Zooming In, Zooming Out: the frames through which Western media see Belt and Road

An awareness of the narrative frames used by Western media to portray BRI can lead to better reporting

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Chinese commentators are starting to take note of international negative coverage of the BRI since the beginning of 2018. (Screenshot from FTChinese.com)

In April this year the China-Africa scholar Deborah Brautigam published an article in the Washington Post which essentially fact checked and myth-busted Western media reporting on China’s role in Africa. It included the debunking of such commonly held assumptions as Chinese companies’ investments and projects not providing jobs or skills to local communities, Chinese banks’ loans as predatory and burdensome, and China as a land-grabbing power, a notion whose implications of colonialism by stealth Brautigam debunks as straight up fake news.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw‘s inaugural article took a look at how some of China’s more independent media outlets — Caixin and Caijing — are interpreting and writing about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China’s growing involvement abroad. Not surprisingly, that deep dive found certain firmly-rooted perspectives, biases and blind spots in the outlets’ reporting of China abroad, all of which are contributing to shaping the dominant narrative of China’s engagement overseas in the eyes of their audiences.

Western media outlets are no different. Approaching the topic with their own world views and their own needs to satisfy the desires of their readers (customers), Western media are also engaged in the construction of narratives around what Jonathan Hillman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has called “the best known, least understood foreign policy effort” of the 21st century. And as Professor Brautigam pointed out, some of Western media’s blind spots and assumptions can lead to pure factual inaccuracy — anathema to any journalist worth their salt.

More often, however, these perspectives present the Belt and Road through a certain framing, which is neither correct nor incorrect, but does have significant bearing on how the often mysterious initiative is understood in the eyes of readers.

As the construction of something approaching a common, global understanding of Belt and Road is underway, it is worth reflecting, analysing and, where appropriate, critiquing these frames. While some framing of stories is inevitable in order to make sense of the enormous, nebulous and often opaque initiative, an awareness of these frames, their strengths and their blind spots can lead to better coverage and a more complex understanding of China’s overseas involvement. This in turn, we hope, could lead to increased and more effective engagement with the initiative from those who stand to gain or lose the most – local communities and their civil society partners.

So what are the major frames through which major Western media outlets are looking at the Belt and Road? Below are three major framings identified from a read through of BRI coverage from Reuters, the New York Times, The Guardian, Bloomberg and the Economist. This analysis is not exhaustive, but has attempted to be broad in its sources and aims to be a starting point for broader discussion.

Great Power Rivalry

In response to China’s increasing global clout, Western governments’ perspectives have included the hawkish and the more softly, softly approach. While one perspective sought to absorb China into the global order as a new “responsible global player”, another, knee-jerk, reaction has been to label China a neo-imperialist and expansionist power. Hillary Clinton has even used the phrase “neo-colonialism” in response to China’s increasing presence in Africa.

Media have not been immune from the influence of aspects of the latter of these perspectives. One of the major lenses through which Western media covers Belt and Road is that of geopolitical rivalry. BRI is commonly explained as in direct competition to the post-WWII order, and much coverage of BRI in Asia and Africa has directly pitted US influence against Chinese influence, a binary in which, like a weighing scale, more on one side necessarily equals less on the other.

This framing is evident, for example, in the New York Times warm up piece to the first Belt and Road Summit in Beijing in May 2017. The authors of the article attempt to define the Belt and Road — no easy task — and focus on its direct challenge to the West, one which, in their view, comes right from the top, President Xi Jinping himself. “Mr. Xi is aiming to use China’s wealth and industrial know-how to create a new kind of globalization that will dispense with the rules of the aging Western-dominated institutions,” the authors write. The article also directly compares BRI to the US’s post-WWII Marshall Plan, which served the dual functions of post-war reconstruction and the fundamental reshaping the global economic and political order in the US’s interest.

The New York Times also assert that, with infrastructure projects the key component of the geopolitical strategy, even unprofitable and risky projects are, at the end of the day, worth investing in as, for Beijing, politically strategic gains trump concerns over profitability. The case of the US$ 6 billion trans-south east Asia railway project beginning its construction in Laos is cited as an example. According to the New York Times’ interpretation, despite major concerns in regards to Laos’s ability to afford their share of the price tag and a feasibility study that estimated the rail line will remain loss-making for at least 11 years, Beijing is nonetheless willing to push ahead with the project as Laos is a central part of China’s plan “to chip away at American influence in south east Asia.”

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The Economist pits BRI against the Marshall Plan, March 2018. (Screenshot from The Economist)

The Economist adopted a similar BRI versus post-WWII global order framing in the March 2018 article titled ‘Will China’s Belt and Road Initiative outdo the Marshall Plan’. While similar geopolitical concerns have been raised by numerous media in regards to China’s port investments in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, whose purported solely civilian usage has met with scepticism.

While there is nothing explicitly wrong about viewing BRI through this geopolitical rivalry lens, it can be limiting. It often underplays or disregards the role of ‘recipient’ countries and tends to overlook the multiplicity of roles from China’s side, wrapping the actions and incentives of ministries, banks, state owned enterprises and other players under the broad banner of “China”, or even going one step further and portraying it all under the name of Xi Jinping. This can lead to a broad brush approach to the multiplicity of incentives and intentions, which often lurk deeply shrouded in opaqueness.

One major exception to this is the New York Times’ recent investigation into the handing over of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port to China on a 99 year lease. The article broadly takes the geopolitical framing as its reference, but digs deep into the multiple players and stakeholders involved to show a far more complex face of a BRI project than is commonly seen in the media.

The geopolitical frame can also elevate politics above other driving factors of BRI, such as Chinese companies’ rush to find new markets as they face overcapacity at home and the threat of a domestic economy slowly but surely transitioning away from the heavy industries of the 8+% growth era of previous decades.

Most likely almost all BRI projects see an overlapping of all these elements – macro-level geopolitical moves, local level political agency, the push force of China’s economic transition, and more. How to account for and tell a story which can encompass all these elements is a question journalists and researchers may want to ask. No one frame is necessarily more correct than the other, but one frame more often that not leads to the telling of only one part of the story’s whole.

International Development… with Chinese characteristics

Whereas the above lens generates much suspicion, when Western media look at the development impacts of China’s investments, a more ambivalent tone is to be found. There are two main reasons for this. One is that, once key projects take off, they often do have radical and tangible impacts in those recipient countries. Secondly, if part of what China is doing with Belt and Road is spreading its theory and practice of development to other parts of the world, given China’s impressive track record on development, this can hardly be dismissed outright.

As James Milward, a historian at Georgetown University, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in May this year, “China’s economic progress over the past century has been phenomenal, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. So when the Chinese government offers to share its experience in development … it should be taken seriously.” And few could dispute this.

Milward goes on to cite concerns in the current trend of this sharing of development experience – the debt burden on Sri Lanka which culminated in Sri Lanka’s leasing of the deep water Hambantota port to China for 99 years, for example. But other scholars take a very different view. Professor Brautigam, mentioned at the start of this article, for one, takes a more optimistic, or at least open, view of the benefits Chinese investment can leave behind in recipient countries. In her Washington Post opinion piece, for example, she writes: “Chinese loans are powering Africa, and Chinese firms are creating jobs… China may boost Africa’s economic transformation, or they may get it wrong — just as American development efforts often go awry.” The benefits should not be overlooked, and the jury should remain out.

When focusing on the development frame, news reports have also noted the benefits Chinese investment has and can bring. Bloomberg, for example, put together a list of the projects that will have the most direct positive economic impacts, including the Gwadar port in Pakistan, the  Kyaukpyu to Kunming oil pipeline, running from Myanmar to China’s most south westerly province, Pakistan’s Thar coal mines, and the very same south east Asia rail link the New York Times called out as representative of the geopolitical gaming of Belt and Road.

While many (including myself) would not necessarily view the above list and its strong fossil fuel representation so positively,the point Bloomberg makes about the projects’ large and tangible impact, especially on economic indicators such as GDP, cannot be denied.

Big picture and local voices

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Protest against Lamu coal power plant, Kenya, November 2015. Photo: Maarufu Mohamed/Standard via Sourcewatch

While many outlets have published articles attempting to encompass and report the entire Belt and Road – grand, macro picture sweeps such as the Guardian‘s ‘The $900 billion question‘ and Bloomberg‘s ‘China’s Silk Road’, for example – Western media’s reporting strength on the BRI has often been in local level case studies. These stories aim to act as miniatures of the larger Belt and Road story. Taking a leaf from the journalism 101 book, they tend to focus on points of conflict and disagreement, and in doing so are key mediums for amplifying the often underheard voices and concerns of local communities.

Reuters‘ 2017 in depth report on local opposition to the Petrochina-operated crude oil pipeline in Myanmar is a case in point. It leads into the story from the perspective of one of hundreds of local fishermen who have been ordered to cease all fishing activities and goes on to focus on the lack of consultation with local communities.

“Chinese companies said they would develop our village and improve our livelihoods, but it turned out we are suffering every day,” said Nyein Aye, the local fisherman interviewed by Reuters.

From another continent, the New York Times‘ report on the controversial Lamu coal plant on Kenya’s coast performs a similar function of amplifying and contextualising a variety of local voices, including the ambivalence of one young man: “If it comes with a job I’m ready to take it”. Local opinions can come in all shapes and forms, and international media is one powerful channel through which those different opinions can be expressed to the world.

These articles’ focus on human stories and the conflicts and tensions between big business interest and local communities in some senses help to fill a gap too often seen in China’s domestic coverage — that of on-the-ground coverage from grass roots perspectives, as noted in this blog’s opening article.

Disconnect

Perhaps what is most striking from all the above, however, is the apparent lack of connection and dialogue between Western media perspectives and Chinese. Bloomberg and Caixin’s reporting on the same project in Sri Lanka is a case in point. In their article, Bloomberg elevate local voices, opening the piece with an anecdote about a local farmer and his family drying rice on a newly built road, financed with Chinese money. Caixin on the other hand, puts its spotlight on local engineers and contractors who are benefiting from more business opportunities, treating local fishing community voices as footnotes and, as this blog previously pointed out, “like fire hoops for Chinese actors to jump through.”

It’s as if the two operate in separate bubbles, when in fact they could and should be in dialogue, both complementing and critiquing each other’s coverage.

This article’s overview and critique of some of the key narrative framings Western media are using in their coverage of the Belt and Road Initiative is intended to trigger awareness of and reflection on these framings. Some may see more framings out there, or see the above as overly simplified. My hope, however, is that through an awareness of the presence of these narrative framings readers, journalists and researchers will take note and see the gaps and blind spots that may exist in current reporting on BRI, with the ultimate purpose to improve, diversify and strengthen media coverage of what is surely one of the most important and rapidly unfolding stories across the world right now.

Tom Baxter works in communications and on the environmental impacts of Belt and Road projects at Greenpeace East Asia. You can find him on Twitter via @TomBaxter17