October monthly round-up: teacher/student complex

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.  

Japan ODA
Chinese online commentators reacted to the end of Japanese ODA with mixed feeling.

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.

September monthly round-up: great power mentality

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.

FOCAC Weibo
Under Weibo posts that featured President Xi Jinping’s speech announcing the renewed pledge, 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.

August Monthly Round-up: BRI turns 5 years old

A digest of Chinese media coverage of the BRI in the past month

BRI5yr
Chinese media outlets produce reporting series for BRI’s five year anniversary. Source: Caijing

On September 7th, 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” while visiting Indonesia. The proposal was a key component of what later became the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). And to mark the 5th anniversary, Chinese state media have ramped up their BRI coverage with multiple reporting series looking back at the past 5 years.

State media outlets such as Xinhua, CCTV, and People’s Daily have all chosen to allocate generous space to the topic. Among them, CCTV’s coverage is unquestionably the highlight: the television station dispatched teams of reporters to travel along different routes of the BRI. Besides the usual stops at landmark Chinese BRI projects, one team embarked on a Chinese ship that sailed all the way from Jiangsu province in China to Europe through the Arctic Ocean, in a report dubbed “The Silk Road on Ice”.

Across China’s mainstream media, most reports touted the success of the BRI, as expected, and highlighted key projects, with  the People’s Daily offering a comprehensive list in an article titled “China’s Contribution”. Projects cited include the the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, the Kuala Lumpur subway system in Malaysia, and China-Europe freight rail and industrial parks in Belarus and Cambodia.

Despite the largely celebratory coverage, there were still hints of tempered defensiveness in tone and language. For example, in a commentary published in the ideologically conservative Red Flag Digest, the authors insisted that “BRI is an economic cooperation initiative” that should not be overly conflated, and that its two core components were “connectivity of infrastructure and cooperation on (building) industrial capacity”. The authors also responded to comparisons of the BRI to the Marshall Plan, saying that the “BRI is not China’s Marshall Plan” and “it does not seek to expand China’s ‘sphere of influence’, nor does it aim to export the ‘China model’,”

This is notable, and suggests a dialing down of a more assertive message from a year earlier, when state media and key supporters for the BRI advocated the spread of “Chinese wisdom”,”Chinese experience” and “Chinese solutions” to other developing countries. Recently, the escalating animosity with the United States over trade and industrial policy has led some to question the wisdom of touting the Chinese wisdom so loudly.

In less-official media outlets facing fewer restrictions, commentators have been less constrained in their analysis of the BRI. The Financial Times’ Chinese site (paywalled) has recently become a hub of reflective BRI pieces that try to re-calibrate outside perceptions of the grand initiative. In one interview, Singapore-based Chinese politics pundit Zheng Yongnian believes that external world has fundamentally mistaken the BRI as President Xi’s project to achieve “China’s Rejuvenation”. He offers a more tempered rationale for the BRI project, arguing that  “the surplus industrial capacity and capital, a consequence of slowing economic growth domestically, is the main driver of (BRI)” and because “most of (China’s) exported capacity and capital is state-owned, the outside world (has) “mistaken” it for some kind of broader governmental strategy. He also suggests that the BRI is a phenomenon more related to China’s developmental stage than to the will power of its top leader. In his view, Chinese capital and capacity have reached a point where they must search for a “way out” and that trend already started during President Jiang Zemin’s tenure and has only truly accelerated recently. Thus, he believes that the style and personality of the current leader is only a secondary driving factor behind the BRI.. “If this administration did not start the BRI, the next administration certainly would have,” he said.

Besides the Zheng Yongnian interview, Chinese think tankers have offered their take on what went wrong in the international communications of BRI, and how it should respond to negative coverages overseas, reflecting a general concern with the recent prevalence of negative views of the initiative in the international press.

At the other end of the media spectrum, outlets are taking a much more combative approach to the BRI’s image problem overseas. In an interesting piece titled “Who’s denigrating BRI from the United States?”, the nationalist Global Times did some digging inside the beltway and uncovered what it believed to be the source of negative coverage of BRI originated in the US. Beyond editors ideologically hostile to China and politicians with an agenda to thwart China, the newspaper also traced some of the bad-mouthing to an obscure, US Congress-funded organization called BBG that supervises the Voice of America and other outlets. The popular newspaper accused the BBG of orchestrating anti-BRI propaganda through its network, a “Cold War residue”. On the other hand, Global Times also found that “pragmatist Americans” don’t all object to the initiative. Enterprises and individuals are keen to participate. At the end, it cited Janet Eom of Johns Hopkins University as confirming, in her Washington Post article, that the BRI “looks more like a stimulus project than a blueprint for geopolitical control.”

On Aug 27, President Xi Jinping spoke at a Leadership Group meeting marking the 5th anniversary of the BRI. He emphasized that BRI was simply an answer to the changing demand of global governance: “(BRI) is an economic cooperation initiative, NOT geo-political or military alliance building; it is an open process, NOT a closed, exclusive “China Club”; it is a welcoming initiative, NOT a zero-sum game divided by ideological lines.” In this month of backpedalling, the three NOTs sound particularly accentuated.

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

FT-frame
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.”

Economist_China v Marshall_screenshot
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

Sourcewatch_Lamu_No Coal
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

 

How should the Chinese media approach Belt and Road reporting?

A conversation with Michael Anti, award-winning journalist, blogger and veteran media observer

Michael Anti

Many Chinese netizens, including myself, recognize the pen name “Michael Anti” (real name Zhao Jing) as an internet legend. His blogs, back in the early 2000s, were must-reads of an emerging body of online writing that was distinctive in style and latitude from what people usually saw on media outlets back then. As a journalist, columnist and blogger, Anti represents the outward-looking, critical voice that introduces liberal ideals into the Chinese cyberspace. In 2005 he famously celebrated China’s Super Girl show (an American Idol style singing talent show) as a massive experiment of democracy, where tens of millions of Chinese viewers voted for their favorite singers through mobile phone SMS. His critique of the global and Chinese media/cyber landscape has established his reputation as one of the sharpest journalistic minds in China. He was the winner of the 2011 M100 Sanssouci Media Award, worked as a war correspondent for 21st Century Business Herald and a researcher for the New York Times Beijing bureau, and became a Harvard Niemann fellow in 2008.

Today, Anti is the editor-in-chief of Caixin Globus, a new media project incubated by Caixin Media, China’s leading business news provider, in 2016 that specializes in reporting news events and developments overseas. When I met Anti in his office two weeks ago, we started by talking about how poorly international news performs in Chinese media. “It’s almost always ranked at the bottom of viewership at news portals,” Anti told me. His answer to that challenge is to make Caixin Globus a “reader-centric” platform of international news. Unlike the standard model of setting up bureaus and dispatching correspondents, a costly arrangement that is out of reach for most non-state Chinese media, Globus has cultivated an impressive network of over 200 overseas contributors, many of them Chinese students of journalism or political science living in countries across the world. With this network, Globus has managed to deliver timely, often on-the-spot coverage of the Kim-Trump Summit, protests in Iran, and the general election in Germany, among other international topics. Anti’s vision is to give readers more say in Globus’s editorial decisions through a built-in mechanism that allows readers to flag what they are interested in. In his words, he would “give up the elitist position of deciding what readers should read” and deliver world news that is actually needed by its Chinese readership.

Globus has recently launched a new initiative to track the overseas ventures of Chinese enterprises. The rolling out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is also firmly on the radar of Anti’s global network. Our conversation naturally surrounds China’s overseas involvements and how the Chinese media should approach such developments far away from home.

 

“Our readers’ interest will ultimately fill the entire world map.”

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (P): What is the status of Belt and Road reporting in the Chinese media?

Anti(A): I think most of the media outlets, when they are faced with the Belt and Road topics, are in a state of hesitation. They don’t know who actually reads such stories. From an ordinary reader’s point of view, why would she or he want to read about BRI?

At the moment most BRI stories are about corporate pioneers, the enterprises that first step out of the Chinese market and go global. They are either about initial successes or failures, and the lessons generated out of those. The problem is that the Chinese media have neither the resources nor the local presence to find really good story leads. So they end up doing what I call “policy reporting”. Such coverage of general policy developments does not pique the curiosity of most readers, who only browse them for casual reading.

P: So how can such reporting improve?

A: In a sense it is premature to expect the media to go big in this area. Readers’ interest in the topic has to be cultivated gradually. Without growing reader interest, investing heavily into BRI reporting is futile. At Caixin we have recently erected a paywall. If a story does not earn us subscription, it will be considered a loss for the publication. As you know, BRI reporting is expensive. Even if we can reduce costs by commissioning from in-country contributors, it will still cost much higher than reporting from Beijing.

Many of our peer news organization do deem BRI as of strategic importance to cover. The question is how. At Globus we want to empower readers to tell us what to cover. Even though many of them are currently not asking questions about BRI per se, they are starting to take a personal interest in other countries’ visa or immigration policies. And the US-China trade war is now high on their reading list. Sometimes their curiosity brings our attention to totally unpredictable places. So I believe that, with time, our readers’ interest will ultimately fill the entire world map.

It then begs the question of how we spend resources to address that growing appetite. The conventional, elitist mode of “editors pick, readers read” is becoming more and more strained with the ever enlarging geography that news organizations need to cover. The BRI involves more than 60 countries! It’s too scattered. It’s unlike domestic reporting, where editors more or less know what main frames they should use for a given news event. In BRI reporting, some level of reader participation and guidance are definitely helpful. The result coming out of this interactive process will be a real reflection of the BRI that matters, not some imagined concept conjured up by editors.

 

“The Fourth Estate doesn’t apply here.”

P: Where do you get this idea of need-based reporting?

A: It actually comes from the earliest economic and business reporting, pioneered by the Economist almost 150 years ago, when news reporting was considered an informational service. Nowadays, Chinese media elites understand the role of media often through the lens of New York Times vs. Sullivan, or the Pentagon papers, where news media acts as the “Fourth Estate” (or fourth power) in a society, as a check to other formal powers. But if we go back to the media’s original role as an information service, we may find its value in rebuilding the consensual basis of public discourses, something that is lost in an increasingly polarized and tribal world. In the US, partisan polarization has hit unimaginable levels. China is not there yet but you can still sense that people too readily fall into camps in any given public debate. At such a moment, my concern is to construct the foundation of informed conversation. No matter which side you are on as a Chinese, can we have a shared point of departure as globalized citizens of a responsible world power? This is the kind of consensus-building I would like to invest all my time in right now.

P: Is there any place for the Fourth-Estate-style muckraking in BRI reporting?

A: I doubt it. To play the muckraking role, media would need to be able to influence public opinion on a given matter, thereby exerting pressure on policy making. But we are at such early stages right now that even basic knowledge still needs to be disseminated. It’s impossible to jump directly into a role that can move and shake policy.

P: But the need for Chinese media to play that role is already there, if you look at environmental and social controversies around China-backed projects globally.

A: This can be addressed without resorting to adversarial, critical reporting. We can put them under the framework of an informational service, by explaining local concerns and expectations as accepted norms. We can tell our readers, if you do not respect such norms, your projects or investments may fail. This way you achieve what may otherwise need adversarial reporting through more matter-of-fact analyses. We can take the environmental debates of a host country, summarize the mainstream thinking behind them, and present it as the prevailing norms that Chinese actors should bear in mind when they enter the country. I think the Chinese actors reading our reports will agree with this approach. Because at the end of the day, they seek the acceptance of local communities. There is no point arguing back from where they stand in China.

 

“China has arrived at the gate of being a globalized country. But its media isn’t ready yet.”

P: What kind of BRI stories should such a press tell?

C: So many stories can be told of China’s “going out”. First of all, readers care about why China is venturing out. It’s about motivation. Secondly, they are massively interested in learning how other countries view China. For Belt and Road reporting, understanding a recipient country’s “imagination” of China is crucial. If this element is not embedded into the reporting, I would consider it a failure as it assumes other countries see China exactly the same way as it sees itself. Understanding that each country is different is the prerequisite for producing really grounded BRI reporting. And in this aspect, Chinese media has not done a great job.

P: Can you elaborate?

A: Only a truly globalized nation will need globalized journalism. It first appeared as the British Empire set its foot around the world. The Economist is a typical early product of that phase of globalization: an encyclopedia of global political knowledge. Without the demand for such knowledge, a country’s media ’cannot be truly globalized. The Economist basically taught its readers how to approach local culture and norms. Only by respecting that can you do business with the local people.

I think China has arrived at the gate of being a globalized country. And it’s not even by choice. To focus predominantly on US-China bilateral relationship is no longer viable given today’s political environment. It forces China to turn to Europe, to get closer with South East Asia, and to promote BRI. There should be a globalized Chinese press in this era.

P: But it seems that the capabilities of the Chinese media do not match the new globalized nature of China’s diplomatic and economic relations?

A: Of course not! Fundamentally China’s media elites themselves lack globalized genes. There is a talent issue here. How many of China’s newspaper editors have practiced journalism in other countries? How many Chinese news organizations have international bureaus or local correspondents? The lack of international experience leads to lackluster international news reporting.

The bright side is that this is starting to change. The United States has actually helped us train many international journalistic talents through its J-schools. And at Globus we now have this expanding network of PhD students overseas who have lived in host countries for many years and are able to analyze situations on the ground. Ultimately, we will need correspondents based in those countries to fill the gap.

P: Beyond having experienced professionals, how can Chinese media deliver stories that accurately portray how other countries view Chinese involvements?

A: This falls under the question of reporting paradigms. In BRI reporting we probably need to go beyond the fact-centric approach of American journalism which is restraint in commentary and invites readers to reach their own conclusion by presenting just ascertainable facts. Considering that our readers often lack the very basic knowledge-base to interpret developments in a host country, I would encourage my reporters to be more adventurous with their methods. Sometimes you will need to be a bit more educational in your reporting to be effective, like what Lin Da does (note: Lin Da is the pen name of a Chinese writer couple living in the US famous for their educational prose collections introducing the history and politics of the US, Spain and other foreign countries to a Chinese readership). BRI reporting doesn’t have to stick with a standard news reporting paradigm. A reporter can be as enlightening and illuminating as possible, as long as he or she maintains objectivity.

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

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

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

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

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

Contesting Ideas

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

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

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

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

“Poster boys”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The quest narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

The absent civilian

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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