“Opaque, huge, ill defined, politicized”: Beijing’s foreign press corp grapples with BRI

Beijing foreign correspondents talk about the challenges of reporting the Belt and Road

In July last year this blog published a piece looking at some of the dominant narratives in international media reporting on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the world’s “best known, least understood foreign policy effort.” One year on, we asked the people behind some of those stories, international media correspondents, about their own reflections on the many challenges of reporting BRI and their ideal Belt and Road stories.

The interviews show some common issues that are reflected across the BRI-engaged media, civil society and researcher space, and some obstacles unique to the demands of an international news desk. They also indicate why some of the narratives identified in our article last year have stuck around, seemingly immune to a number of challenges and more nuanced arguments they have faced.

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Ill defined and opaque

One theme highlighted by all the interviewees when we asked about the challenges of reporting the Belt and Road was the continued lack of an agreed, singular definition for the initiative and its lack of transparency.

We noted in our article last year that outlets often take on the task of and struggle to define the BRI. One year on, journalists are still struggling with this issue. From a journalist or investigator’s perspective, digging deeper into BRI issues is also a challenge when the definition – the starting point – is so hard to fix.

As one journalist commented, “are we reporting on Chinese infrastructure deals? On smart cities? On geopolitical rivalries? On industrial overcapacity?” For newsrooms that also raises a question of staffing – should BRI be the domain of political correspondents, economy correspondents, commodities correspondents? Or, indeed, has “Belt and Road” become a catch all notion for China’s foreign relations which in reality are multifaceted and not necessarily as coordinated as the word “initiative” implies?

In addition to this lack of a clear definition, reporting the BRI is also plagued by a lack of access to important information and sources. Journalists noted that some of the key stakeholders in the Belt and Road Initiative steer well clear of media engagement, including key government ministries, the state owned companies who dominate Belt and Road construction projects, and the policy and commercial banks who are providing billions of dollars of financing. Without access to these stakeholders, it is next to impossible to understand their motivations and perspectives, leaving a large part of BRI political dynamics shrouded in opacity, and also ripe for speculation in place of facts.

Lastly, many of the deals themselves lack transparency. While it may be known which companies and banks are involved in individual projects – usually details of project construction contracts are made public on both sides – the exact terms of financing often remain unknown, information which is particularly pertinent to verifying or disproving the “debt trap” theory.

The making of “sticky narratives”

Last year we commented that one of the key narratives defining Belt and Road in the international press was that of “great power rivalry”. This is still a prevalent narrative, increasingly dominated by the notion of the BRI “debt trap”. (Panda Paw recently took a deep dive into the “debt trap” here).

We asked journalists why such narratives stick around, in spite of numerous experts pointing out holes in or weaknesses of the factual basis for some of the key arguments. Their feedback indicated that, firstly, there is a trend in Belt and Road reporting to extrapolate specific stories and case studies into macro-trends, during the process of which the highly politicized and polarized nature of the narratives coming out of Washington DC and Beijing tend to sway their influence. This can be seen for example in the debt trap narrative, which is primarily based off one case study, the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, and a number of reports from critical DC think tanks such as RWR Advisory, as well as the speeches of Trump administration individuals such as John Bolton.

The scale, complexity, opacity and lack of data about the BRI also contributes to the problem, one journalist commented. It means that journalists tasked with writing on “the Belt and Road”, rather than stand alone case studies, become more reliant on others’ interpretations of the initiative.

In the newsroom, a Belt and Road story that ties in with some of the current dominant narratives is often an easier pitch to editors than one that digs into the contradictions and complexities of the initiative and its projects. One journalist commented that the BRI frame has actually made a lot of China foreign relations reporting more complicated because what were once seen as country-to-country deals, which could be written in detail and nuance, are now understood as part of a grand scheme, which lends itself to broad brush stroke reporting.

Another journalist commented that their perspective from Beijing is extremely limiting. As a China correspondent, they are expected to report on BRI, but realistically there is little new reporting one can do on BRI from a Beijing bureau other than on policy announcements or second hand information.

Capacity

A lack of access to voices and perspectives on the ground in Belt and Road countries was also identified as a challenge. Many outlets do not have a strong representation of reporters in Belt and Road countries, and building up contacts with fixers, commentators, local sources is a long game made more difficult by not being physically present. Interestingly, interviewees did not see access to China-based experts as a particular challenge, with one respondent commenting that it actually seems easier to speak to experts on BRI than on other topics within their beat, such as domestic Chinese politics.

For those outlets that do have people on the ground, coordination across bureaus is still not an easy task. Convincing journalists and their editors that a BRI story, macro and grand in its nature, should take priority over their daily beat can be difficulty. Similarly, for those outlets who do not have people on the ground, convincing editors to allow them the time and resources needed for on the ground reporting, substantive investigation and the process of building up contacts is a difficult sell, especially when there are so many immediate issues going on in the daily China news beat.

Dreaming of better Belt and Road reporting

Almost all of the journalists interviewed said their ideal Belt and Road report would involve visiting project sites. Such visits would include getting first hand insight into the different perspectives on the ground – community, project management, etc. – and trying to work out what has been done right and wrong at specific projects. One journalist commented that they would like to track perspectives and understanding of a specific project from both local perspectives and the perspective from Beijing.

Practically speaking, a number of interviewees responded that they are keen to have more access to less politicized data on the Belt and Road, as a means to tackle the issue of the initiative’s opacity. One journalist also commented that a database of Belt and Road experts, commentators and news outlets representing a variety of viewpoints would be a useful tool to overcome some of the challenges.

Reporting on the Belt and Road isn’t easy. Its scale, opacity, the dominance of politicized narratives and its rapid development all present challenges to international news rooms. Our interviews showed, however, that many journalists are keenly aware of these challenges and are actively searching for ways to strengthen their Belt and Road reporting. With the limited space for Chinese media to report in an honest and impactful way on BRI, how international media outlets report on Belt and Road is of critical importance to information on and global understanding of the initiative, both for local readership and for policy and strategy maker audiences in China, BRI countries and the West.

 

Rising China in the eyes of its closest neighbors

What a collection of ethnographic studies about “neighboring China” can tell us about the Belt and Road

by Tom Baxter

At over 22,000 km, China has the world’s longest land border. Lined up along that border are a total of 14 countries, countless local communities and long histories of interaction and isolation, trade and suspicion. The Art of Neighbouring: Making Relations Across China’s Borders (pdf available for download here) is a selection of essays that look at the diverse experiences of living on China’s border from the perspectives of the communities who live with its presence on a daily basis.

From Laos to Nepal, to Mongolia and Vietnam, the regions along China’s long border are too often seen as peripheral, on both sides — the northern highlands of Laos and Vietnam border China’s mountainous Yunnan province, Nepal neighbors the Tibetan plateau. But as China’s economic, political and social presence and engagement across the Asian continent expands, not least via the official encouragement of China’s “going out” policy and the more recent Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the experiences of these border regions are becoming increasingly important in understanding China’s role across the continent. At the same time, it is the communities on both sides of the border who often feel the most direct impacts of the increased interaction being encouraged by Beijing.

In attempting to understand and assess the impact and the on-the-ground reality of the BRI, this year celebrating its sixth birthday, it is important that we acknowledge those communities’ experiences and look at, in the words of the collection’s editors, Martin Saxer and Juan Zhang, the “smaller scale processes of exchange”, which are undergoing rapid change. Through a series of in depth, mostly ethnographic case studies, The Art of Neighbouring is a step in that direction.

The case studies in the book all date from before 2012. That is, from before the Belt and Road Initiative was announced in October 2013. Nonetheless, they reflect the impacts of a trend of China’s increasing presence outside its own borders which holds true both before and after Xi Jinping’s BRI speech in October 2013. Each chapter of the book focuses on a case study from a total of eight of China’s neighboring countries. Running through those geographically disparate case studies are couple of major themes which deserve highlighting.

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Reimagining histories

In a number of the book’s case studies the rapidly increasing interconnectivity with China is not a new phenomenon, but rather a revival of a historical norm. This is particularly evident in the case of Martin Saxer’s ethnographic study in northern Nepal where the trading relationships across a previously porous border was the basis of existence for borderland communities. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s that the border between China and Nepal became strictly demarcated and regulated. Where trade had once occurred wherever there was a passable valley, it now became limited to just six official border crossings. Before that, highland communities sought their existence as intermediary traders between the arid and harsh Tibetan plateau and the fertile lowlands of Nepal and India. Since the 1970s China’s increasing wealth and the renewed connectivity brought by new roads which link the borderlands to China much more directly and tightly than to Kathmandu revitalized this centuries old norm.

Along with these physically changing realities, local communities have also reimagined their place in the history of China-Nepal relations and understand their current occupations as following in the footsteps of their ancestors as borderland trading communities. “The new roads are primarily conceived of as ways back to what is remembered as prosperous trans-Himalayan exchange,” Saxer writes. In other words, in the eyes of local communities, a rising and more internationally present China is not so much a disruption of the world order, but is facilitating a return to normality after a comparatively brief interlude.

A case study of traders in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan demonstrates a similar historical processes of a border region “under fuzzy sovereign rule” becoming closed borders during the Cold War to re-opening in the last thirty to forty years. Henryk Alff’s study of the traders reveals that they often attempted to rekindle (perceived) historical ethnic allegiances across borders with, for example, Hui Muslims in China. One Dungan trader from Kyrgyzstan states, “some of us had remote kinship ties with places in China where our ancestors originally came from.” In the post-Soviet and rising China period, traders have been able to take advantage of these perceived cross-border common identities to ease deals and partnership. It is another example of regional history re-imagined, which in turn informs how local people comprehend China’s growing presence and interconnectivity on the continent.

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A truck preparing to enter into China at Nepal’s border to Tibet in Rasuwagadhi, image by: Nabin Baral

China as threat / China as opportunity

Which leads on to the second major theme in the book’s case studies. Informed by local history and present day circumstances, communities all along China’s border are divided in their perceptions of China as a threat or an opportunity.

In Saxer’s Nepal case study he provides an example of an embracing attitude towards China’s presence. Moreover, it is a welcoming coming from local communities and a bottom-up approach, rather than via the top-down government initiatives involving state owned companies, banks and political MOUs through which we normally make sense of China’s presence abroad.

In 2010 a former member of Parliament and local to the northern border region of Humla pulled together local business people to form a Road Construction Committee which lobbied Kathmandu to provide funding to build a road through the lesser used Limi valley to China. They were successful and, after securing funding from Kathmandu, also managed to reach agreement with China to temporarily open the border through the valley for sales of diesel for the construction equipment. By the end of the year the first section of the road was complete, and a Chinese delegation even came to attend the inauguration ceremony.

In another example, a study conducted between 2009 and 2012 of Myanmar Muslim communities residing in Ruili in China’s Yunnan province by Renaud Egreteau reveals that to these communities China is seen as a refuge and a sanctuary compared to the situation they face at home. One of his Ruili-dwelling Myanmar interviewees even says “it’s paradise here!”

In contrast, the histories of Cold War suspicion, tension and conflict along China’s Russian and Vietnamese borders do not wash away overnight. Two case studies of these borderlands show that a perception of China as a threat persists through to this day. A Vietnamese border trader interviewed by Juan Zhang in her study of the Lao Cai – Hekou border crossing says, “even now the Chinese are not much better than before…One can never be too careful.”

Within countries there are of course also divided perspectives on China as threat or opportunity. These as yet unsettled perspectives played out in a number of high profile elections in 2018 in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. 2019 is likely to see more of this tension as more politicians, banks, constituents and other interest groups push back on some of the excesses of Chinese projects and work towards establishing national level strategies on how to interact (or how not to interact) with China and the Belt and Road. Elections in India and, in particular, Indonesia this year could display snapshots of this trend.

What can we learn?

The voices and the world views of communities experiencing and engaging in China’s increasing global presence are an important part of the Belt and Road “story” and the rapidly changing on-the-ground reality across Asia. For one, they represent world views that are often overlooked in mainstream coverage of China’s influence abroad and the Belt and Road. While media often seek comment from local communities on their attitudes toward a specific project, it is rare to hear their take on the larger scale shifting reality or on such big questions as whether China is primarily conceived of as a threat or as an opportunity. As narratives on BRI become more and more polarized between the Beijing story and the Washington story or the Brussels story, it is important not to forget the voices of those who are far more directly impacted by the, in some places, transformational, change BRI is bringing.

But these local community voices are not just “color” for media stories. They are also agents in and of themselves. Saxer’s fascinating case study of a local community proactively campaigning for infrastructure connectivity with China is a case in point. The agency of these local communities is also being played out at very local levels, in national elections and in the establishing of recipient country policies and strategies toward the Belt and Road. In a recent article on Euromoney, Djiboutian minister of finance, Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, stated “we have problems with the current Belt and Road narrative”. His voice may represent that of a recipient country political elite, rather than the grassroots voices explored in The Art of Neighbouring, but it points to the same problem — the current narrative of the Belt and Road too often overlooks the diversity of agency playing out in its growth and development.

The Art of Neighbouring points a way towards a deeper and more complex understanding of China’s growing presence and engagement on the Asian continent and of the dynamics playing out along the Belt and Road. For these reasons it is useful for all of us in the emerging “Belt and Road watcher” community. Even better will be more recent ethnographic studies of local communities’ perspectives on China since the announcement of the Belt and Road in 2013. This watcher, for one, is waiting keenly for that.

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