,000 ceiling for fines that government agencies can legally impose, which is adopted by CIDCA in the draft. The cap on fines is supposed to serve as a check against the abuse of administrative power. Nevertheless, RMB 30,000, a limit set by the State Council in 1996, is of questionable deterrent power today. In the same vein, CIDCA can only impose two types of administrative penalties: disciplinary warnings and fines. The agency is also not allowed to use the Measures as a vehicle to create new roles for itself. For example, even though stronger Environmental and Social Impact Assessments of Chinese aid projects could be a desirable development, without a State Council authorization for CIDCA to involve the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in the management of foreign aid projects, the agency won’t be able to take on the role on its own. To overcome some of the intrinsic weaknesses of the draft rule, CIDCA would need to muster enough political support to elevate the draft Measures to a higher level (such as a State Council regulation).
What can be improved
As a draft for comment, the draft Measures, in their current form, definitely have much space for improvement. One area that can be improved is information disclosure. And this is not an unreasonable ask. The State Council’s 2008 Open Governmental Information Regulation (China’s freedom of information act) constitutes the legal basis for demanding greater transparency from government agencies. Article 9 of the Regulation requires government agencies to proactively disclose information that “needs to be widely known and participated by the public.” Arguably, dispensing public resources to assist foreign countries deserves public knowledge and participation. In theory, many policy items listed above should be released publicly to keep the society informed of where foreign aid is going. Yet no disclosure related clause currently exists in the draft Measures.
The draft Measures by itself can’t impose criminal liabilities, but it indicates that anyone who violates Chinese Criminal Law and other laws during the licensing and implementation of foreign aid projects may be subject to criminal liabilities. Unfortunately the draft Measures doesn’t echo the second paragraph in article 164 of the Criminal Law, which states, “Whoever gives any property or benefit to a functionary of a foreign country or an official of an international public organization for any improper commercial benefit shall be punished according to the provision of the preceding paragraph.” This provision was added to China’s Criminal Law after China signed and ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption in 2005, but it has never been used to prosecute Chinese persons and legal persons for their foreign briberies. Some Chinese companies, including those who implemented or are implementing foreign aid projects, have been criticized for briberies in Africa and Latin America.
The draft Measures also lack an explicit grievance mechanism for external stakeholders, particularly those affected by Chinese foreign aid projects, to report wrongdoings and submit complaints. This appears to be a backtrack from its predecessor. MOFCOM’s 2014 measures at least included one clause that allows “any individual or entity” to report to the ministry when they find Chinese implementers in non-compliance. Besides pressing CIDCA to reintroduce such a mechanism into the rule, one may also find openings in Chinese administrative laws to challenge certain agency decisions. In theory, “administrative licensing” can be questioned on the basis of the Administrative Reconsideration Law, which grants citizens and organizations the right to plea for reconsideration of permissions that violate their interest. The draft Measures contain a few approval/licensing components. For example, approval of foreign aid projects in the draft Measures is an “administrative licensing” by nature. Whether third parties can trigger a reconsideration petition for such approvals on grounds of affected interest is subject to legal interpretation. But in the past, Chinese civil society groups have successfully used the legal tool to overturn government decisions, such as the greenlighting of problematic Environmental Impact Assessments. It will be interesting to see if such clauses can be activated to bring some accountabilities to Chinese foreign aid in the future.
(Write to Panda Paw Dragon Claw by clicking the “Contact” link at the top of our site if you have any question about the draft Measures.)
Zhang Jingjing is a Chinese lawyer and Lecturer in Law at the Transnational Environmental Accountability Project, University of Maryland School of Law
As US-China tension increases over the BRI, third-party actors find themselves caught in the crossfire.
If a butterfly in Nairobi flaps its wings, would it set off a tornado in Beijing?
Last month, what happened in the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, certainly would alarm some policy makers in Beijing. On November 20, news broke that UNEP’s Director Erik Solheim resigned after a major scandal that threatened to undermine the agency’s legitimacy as the world’s leading multilateral environmental body. Most of the allegations against Solheim were not China related. An internal UN audit revealed his abnormally high air travel expenses (half a million US dollars in less than two years) and breaching of UN rules (allowing some staff members to work from Europe when they need to be based in Kenya). But the Guardian report also highlighted a side complaint. The United States, and some UNEP employees, had raised questions about his perceived coziness with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
As recently as Nov 5, Solheim was in Beijing celebrating achievements of the International Coalition for Green Development on the Belt and Road. “China could share its green development experience with other countries through dialogue,” he said, and envisioned three roles for the Coalition: promoting green finance, setting up basic principles and rules for BRI, and serving as third party facilitators for green development in host countries. Ironically, it turned out that the Coalition was at the center of American misgiving. According to the disclosed list of questions posed by the Permanent Mission of the US to the UN in April this year, the US questioned the relationship between the agency and the Coalition, especially the justification for “an organization under a universal governance model devoting its resources to promote a plan exclusive to an individual (country).”
The episode underscores the increasingly divisive international space wherein third-party actors need to navigate to position themselves properly vis-à-vis the BRI. The heightened tension between the US and China over the infrastructure program makes the balancing act especially challenging. During Solheim’s brief tenure at the agency, UNEP entered a partnership with China’s environment ministry to promote “Green BRI” and has helped soften the initiative’s international image. That’s probably why upon his disgraced departure, the ministry’s spokesperson had only nice words to say about him: “Mr. Solheim has paid much attention to and worked hard on south-south environmental collaboration and environmental protection in developing countries.”
If the exchange around UNEP was just a skirmish (Solheim’s oust was largely self-inflicted), what happened at the Papua New Guinea APEC summit was almost an open confrontation. Immediately after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s address to the APEC CEO Summit promoting the BRI as “an open platform for cooperation”, US Vice President Mike Pence told the same audience that countries “should not accept foreign debt that could compromise their sovereignty.” He even went on and dubbed the BRI a “constricting belt and one-way road.”
For decades, the West has offered financing to developing countries on conditions of trade liberalization and market reform. For Pence to remind countries of the need to preserve their sovereignty, therefore, is a bit disingenuous. Nonetheless, the “debt trap” narrative sticks. Almost at the same time as Pence was warning against the BRI, the newly elected President of the Maldives, in his inaugural speech, blamed Chinese loans for his country’s “precarious” financial situation and signaled distancing from a relationship that his predecessor had cultivated.
APEC quickly became another victim of the US-China animosity. The annual Summit on Nov 18 failed to produce a joint communiqué, a disappointing departure from its 20-year tradition, due to US-China disagreement over languages about global trade reforms. A narrative quickly developed around how China sabotaged the whole thing, not just with its insistence on policy arguments, but also with its “aggressive, bullying, paranoid and weird” behavior at the event. In contrast, the Trump administration’s own position of dismantling existing global economic mechanisms such as the WTO and its possible contribution to the deadlock did not receive as much scrutiny.
Chinese response to the criticism was to reiterate its position that Asia-Pacific development is not to be a zero-sum game and a binary “win/lose” choice, and that disputes should be resolved under “mutually agreed rules”. Researchers and think tank specialists wrote articles on Chinese platforms trying to refute the “debt trap” accusation, using data from the IMF and CIA to argue that Chinese loans constitute minor portions of the debt burden of countries such as the Maldives and should not be scapegoated for their economic difficulties.
Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing sets the two countries on a path to collaborate along the Belt and Road
The key word of the past month was Japan.
On Oct 25, Beijing residents witnessed the rare scene of Chinese and Japanese national flags waving side by side near Tiananmen Square. And the public reaction was mixed. The two countries had been on pretty bad terms since the beginning of the 21st century, with sovereignty disputes over islands in the East China Sea and Japanese politicians’ visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines WWII war criminals, continuously overshadowing bilateral relations.
2018 saw the rapid thawing of a once icy relationship thanks to President Trump’s increasingly belligerent trade position against both China and Japan. The US has threated auto tariffs against Japan and has slapped punitive tariffs on Chinese goods worth hundreds of billions of dollars. In the face of a United States no longer committed to a global economic agenda that has largely benefitted manufacturing powerhouses like China and Japan, the two East Asia neighbors find it desirable to put their differences aside, at least for now.
The visit turned out to be quite consequential from a Belt and Road perspective. During his visit, Abe would put an end to four decades of Japanese foreign aid to China and start a new phase of China-Japan partnership along the Belt and Road.
To declare an end to Japanese Official Development Aid (ODA) during a friendly visit is a somewhat awkward task.
Since 1979, after relationship normalized between the two countries, Japan has been a major donor and financier of China’s industrialization and modernization, in the forms of grants, concessional loans and technical assistance. According to a WeChat post detailing the history of Japanese ODA to China, the projects benefited from Japanese assistance include infrastructure projects such as the Beijing-Qinghuangdao railway, telephone networks in Shanghai and Guangzhou, and manufacturing projects such as fertilizer factories in six provinces. Total Japanese ODA to China amounts to 20 billion USD by the end of 2007, which wound down significantly after that point, when China surpassed Japan as world’s second largest economy.
Chinese reaction to Japanese ODA is not entirely of gratitude. Debates are still ongoing as to whether the assistance should be seen as a form of reparation for Japan’s WWII atrocities. China officially waived Japan’s WWII reparations (calculated at 120 billion USD) in 1972 as a generous gesture, when the two countries were negotiating reestablishing diplomatic relations. Some Japanese scholars and officials privately called its ODA a “semi-reparation” even though the Japanese government never acknowledges it.
Motivation aside, Japan’s ODA to China did play a unique role in China’s modernization beyond building up railroads and factories. It showed China how development assistance could be done to advance a country’s own economic agenda. Prof Debra Brautigam’s book about Chinese involvement in Africa documents how Japan introduced Chinese policy makers to the idea of “resource-backed concessional loans”, a formula that China would deploy competently later on in Africa and Latin America. Throughout the 1980s, Japan built infrastructure in China to unlock its coveted coal and oil resources, the sales of which would service the loans. The model opened China to the possibilities of “win-win” partnerships that would become a backbone of its own overseas development model in other countries.
In many ways Japan has been a modern-day teacher to China, a reversal of roles from pre-industrial eras when the Japanese culture absorbed and borrowed insatiably from its neighbor to the West. And now the teacher/student relationship is about to change again. In a press conference in Beijing, Abe declared that Japanese ODA has “fulfilled its historical mission,” and that from now on the two countries would become partners in driving global economic growth.
That partnership may take a very specific form. Before Abe’s visit, there were already expectations in the Chinese media that project-level collaborations in the Mekong region countries, including joint participation in Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) program, would be on the table during the Prime Minister’s visit. The official term for that cooperation is “Third Party Market Cooperation,” a slightly more neutral name for what Chinese media often bluntly call “participation in the Belt and Road Initiative”. The idea is promoted partly to demonstrate that BRI is open for all countries and deflect the criticism that it is to exclusively benefit Chinese business interests. In state media coverage of the China-Japan Forum on Third Party Market Cooperation, a few cases of Chinese and Japanese business cooperation in a third country were listed, including a petrochemical project in Kazakhstan involving Sinopec and Marubeni and an offshore wind energy project in Germany jointly developed by CITIC and Itochu.
As expected, Thailand “emerged as a major beneficiary” of the Forum, according to South China Morning Post, with multiple Thai-focused deals (smart city development, highspeed rail, etc.) included in the China-Japan agreement. The Forum also produced an agreement between the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and China Development Bank (CDB) to provide joint loans to infrastructure projects overseas.
Japan has been cultivating the Southeast Asia market for years, with its foreign aid, investments and business interests deeply engrained in many ASEAN countries. This blog has just highlighted, for instance, its deep involvement in Indonesia’s energy planning. As a relatively new comer, China is also eyeing the region as a key part of the Maritime Silk Road. Weeks before Abe’s visit to Beijing, the Chinese media watched with suspicion his summit with five Mekong region leaders, viewing Tokyo’s move to establish an “open and free Indo-Pacific region” a defensive posture against China’s presence. Quoting Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Guancha.cn, a Chinese nationalist news site, reminded Japan that Mekong region countries “would rather see Sino-Japan collaboration” that gives profits to each country.
With Abe’s successful China trip, it appears that collaboration will be the theme in the next chapter of the two sides’ complicated relationship.
China is shifting away from coal domestically but building many coal power plants overseas, why?
China’s involvement in building coal power projects in other countries has been the subject of much criticism. The increasing urgency to address climate change, as highlighted by the recent special report published by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), casts such involvement under serious scrutiny. The IPCC report bluntly states that in order to keep global temperature rises close to the 1.5 degree threshold that scientists deem relatively safe, countries should basically cease using coal as energy for electricity by 2040. Global temperatures are already 1 degree higher than pre-industrialization levels, leaving humanity with very little remaining “carbon budget” to spend if it is serious about keeping climate change under control. As one of the most carbon intensive way to generate electricity, coal-fired power plants (CFPP) understandably rank high in the phase-out list.
To a large extent, Chinese actions in this area would determine the fate of the “black gold” and the global fight against climate change, due to the size of its economy which still relies primarily on coal for electricity. In comparison, coal only accounts for 17.8% of the US’s primary energy source. Alarmingly, as China shifts away from coal domestically, for air quality and economic structure considerations, it appears to be building coal power projects elsewhere in the world that will likely negate part of the decarbonization happening inside China while exporting pollution.
Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the Council for Foreign Relations, encapsulates the criticism in her 2017 article on Politico, calling out China’s overseas CFPP involvement as “ugly” and “not in keeping with the spirit of (the Paris Climate) Agreement.”
At a recent workshop that I attended in Jakarta, co-organized by the Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute and Indonesian think thank IESR, a local CNN correspondent asked the panelists the same question: Does China’s building of CFPPs in Indonesia constitute a “double standard”?
This is a question that is likely going to be asked more in the future, as the urgency of climate change becomes ever more salient and China’s overseas involvement continues to deepen. The Jakarta workshop, which convened stakeholders from both Indonesia and China, provided an opportunity to do just that, taking a closer look at an issue ripe with contradictions. Discussions at the workshop suggest that there are at least three lenses through which the issue can be viewed: recipient country agency, multi-stakeholder playing field, and Chinese industrial policy.
The role (& responsibility) of recipient countries
Responding to the question from the CNN journalist, Professor Yuan Jiahai from the North China University of Electric Power, who was present at the event, argued that it was largely an outcome of recipient country demand and market competition: Indonesia’s power sector is in need of CFPPs and Chinese companies are coming in to capture the market.
According to the Indonesian officials, electrification remains a priority of Indonesia, the 4th most populous country in the world, of over 18,000 islands, where access to safe and affordable electricity in many areas is still all but unavailable. At the same time, on the supply side, the government is at pains to diversify its energy sources, ever since Indonesia became a net oil importer for the first time in 2004. Within a short span of 8 years (from 2009 to 2016), electricity generation from oil fell from 25% in the general mix to below 7%. while coal rose from 39% to 55%. These changes have been led by twosuccesstive administrations (President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Joko Widodo) who spearheaded the so called “Crash Programs” to accelerate installation of power capacities to ease the country’s chronic electricity crunch.
However, it has not been all smooth sailing. President Yudhoyono’s first Crash Program was known for its poor execution. Announced in 2004, it aimed to add 10,000MW of new capacity by 2009. Instead completion was severely delayed until 2014, and the resulting power plants that were built were of such low quality that they could not perform at their stated capacity.
President Joko Widodo’s new program, created in 2014, aims to add another 35,000MW to the grid by 2019, a goal that many consider unrealistic.
And it is here that China’s involvement dovetails, as Chinese companies pocketed the majority of projects under President Yudhoyono’s initial program. As opposed to outright ownership of the projects, the Chinese companies were mainly involved in design and construction through EPC contracts (Engineering, Procurement and Construct), which meant that they did not operate, maintain, nor own the power plants that they built. Apart from their engineering and construction prowess, favourable financing support for Chinese company involvement may have also played a key role for their winning of this job.
As a result of these developments in Indonesia’s Crash Program, Chinese companies, and by extension, China, came to occupy a primary role in Indonesia’s energy system. Indonesian media was rife with open speculation that favoritism toward China was part of why so many projects were granted to Chinese companies, pointing to the fact that project tender process had deadline submission requirements only China’s companies could meet. The speculations weren’t entirely groundless. Recently, Indonesia’s national power company (PLN) is embroiled in corruption scandals related to its coal power project.
More guests at the dinner party
It is worth noting, however, that China has not been the only outside player eyeing the Indonesian coal power cake. Japan is a key player and has been exerting its influence.
At the workshop that I attended, the below chart kept appearing in presentations from Indonesia officials. It illustrated Japan’s roadmap to assist Indonesia in building its “clean coal” power fleet through to 2025. Created by the Japan International Development Agency (JICA) as part of its development assistance to Indonesia, JICA stated that “the introduction of Japan’s CCT（Clean Coal Technology), which represents the highly efficient technology for coal-fired power plants, will help curb demand for coal and greenhouse gas emissions by making it possible to increase the output of power generation without increasing the use of the resource.” In the planning for the study, JICA also built in a step where the roadmap could be “incorporated into Indonesia’s national power source plan”.
Beyond the controversy of an external country’s involvement in domestic energy developments, Japan’s pushing of “clean coal” has raised the ire of many who believe it be a false solution to climate change. Ironically, JICA created the roadmap in close coordination with Japan’s Climate Change Program Loan to Indonesia, announced in 2008 as Japan’s first climate change-related Official Development Aid (ODA) loan to assist Indonesia in its effort to reduce emissions, strengthen adaptation to climate change and respond to cross-sectoral issues. This practice of marrying the promotion of Japanese coal technology and its climate finance has been controversial and subject to much criticism internationally.
But Japanese officials are unabashed when confronted with the question. As Japanese media reported, promoting Japan’s high efficiency coal power technology as a climate change solution is part of Japanese government’s efforts to “assist Japanese businesses against Chinese rivals for coveted overseas power plant contracts.”
To some extent, Japan’s efforts in Indonesia have paid off nicely. Of the 8 high-efficiency coal power plants that are under construction,at least 3 projects, including the 2 largest (Jawa Tengah- Central Jawa and Jawa-4 – Central Jawa), are being financed by Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) or built by Japanese companies such as J-Power and Itochu. And despite the controversy over the Jawa Tengah project for its land acquisition issues and environmental problems, Japan’s support for it continues, with one Japanese official telling the Nikkei Asian Review, that they wanted to make the Central Java project a showcase that will open the door to more projects.” Recent signs seem to suggest that there might be a rethinking of overseas coal financing from Japanese financial institutions.
Chinese industrial policy
Japan’s rather high-profile and coordinated activities in Indonesia to promote its coal interest provides a point of reference for Chinese efforts in the same arena.
If there is one component of the nebulous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that is relatively well defined, it is its function as an extension of Chinese industrial policy. The need for many Chinese industrial sectors to find new markets outside their home country is a powerful driver for China’s “Going Out” strategy which predates the BRI for more than a decade.
In the specific area of coal power, China, as its neighbor Japan, is keen to see its companies winning lucrative contracts overseas, a need accentuated by a slowing domestic market. According to Prof. Yuan Jiahai, China’s coal power sector is facing a severe overcapacity problem: “failure in power planning” (i.e. not foreseeing slowing electricity demand growth) makes many existing Chinese coal power plants badly under-utilized, spending a good part of the year idling. The situation prompted the Chinese government to apply the brake on new coal power plants, suspending new builds in 15 provinces.
But the Chinese companies that over the years have excelled in building CFPPs need jobs. And the unique bond between Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the state machinery (diplomatic, finance and industrial) makes China particularly well disposed to make concerted efforts to advance the interest of its industries. A 2015 State Council directive on “international industrial capacity sharing” lays out a blueprint for how the government would assist competitive Chinese industries to expand globally. Within its toolbox are instruments such as Chinese policy banks (China Development Bank and the China EXIM Bank) that tie their concessional loans with business deals for Chinese companies; and high-level bilateral government-to-government dialogues that secure “full package” deals for Chinese corporations. Premium Li Keqiang’s “industrial diplomacy” with Kazakhstan is celebrated as the origin of this model.
Power plant construction and operation is listed in the directive as one of the priorities for such state support, as it is a sector through which not just Chinese equipment, but also Chinese services and standards, can be exported. And the model plays out in Indonesia’s power market. Shenhua, one of China’s largest coal industry conglomerates, won the contract to build and run the Java-7 coal-fired power plant in Banten, another high efficiency CFPP listed in the CCT roadmap. The Shenhua-led Chinese consortium managed to beat 36 other competitors in the bid, and attributed the success to its premium clean coal technology and “low-cost, tailor-made financing” based on its strategic partner relation with China Development Bank.
This may give the impression of a formidable, highly efficient industry-policy complex geared up to take over any country’s power market. But in reality, Chinese efforts in promoting the export of its industrial capacities are far from seamlessly coordinated. Government red tapes and lack of service/support are among the many complaints Chinese entrepreneurs make. And in many emerging markets Chinese companies are still required to follow standards set by “Europeans, Japanese or South Koreans.” Chinese actors are barely catching up with experienced players in the arena (such as Japan) that have mastered the art of merging foreign aid, industrial policy and overseas investment into a strategically aligned whole. By and large, Chinese companies still predominantly compete for EPC deals, which is considered low-end and low-value in the global value chain.
Shifting China’s overseas coal involvement
For anyone with an eye to engage and influence China’s overseas energy projects along the Belt and Road, the above should serve as a reminder of the intertwined forces that are collectively shaping the energy landscapes in those developing countries.
To shift the direction of such projects would require pulling multiple strings at the same time: without empowered and enabled host countries that are capable of envisioning their own energy future differently, investing countries alone would find it hard pressed to resist lucrative power deals that are being actively marketed; without a globally coordinated and aligned approach to public financing of fossil fuel projects, one country’s high-minded rejection of a project might simply become another country’s business opportunity; and without a conversation that could engage China’s industrial policy makers, the domestic economic agenda would continue producing strong momentums for Chinese companies to seek CFPP projects overseas, despite warnings from climate scientists.
FOCAC exposed tension between Chinese overseas involvement and domestic public opinion
The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was a highlight of the past month and once again put China’s overseas involvement under domestic spotlight. Held in Beijing from Sep 3-5, the extravagant event brought high-level representatives from 53 African countries to two days of dialogue, deal making and celebration of China-Africa friendship. In his opening speech, President Xi Jinping announced a $60 billion package to finance development in Africa and spelled out the “5 NOs” and “4 CANNOTs” principles (五不四不能) that would lay the foundation for China-Africa relationship in the coming years. The principles mainly served as a re-affirmation of China’s long-standing non-interference, “no-strings attached” aid policy and a warning to third-party forces trying to undermine the relationship.
In many senses the forum delivered what was intended of it. Politically, it confirmed China’s commitment to the continent as a benevolent partner. Economically, it produced a long list of major infrastructure and investment deals between African stakeholders and their Chinese counterparts. And it even paid environmental dividends for the host city by bringing a week of sapphire blue sky (dubbed “FOCAC blue” by the city’s residents) which ended as soon as the forum was over.
But the high-profile forum also exposed a chronic tension between China’s overseas engagements and its domestic public opinion, a pitfall that policy makers usually strive to circumvent. As soon as China’s $60 billion pledge to Africa was made public, the Chinese Internet was buzzing with murmurs and whispers of disbelief and sarcasm. Under Weibo posts that featured President Xi Jinping’s speech announcing the renewed pledge, where comments were often censored or outright blocked, netizens reacted with emojis of dismay and disapproval.
“The controversy around aid to Africa is not so much about whether such investments deliver good returns. It’s a way to express domestic frustrations. The Chinese public can be generous if their own lives are comfortable,” said one commentator on Weibo.
FOCAC happened at a tricky time when the Chinese public was anxious over a series of domestic measures on taxation and social insurance that would affect the pockets of millions of Chinese enterprises and individuals. Among those policies rolled out briefly before FOCAC, shifting the collection of pension fund deposits to the tax authority, widely perceived as more stringent in its efforts, was interpreted by the media as the government’s attempt to fill an enlarging national pension hole which would result in a net reduction of many people’s monthly take-home salary. China’s high social benefit charges have been a burden on enterprises hiring large number of employees. For years, corporates try to dodge their share of pension payments by lowering the reported salaries of their employees, while worker are more than happy to pocket more take-home salary that they can dispense on their own terms.
The government’s revenue-grabbing move touched off widespread complaints from the society, and the high-profile $60 billion pledge to Africa (equivalent to almost 400 billion in RMB) understandably received a fair amount of trolling. To some extent this represents the worst nightmare of Chinese policy makers: Chinese financing overseas is pitched directly vis a vis its domestic fiscal policies. For a long time, the Chinese government has been low-key (to the extent of being secretive) when it comes to releasing its foreign aid figures, largely because of concern over domestic criticism. Senior aid workers have openly complained about the public’s hostility towards Chinese aid overseas. The Chinese Political Compass, an online survey that maps Chinese ideological spectrum online, lists the foreign aid question in its questionnaire as one of the 50 issues dividing and polarizing the Chinese Internet.
Experts believe that the Chinese public is misguided. Wang Yiwei, a scholar at Remin University in Beijing and an expert on the BRI, claimed in a Weibo post that majority of China’s pledged financing would require return on investment. It’s not free lunch. And based on China’s track record, returns on Chinese investments in Africa are “unparalleled” by its investments elsewhere. “Chinese are not stupid. They won’t rush to a place if it doesn’t mean economic opportunities for themselves,” Wang proclaimed, “those who spread rumors about Chinese involvement in Africa are trying to create tension between the public and the leadership.”
Wang was mainly referring to the previous round of Chinese pledge made at the 2015 Johannesburg FOCAC, which also amounted to $60 billion. Within that package, only $5 billion was grant money that did not require repayment. The rest was either concessional loans (loans with below-market interest rates), or injection into equity funds that are largely market-based and generally seek (modest) profits. The new $60 billion package announced on Sep 3 is made of $15 billion of grants and no-interest/concessional loans, $20 billion regular loans, $10 billion private investments and another $15 billion dollar injection into special funds.
Information from Africa seems to bear out the claim that China talks more serious business in Africa than people generally perceive. Bright Simons, president of the Ghana-based MPedigree Network, wrote that while China appeared generous with pledges, it was strict with actually unlocking them into real financing. Of the 2015 pledge, only 2/3 (45 billion) had actually come through, most of which “in the form of sovereign-backed, natural resource securitized loans.” Zimbabwe was particularly bad at translating Chinese pledges into actual financing, redeeming just 2.5 billion of Chinese funds from over 33 billion promised over the past two decades. Angola did much better in this regard largely due to its oil reserves that allowed a reliable means to service its loan payments to China.
Weibo commentators who consider themselves endowed with a long term view urge policy makers to disregard public sentiments and stay on course of its African strategy: “You should stick with things that are fundamentally right.”
On the other hand, the Global Times‘s editor in chief Hu Xijin reminds readers that they should equip themselves with a “great power mentality:” “China will not be able to maintain its global stature today if it does not fulfill its obligations as a great power,” he wrote, “the idea that foreign assistance is immoral as long as you still have poverty inside the country represents agrarian era thinking and cannot guide our grand practices today.”
Like it or not, the architects of China’s grand schemes along the Belt and Road would probably have to tango with domestic public opinion for a while.
A Russian environmentalist’s account of the Chinese effort to engage BRI country NGOs for environmental restoration
Among the five pillars of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), “promoting people to people connection” is probably the least well understood, not just because of the intangible nature of such cooperation in general (compared with huge “connectivity” projects such as railroads and ports that are concrete in its literal sense), but also because traditionally China is often seen as lacking the kind of soft power needed to genuinely engage with the “hearts and minds” of the public in other countries.
Recently, Eugene Simonov, a Russian environmentalist and a friend of this blog, had the rare opportunity to participate in the “Belt and Road International Forum on Public Cooperation for Ecological Remediation” held from September 11-14 in Wuwei, Gansu, a drought-stricken province of Western China bordering the Gobi Desert.
The event was jointly organized by the China Green Foundation (CGF), China NGO Network for International Exchanges, and the International Forestry Cooperation Center of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration (FGA), a mixture of governmental and semi-governmental bodies charged with the task to advance “people to people connection” through environmental collaboration.
Compared with more traditional forms of accepting international students and training developing country bureaucrats, the “Green BRI” initiative, if played well, could kill two birds at once: finding an area of “people to people” cooperation that can tap into a rich pool of existing exchanges between Chinese environmental NGOs and their foreign counterparts, while reinforcing China’s “green leadership” image internationally.
As Eugene’s account shows, however, the reality is far from ideal. In many aspects the event appeared well-intentioned, but too orchestrated and somewhat awkward. Genuine engagement with BRI region civil society on environmental sustainability apparently requires Chinese actors to change their modus operanti. And the rare occasion also gives BRI country NGOs a chance to learn how to approach the Green BRI initiative.
“So I had to represent Putin.”
Panda Paw Dragon Claw(PPDC): So how did you end up at this extravagant Green BRI event in Gansu?
Eugene Simonov (ES): Foreign participants like me were invited for various reasons not necessarily related to the key theme of the event or our NGOs’ experience with the BRI. It is worth noting that two thirds of the Forum participants were Chinese FGA officials and experts, as well as functionaries of local party committees. About 15 foreign NGOs from various countries were invited, mostly with the help of the United Nations Convention for Combating Desertification (UNCCD) secretariat, as well as up to a dozen representatives from Chinese branches of international environmental groups (WWF, IFAW, NRDC, etc). Local grassroots NGOs from China’s desertification-stricken areas were neither seen or heard at the Forum.
In my case, I was recommended to CGF by an Indian colleague, to whom I was accidentally recommended by Rivers without Boundaries (RwB) Mongolia when asked to find a “representative of Russia”. So I had to represent Putin, sitting at table no.1 with key cadres at banquets, rub shoulders with His Highness Prince Muteb from Saudi Desert Plant Society, and to the extent possible, behave myself.
PPDC: The Chinese government isn’t really known for its engagement with civil society groups. What’s your impression of attending a government organized NGO gathering in China?
ES: Having uneven support from governments and local communities in BRI regions and being criticized by foreign press for lack of consultation in project planning, China is eager to demonstrate its willingness to build cooperation with NGOs in BRI countries.
In particular case of this Forum, the Chinese authorities did not seek recommendation or approval from the respective governments of BRI countries to interact with foreign NGOs, which goes beyond the “government-centric mentality” expected from them. So I see it as a progressive approach and a sign of openness.
On the other hand, little effort is made so far to engage NGOs in joint planning and/or at least to get feedback from them on proposed cooperation plans. They were largely there to “demonstrate support for Green BRI” and at best seen as implementers of already proposed projects. When NGOs expressed doubts they were reminded that it’s their own decision whether to continue such cooperation. This is very similar to mode of official bilateral negotiations with China on many “joint projects”.
“Exporting green solutions like exporting industrial capacity”
PPDC: The “Green BRI” initiative, first announced in May 2017, always feels a bit vague and empty. Does the event give you any concrete idea as to what China is trying to achieve?
ES: The event shows how China’s newly established Forestry and Grassland Administration (FGA) would likely advance the initiative.
The Forum was a follow-up to the UNCCD conference held in China last year. At that conference, China made a pledge to combat desertification and “to carry out cooperation on ecological restoration” along the Belt and Road.
On the first day of the event the organizers arranged a day-long field trip to desertification control project sites of Gansu Province. We toured experimental bases of various companies designing desert-combatting technology, state-owned orchards and vineyards in oases, and poplar plantations. From the bus we only glimpsed the edge of the beautifully natural Tengger Desert, the advance of which all these fortifications are being designed to slow down.
This poplar is one of the keystone species of riparian forests at vast floodplains of Central Asian and Middle-Eastern rivers from Tarim and Indus to Amu-Darya and Euphrates. FGA believes the poplars provide important economic value to people (erosion control, fodder, tourism, wood, firewood, medicine, etc). Under the plan, a cooperative partnership will be established with local NGOs to encourage more exchanges of experience in different countries with Euphrates Poplar as a symbolic keystone species. Most activities so far are planned, however, in Xinjiang and across Northwestern China.
PPDC: So it sounds like a massive tree-planting effort along the Belt and Road?
ES: It’s slightly more than that. During the forum, the GCF also announced the launch of an international ecological restoration fund, drawn from donations from companies worldwide to promote a green economy in countries involved in the BRI. First pilot project for poplar planting abroad is planned in mountains of Pakistan along the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but I found no Pakistani representative at the Forum or among the listed editors of the very detailed bilingual report “Restoration of Populus Euphratica” handed out to participants.
Dozens of Chinese companies, including the very famous ELION Group which has been celebrated for its anti-desertification efforts in Kubuqi Desert, were featured heavily at the event. The whole thing makes me feel that the logic for doing such “Green BRI” projects is quite similar to the logic behind “industrial capacity sharing” along the Belt and Road, i.e. exporting Chinese industrial capacities such as power plants and steel mills to other countries. China has some mature desertification-control technology, buttressed by domestic success stories and may be shared and exported with some involvement of China companies. Whether or not the marketed approach fits local needs, ecological conditions and social demands is to be studied AFTER overall project direction has been identified.
Like high-speed railways and other “exported capacity”, success of such projects directly depends on how they match local conditions. Strategic planning and public consultations are straightforward means to increase likelihood of success. So far those tools are rarely used in early planning of BRI projects and “capacity sharing” programs.
PPDC: Were there reservations expressed at the event about this approach?
ES: First of all, I must clarify that I do not disagree with necessity to plant trees. And I see great necessity to restore natural multi-species riparian forests in Central Asia. But similar to many other scientists, I tend to view with great suspicion tree-planting projects in deserts and steppes which naturally do not support woody vegetation, unless it is done due to extreme economic need and in environmentally sustainable manner. Water availability and equitable access to its use is the key factor on which adaptation strategy in a given place depends on. For example, the key to restoration of riparian forests is in preserving adequate flooding by respective rivers and controlling grazing and other activities that suppress tree growth. Artificial planting is only a supplementary measure, especially in places where seeds from trees are not available naturally.
From all foreigners who came to the forum, only Meskele Lera Lencha, the officer of the Hailemariam and Roman Foundation from Ethiopia called China to support large-scale tree-planting endeavors overseas. Other foreign participants had stressed different priorities such as local community empowerment and diversification of local economies.
Even tree-planting champions like the very articulate John H. Kwon from Korean Future Forest, which plants forests in China’s easternmost deserts, explained that planting efforts alone cannot catch up with the speed of land degradation, and preventative policies and measures are essential to win the battle.
PPDC: Did you weigh in on the debate?
ES: At the event I attempted to describe long-term cooperation in China-Mongolia-Russia Dauria International Protected Area, where government agencies, scientists and NGOs complement each other. I emphasized priority of protection measures and strategic science-based environmental assessment of any development and climate adaptation project. Interesting enough, my pitch was immediately echoed by the Head of the FGA Grassland Management, who stated that the main task of desertification control is to prevent conversion of the desert margins into arable land during wetter phases of climate cycle.
Other than delivering our speeches and remarks from the podium (by the way, completely uncensored, which is another good sign of the Forum’s openness) we had not any other slot where we could actually discuss issues and plans.
“Very straightforward recommendations should be repeated again and again.”
PPDC: As an NGO participant, how do you envision this project to unfold hereafter?
ES: Except for the “Euphrates Poplar Project” there is no publicly available overall plan for advancing the cooperation outlined at the event, at least in the realm of FGA activities. Likely what will happen is “development aid” type of cooperation where partners are sought to implement predetermined projects and resources are distributed to consortiums of Chinese actors and foreign NGOs.
Developing countries have large number of NGOs for which distributing foreign aid for predetermined projects is the main mode of operation. So the approach is theoretically doable, but hardly the most effective or innovative. And most NGOs invited to this Forum are not likely partners for such an endeavor, as they are generally mature enough to formulate and execute their own programs best fit for specific local conditions. We are yet to see whether partners from China are willing to engage in a dialogue with local stakeholders and redesign predetermined projects. If you want another forest plantation, it is logical to go to local Forestry Departments in BRI countries instead of NGOs.
PPDC: What would be the more effective ways then?
ES: Hopefully FGA, which has key responsibilities in nature conservation and ecosystem management, will be able to start other lines of cooperation with foreign NGOs, for example to prevent destruction and degradation of valuable and vulnerable wildlife habitats, which happens because of many reasons, but increasingly due to poor planning and management of BRI projects. However, no sign of that was seen at the Forum. It was dedicated fully to “remediation” after damage is done.
It is especially urgent along the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) where arid conditions make huge portions of natural and semi-natural landscapes very vulnerable that need preventative measures. In early Green BRI policy documents and associated research project outcomes, it is openly said that identification of valuable and vulnerable areas and preventing their degradation is an urgent task.
Strategic environmental assessments (SEA) are among most needed and accessible tools, since they are written into in legislation of China and most BRI countries.
PPDC: Do you find this experience overall worthwhile?
ES: Sure, meeting so many natural resource management actors from national to very local level was very useful experience. It is necessary to participate in such official fora to keep channels of communication open. Although not very effective, such channels are much better than absence thereof. And at those occasions, very straightforward recommendations should be repeated again and again publicly on strategic planning, good governance, meaningful performance indicators and open information, even though you may not get meaningful response immediately.
When it comes to specific pilot projects in their countries foreign NGOs may link Chinese actors with interested and knowledgeable local stakeholders, or at least help local communities to prepare for projects coming their way. This Forum could have achieved more if it was multi-stakeholder. A mix of academians, NGOs, indigenous leaders and forestry officials from various BRI regions would provide better matching opportunities and ensure greater acceptance for future joint projects.
Eugene Simonov is a Russian environmentalist who co-founded the Rivers without Boundaries International Coalition(RwB-www.transrivers.org). He has cooperated with a network of stakeholders interested in river conservation along the Russia-China-Mongolia borders, where dam building and water transfers on a monumental scale threatens the fragile wetland ecosystems in the birthplace of Genghis Khan.