How will China handle multiple debt repayment crises?

Domestic commentators provide insight into Chinese thinking on the thorny issue

By Ma Tianjie

As Covid-19 continues to ravage through the world, the global economy has been brought to its knees. The dominos fell one by one in a globalized and interlocked web of consumers, traders, suppliers, producers and financiers. “The spiral form of endless capital accumulation is collapsing inward from one part of the world to every other,” writes Marxist scholar David Harvey.

Nothing highlights this domino effect better than the tsunami of debt repayment difficulties currently experienced by developing countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. As global demand for commodities such as oil and minerals collapses, the revenue streams of resource exporter countries, many of which are concentrated in the Global South, have dried up. In the case of Nigeria for example, the country’s Finance Minister Mrs. Zainab Ahmed told reporters in late May that, with the country 31% off its Q1 oil revenue target, “COVID-19 [and] the collapse of oil price…has already started showing on the federation’s revenues and on the foreign exchange earnings.” The effect of dwindling revenues bears heavily on the balance sheets of these governments, who often rely on foreign borrowing, with debts often denominated in a foreign currency, to fund important domestic development plans. On top of that, countries like Nigeria had already witnessed their external debt blown to new highs in the past few years. Now they face a growing repayment crisis that threatens their creditworthiness for years to come.

China looms large in conversation about the debt tsunami. According to one calculation by the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins University, between 2000-2018, China extended USD 152 billion of loans to 49 African countries, a large portion of which went to oil rich countries such as Angola. Since Covid-19 hit the African continent, calls on China to ease debt service have been mounting. On 15 April, G20 countries agreed to a suspension of debt payments for the lowest-income countries that make such requests. China backed the agreement and announced later that it would freeze debt repayment for 77 developing countries.

The repayment standstill began on 1 May and will last until the end of this year. The move allows low-income countries to spend precious government funds, otherwise reserved for debt repayment, on fighting the pandemic. But experts have pointed out that the suspension merely kicks the can further down the road. Moreover, the G20 initiative risks being undermined if private creditors simply step in to seek repayment from freed up funds.

References to Chinese debt relief in international media from Mar 2 to May 18, as tracked by Pan Yufeng and Zhang Yan at Peking University’s School of International Studies.

All eyes on China

Senegalese President Macky Sall welcomed the G20 debt moratorium but said it was only the first step and more must be done. Calls on China to outright forgive African debt have been collecting force.

Joining a multilateral call for debt relief is already a big step for the country and so far China has chosen to stick close to the G20 initiative while offering relatively small sweeteners beyond its scope. At the World Health Assembly on May 18, President Xi Jinping added another 2 billion USD of support for developing countries battling Covid-19, which, at some point, may be counted as a form of debt relief. On June 17, at the China-Africa special summit for fighting Covid-19, Xi further pledged to write-off all zero-interest loans owed to China by African countries that are due this year, and instructed Chinese financial institutions to conduct “friendly negotiations” with African countries on commercial-based sovereign credits.

This confirms assessments by observers that China’s participation in the G20 initiative only covers a very limited set of sovereign lending, while distressed loans disbursed by China’s two policy banks, China Development Bank (CDB) and China Eximbank, on relatively commercial terms are excluded from the debt standstill deal for concern with the health of the banks’ balance sheets. Zero-interest loans make up less than 5 percent of China’s lending to Africa between 2000-2018.

Analyses from researchers at the Brookings Institute, China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) and Rhodium Group converge on the point that China is unlikely to grant blanket debt cancelation to its debtors. As Brookings Institute’s Sun Yun puts it, “postponement of loan payments, debt restructuring, and debt/equity swap are more likely in China’s playbook.”

Beijing is expected to take on the matter on a bilateral, case-by-base basis, renegotiating loans depending on the prospect of each country and each project. In the past, such renegotiations resulted in deferrals, refinances and small write-offs for at least a quarter of Chinese loans to Africa, according to one account by Rhodium Group.

How concerned is China?

Starting from March, African debt issues began to feature in risk alerts compiled by Sinosure, China’s state-owned insurer of overseas ventures, which underwrites many of the loans extended by CDB and Eximbank. Its policy mainly covers political risks that may lead to non-payment or default and some commercial risks. In a March 19 country-specific alert about Angola, its analyst wrote that “by Jun 2019, Anglola’s outstanding foreign debt stood at 42 billion USD, 21.3 billion of which is owed to China.” The alert recommended that concerned parties should closely monitor Angola’s foreign reserve situation to “avoid liquidity risks and currency exchange risks.” In addition, they should keep an eye on the country’s crude oil reserve and oil price fluctuations to accurately assess its debt repayment pressure. Throughout April to May, the insurer published debt-related alerts on Zambia, Pakistan, Madagascar, Surinam, Ecuador and Gabon. All of those countries are suffering economic shocks from Covid-19 and the resultant global market downturn.

But despite being a hot topic internationally, debt relief gets very little air time on Chinese media and social media. The government has traditionally been cautious about openly discussing its foreign aid and lending programs, as the perceived “largesse” overseas contrasts sharply with talks of poverty alleviation domestically. But still, sporadic signs of anxiety emerge on the internet that offer a window into the Chinese mental frame about the thorny issue.

Even though the issue has largely been kept out of public view throughout the weeks when international calls on debt relief were most pointed, it still managed to draw the attention of some veteran online commentators on political and economic policy. In one of such Weibo threads, commentator Shenyeyizhimao, a former journalist, jokingly suggested that private Chinese companies such as Alibaba, JD and Vanke should take over and revitalize the economies of indebted countries, allowing them to generate enough cash for debt repayment. “Infrastructure alone does not generate economic activities,” he wrote, “if we do not at the same time export industry and urbanization, non-payment from recipient countries is inevitable.” Many Chinese Weibo users share that skepticism toward the wisdom of pouring money overseas, which is exactly why conversations about debt relief have to be carried out low-key inside China.

International opinion

Compared with domestic public opinion, which is relatively malleable under the state’s sophisticated control of cyberspace, international public opinion is much more worrying for China. On 7 June, a research team led by Pan Yufeng and Zhang Yan at Peking University’s School of International Studies published an interesting analysis of international narratives of Chinese debt, using data analytical tools provided by Tencent. The analysis acknowledged that debtor countries are making debt relief demands, and highlighted that “a few” of them were linking Belt and Road financing with “debt traps” (Nigeria’s congressional inquiry into Chinese loans was used as an example) and, in the more extreme cases, were legitimizing debt relief by blaming Covid-19 on China (Kenya’s former Vice President Musalia Mudavadi’s comment was used as an example). The authors warned that a coordinated push from African countries for debt cancelation is in the making: “a global consensus on debt relief is forming.”

Pan Yufeng and Zhang Yan’s analysis of individual countries’ public opinion on Chinese debt relief shows people in countries such as Pakistan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania more sympathetic (orange spots) than Kenyan, Indian, American and British public (green spots)

The analysis also pointed out that Western countries, particularly the United States, are using the issue to drive a wedge between China and other developing countries. It particularly highlighted the fear of China coming to grab strategic assets as collateral for debt, noting that references to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port in international media tripled from March to May. The Hambantota Port is often used by BRI opponents as an example of China’s malicious leveraging of a country’s financial plight to gain control of strategic assets such as ports and railways, a claim that has been disputed by scholars such as Debra Brautigam of CARI, who sees it as a regular debt-to-equity swap that allows host countries to tap capable private investors to vitalize problematic assets. The research team advised Chinese decision makers to actively disperse misunderstandings such as those surrounding Hambantota and explore debt relief solutions on a country-by-country basis, carefully considering the necessity, feasibility, scale and design of those relief measures.

“The biggest challenge yet to the BRI”

While the country’s top political elites are playing their cards close to the chest, those slightly further away from the center are beginning to air their worries and offer advice.

An article co-written by the chairman of CITIC Group’s board of supervisors, Zhu Xiaohuang and Zhang Anyuan, the Chief Economist of CSC Financial, a CITIC Group subsidiary, asserts that the debt repayment crisis is “the biggest challenge faced by BRI since its creation.” CITIC, a state-owned financial conglomerate, is itself deeply involved in overseas adventures. One of its most well known projects is the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone (KPSEZ) Project in Myanmar.

The two authors were blunt about their concern with China’s massive debt exposure overseas, to the tune of 250 billion USD by their calculation. They estimate that the majority of these outstanding loans fall outside the G20 pledge and will be subject to further requests for relief. “For us not to respond to such pleas would be unreasonable,” the authors write, “but response will create a precedent for a flurry of renegotiation requests that we may not be able to handle.”

The authors proposed a 5-step approach to address the debt repayment crisis: extension, RMB denomination, write-down, debt-to-equity swap and write-off. The underlying principle is to preserve as many assets as possible. If cancellation becomes inevitable in the end, China should at least leverage it to get payback in other forms.

A key component of the advocated approach that is not being featured in most international discussions about possible Chinese response is the re-denomination of Chinese debt to RMB, as a precondition for writing-down any loan. “Covid-19 has essentially reinforced the dollar’s standing in the world economic system,” claimed Zhu and Zhang, “the dollar-denominated Chinese loans only strengthened the linkage between USD and local currencies along the Belt and Road.”

Dollar-denominated Chinese loans along the Belt and Road have been a sore point for Chinese observers of BRI. As early as 2017, Zhang Anyuan, one of the above authors, has warned about how the practice would eat into China’s seemingly abundant but fragile foreign reserves. By adding on to a host country’s dollar-denominated debt stock, BRI is essentially making those countries more dependent on dollar liquidity that is ultimately at the mercy of the Federal Reserve at the source. Zhu and Zhang noted that amid the Covid-19 crisis, the Fed has set up liquidity swap lines with a dozen of central banks in Europe, Asia and Latin America, playing the role of “the world’s central bank.”

The “internationalization of RMB” through the Belt and Road Initiative has always been an aspiration but limited by multiple constraints such as the lack of RMB reserves on the side of host countries, exchange rate risks and the uncompetitiveness of RMB-denominated loans. The authors argued that debt restructure could be an opportunity to advance that cause, offering loan write-downs in exchange for RMB denomination, therefore uncoupling some BRI debts with dollar supremacy.

It is hard to assess how practical this advice is in debt renegotiations. Zhu and Zhang themselves concede that now probably is not the best time for such a move, but insist that it’s worth trying. Shifting those debts to RMB-denomination also allows for easier debt-to-equity swaps at a later stage, the authors argued. Domestic RMB funds can be more easily tapped to take on some of the distressed assets as equity investment to preserve asset value as much as possible. And equity investment “guarantees a long-term presence of Chinese commercial interests in Belt and Road countries.” Though such swaps would, as noted above, be controversial and potentially very damaging to the BRI.

All of the prescriptions look good on paper. But as requests pile up on China to respond to relieve countries of debt burdens, it might not have the luxury to patiently go over its overseas lending stock on a loan by loan, country by country fashion, as Scott Morris, Center for Global Development told Euromoney. President Xi’s announcement last week looks like both an instruction to Chinese commercial lenders to start looking for debt restructuring solutions and a play to buy some time for creditors to work that out.

The tsunami is likely on its way however and how China will manage will be a key test of its international diplomacy skills, finance savviness and of the BRI in general. Offering realistic debt relief solutions while not falling into the narrative of “debt trap” and keeping a check on anti-foreign-aid sentiment domestically will be a difficult but necessary balancing act.

Losing Steam: China’s Overseas Development Finance in Global Energy

Overseas energy finance from China’s policy banks has been declining since 2017 due to a combination of demand and supply constraints. A rebound in 2020 is unlikely.

By Xinyue Ma, Kevin P. Gallagher

After a decade-long surge in Chinese development finance into the global energy sector, China’s policy bank lending continued to trickle in 2019. This could largely be due to a lack of demand capacity in host countries and less financing available on the China side.

Losing Steam

According to the annual update of the ‘China’s Global Energy Finance database at Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center, China’s overseas development finance from the China Development Bank (CDB) and the Export Import Bank of China (CHEXIM) in the energy sector dropped to a lowest level in a decade (Figure 1). This may seem surprising given that overseas finance was a centerpiece at the Second Belt and Road Forum in 2019, but there are number of demand and supply side factors that led to the dimming of such prospects for 2019.

Figure 1 China’s Annual Energy Finance from Policy Banks 2000-2019,Source: China’s Global Energy Finance, 2020. Global Development Policy Center, Boston University.

As shown in Figure 1, according to information collected from public sources, in 2019, China’s policy banks issued a total of $5.3 billion to overseas energy projects, down 52 percent from the $11.08 billion in 2018. As of the end of 2019, we record a total of 272 loans given in the energy sector to other countries by these two banks since 2000, totaling approximately $241 billion and concentrated in oil, coal, hydropower, and gas.

The downturn could be due to a handful of key demand and supply side factors. Perhaps most importantly, emerging market and developing countries have hit their demand capacity. While these countries face an enormous need and financing gap for sustainable infrastructure, they have reached their limits in their ability to absorb new projects. In part this is due to the governance capacity to handle so many projects (Indonesia has 21 coal projects from China’s policy banks alone). More important however is the fact that, even before the COVID-19 crisis, many emerging market and developing countries had started to approach unsustainable levels of dollar denominated debt. According to the IMF, about half of all emerging market and developing countries were close to or already undergoing debt distress.

On the supply side China has heralded the BRI and outward finance in general, and has faced overcapacity on the mainland. So one might think there would be a surge in 2019. However, the level of dollars for outward finance has diminished in recent years. China has financed the BRI and overseas expansion through large current account surpluses, which are dwindling. Of course, 2019 was plagued by the US-China trade dispute, which slowed Chinese exports and investment into China. China’s current account balance was over 10 percent of GDP in 2007, but slid to 1 percent of GDP by 2019.

Faced with increasing risk and uncertainty, China has been tightening the reigns on the financing, including overseas financing, by strengthening its financial regulations, emphasizing prudent and sustainable lending. Since 2016, the China Banking (and Insurance) Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), People’s Bank of China, Ministry of Finance, etc. have issued a series of regulations which emphasize risks control and green finance practices. For policy banks in particular, capital adequacy regulations, monitoring and evaluation, and aligning the banks’ operations with their roles of policy and development banks are highlighted. The Guidelines for Establishing the Green Financial System published in 2017 and the Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative issued in 2019 laid stress on environmental and financial sustainability of overseas financial activities. Over these years, CDB and CHEXIM leadership also frequently emphasized the caution they are practicing regarding debt sustainability, environmental impact, and risk management.


However, it is hard to attribute China’s overseas lending decrease to external or internal political or regulatory drivers alone. Chinese policy banks are market-based financial institutions, and largely respond to market dynamics and tracks a similar decline in China’s outbound Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in energy (Figure 2).

Figure 2 China’s Outbound FDI in the Energy Sector,Source: FDI Markets, Dealogic, 2019.

According to Global Energy Monitor’s coal projects data and BNEF’s clean energy cross-border investment data, we find commercial bank investments in the power sector has slowed as well (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Chinese Development Finance and Commercial Finance in Overseas Coal and Renewable Energy

Globally, this downward trend of Chinese overseas energy finance has been concurrent with stagnant global energy investment and decreasing energy investment in the emerging markets – the main target of Chinese development finance (Figure 4).

Figure 4 Energy Investment in Selected Markets, 2015 and 2018,Source: IEA, 2019. World Energy investment.

Western-led multilateral development banks (MDBs) have followed a similar trend. Total energy loans from six MDBs had been much smaller than the amount provided by CDB and CHEXIM, and only surpassed CDB and CHEXIM in 2018 after two years of decline from the two Chinese banks (Figure 5). Given these global and domestic trends of financial supply and demand of the past few years, the slowing down of China’s overseas energy finance seems to be a systematic phenomenon.

Figure 5 Development Bank Annual Lending in the Energy Sector,Source: Development Bank Annual Reports & Project Database. Note: EBRD has not published annual report or projects for 2019. The 2019 column does not include EBRD loans.

Future Outlook

An increase in Chinese global energy finance seems even more unlikely in 2020 but could form an important part of the global recovery effort if it is re-calibrated toward the needs of the post-COVID-19 world.

China has signed a G20 agreement to freeze bilateral loan repayments for low-income countries until the end of the year, even though diplomats said that the process of identifying which loans in which countries would be eligible has only just begun and that negotiations were being undertaken with China on a bilateral basis. The Ministry of Commerce and the CDB issued a joint notice announcing potential relief for Chinese firms and projects in the Belt and Road Initiative that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDB will provide low-cost financing and foreign exchange special working capital loans, set up reasonable repayment grace period, open up “fast lanes” for credit granting, and provide diversified support in foreign currency financing services to “high-quality” BRI projects and enterprises impacted by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 related economic crisis inflicted serious damage on emerging market and developing economies. Capital flight has been over $100 billion and exchange rates plummeted by up to 25 percent. This has increased dollar debt burdens and over 100 countries went to the IMF for finance given the collapse of global trade and remittances. The vast majority of external debt is due to private creditors and multilateral lenders, but China is a significant bilateral creditor to many countries. While Chinese finance has been relatively patient relative to the private sector finance that has fled the developing world over the last few months, China’s borrowers will be hard pressed to service their debt to China for the foreseeable future. This lack of debt service on existing loans, and the limited ability to negotiate deals due to social distancing and travel bans, prepares us with a foreseeable shortage in Chinese energy finance in 2020.

Along with multilateral institutions and other development financiers in the world, Chinese development finance will be much needed as the world begins to develop recovery programs from COVID-19, which has revealed the need for more resilient and sustainable infrastructures. Energy infrastructure is a major pillar of economic development, and therefore sustainable infrastructure should be a cornerstone of recovery efforts. Moreover, China needs to make sure that any of its debt relief efforts are aligned with sustainability and climate standards, and continue to shift its overseas development finance into cleaner and more resilient energy sources, so that this crisis does not accentuate the climate crisis.

Xinyue (Helen) Ma is the China Research and Project Leader at the Global Development Policy Center (GDP Center) at Boston University.

Dr. Kevin P. Gallagher is a professor of global development policy at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, where he directs the Global Development Policy Center.


Railpolitik: the strengths and pitfalls of Chinese-financed African Railways

Ethiopia is tapping into both Chinese and Turkish financing for its railway ambitions. The difference illuminates the pros and cons of China’s model of overseas infrastructure development.

By Chen Yunnan

Chinese railways are crisscrossing the world. Driven in part by domestic competition in a saturated infrastructure construction market, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are increasingly seeking projects overseas, constructing new transboundary high-speed rail projects across Southeast Asia, and in Africa, new standard gauge railway (SGR) projects in Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. These projects have become a way to offshore China’s excess capacity in its industrial sectors, boosting Chinese manufacturing through a ‘supply chain export’ model where railways, locomotives and equipment are offered as a package to recipient governments in Africa and elsewhere, and conditional on the generous loan finance from China Eximbank that supports them.

These projects have constituted some of Africa’s largest lending from China. Up to 2016, 31% of China’s total lending in Africa has been in the transport sector: of this, over a third went to the railway sector. Many projects feed into existing domestic and regional corridor plans, but they have also become absorbed into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), particularly in the east African region. Railways also hold symbolic power in the China-Africa relationship. The first Chinese-built railway, the Tanzania-Zambia (Tazara) cross-border ‘friendship railway’, was built in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War and China-Soviet tensions, when China was on a desperate search for international allies. It remains a potent symbol of contemporary solidarity and cooperation between China and its African partners.

But as this case study of Ethiopia’s engagement with China’s railway financing shows, the “China model” of supporting railway expansion in Africa comes with both strengths and constraints. Though “debt sustainability” concerns loom large in conversations about railway projects, the difficulties experienced in Ethiopia’s railway projects are more directly linked to its creditor-debtor and employer-contractor relationships formed under those deals. A parallel case of a Turkish-financed railway project, constructed sequentially after a major Chinese-line, highlights the pros and cons of the politically-oriented China model vis a vis a more transactional, commercially-motivated project.

Research for this case study in 2018 and 2019 involved several months of fieldwork investigations, including site visits to operational and under-construction railways, as well as around 40 interviews with representatives from the Ethiopian Railway Corporation (ERC), Chinese and Turkish contractors, and other managing agencies working on the project. Interviews were semi-structured, and conducted in English and Mandarin Chinese.

Ethiopia rail
Images: Chen Yunnan

Ethiopia’s Railway Ambitions

Ethiopia has had perhaps one of the most ambitious railway development schemes in Africa, leveraging Chinese as well as other foreign finance for its railway network. In 2007, the Ethiopian Railway Corporation (ERC) was created to oversee the construction of a new planned network spanning 5,000km. This network was seen as part of a wider industrialization and export-oriented growth strategy to connect major planned industrial zones across the country—many of which have Chinese involvement—to the sea port in Djibouti, which was also financed and constructed by Chinese institutions. Crucially, this is the justification on which the railway is supposed to make economic sense.

Economic potential—in generating trade and connectivity, and in encouraging technology transfer through foreign investment—is one of the main allures of railway technology. In China’s own domestic experience, the development of its locomotives industry benefited directly from German and Japanese technology. Further back, the construction of many of China’s main arterial railways, and the creation of professional railway institutions owed much to colonial-era foreign concessional railways by British and American companies. However, this form of technology transfer is not automatic. The Tazara railway’s decline after the departure of Chinese engineers showed a failure of management and the insufficiency of knowledge transfer.

As well as a new urban light rail project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has so far constructed two new standard gauge railway lines. The first, from Addis Ababa, crosses the border towards Djibouti (marked in red below) ; the second, a branch from the city of Awash northward to Weldiya, eventually to connect the trunk line to the north city of Mekele in Amhara (marked in green below). All these projects, including the light rail, are notable for being the first electrified railway projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ethiopia railmap

A Tale of Two Financiers

The Ethiopia case is particularly illuminating because at the same time, the country is tapping into two very different pools of funding and construction expertise to realize its railway ambitions.

Ethiopia’s first route, from Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti, is Chinese constructed, by a joint consortium of China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC) and China Civil Engineering and Construction Corporation (CCECC), and financed by China Eximbank through a loan of US$2.5bn. The second line from Awash to Weldiya, is a Turkish/European project, built by Yapi Merkezi, and financed by a consortium of lenders including Turkish Eximbank, who lent US$300mn, and Credit Suisse at a tune of US$1.1bn. While both are similarly financed through commercial loans and an EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) contract, the different financiers and contractors at play has entailed a significant divergence in how the ERC and other agencies have been able to leverage their contractor and financier relationships, with implications for project implementation and for the agency and choice of recipient host governments.

One major material difference between the two railways’ construction are the different standards and technologies used between the two sets of contractors. The Chinese Addis-Djibouti line, completed in 2018, uses Chinese Class 2 technical standards, and CTCS (Chinese standard) signaling systems that controls locomotive speeds above 120km/h. The Turkish-built Awash-Weldiya line, meanwhile, employs European technical standards, including social and environmental safeguards, and employs ERMTS (European standard) signaling systems. As of 2019, the project was over 95% complete. It will likely require several more years for electrification and testing before it will become operational however, as well as a further challenge of integrating the operation of the two railway lines.

The two railway projects also show a very different creditor-debtor relationship, influenced by the nature of how the financing for the projects arrived. This in turn impacts the relationship between the ERC and the project contractors, as well as the implementation of the projects. For instance, the Turkish contractors Yapi Merkezi won the Awash-Weldiya project through a traditional competitive bid, where crucially, their promise to broker finance from European creditors for the EPC contract was key in winning them the bid. Meanwhile, the Chinese railway project was premised on a strategic bilateral relationship: financing was pledged first via high-level discussions between Chinese and Ethiopian governments. Contractors were subsequently determined on the Chinese side, through a selection process of the major national railway contractors—while this process is competitive, it is limited to only Chinese firms and decided in Beijing, not in Addis Ababa. Though the Turkish project also enjoyed export credit financing, the project due to its blended finance nature was far more commercial and transactional in its relationship between host and contractor.

The implications of this for the ERC’s scope of agency is significant. Contrary to common perceptions, the major advantage of choosing Chinese finance has been the flexibility in the financial relationship. Ethiopia has long-faced challenges in its foreign exchange that has seen it struggle to service external debts. With its Chinese partners, the ERC has been delaying payments on loans and on the management fees to the contractors for the first year since the project started operating. In September 2018, Ethiopia renegotiated the tenor of loan to 30 years from the original 15-year agreement, signalling a major concession on the part of China. With its European lenders, however, Ethiopia has never missed a payment.

In this area, Ethiopia has seen increased scope for maneuver. It has prioritized its European private creditors where it has less leeway, due to higher reputational and financial costs in non-repayment. Conversely, the strategic and political relationship that Ethiopia holds with China as a regional partner means it has been able to exploit the flexibility of Chinese finance that the bilateral Ethiopia-China relationship offers. Put simply, the political elevation of the railway as a ‘Belt and Road’ project means it is politically unfeasible to allow it to fail, giving the Ethiopian government significant leverage and flexibility over loan repayments.

The Double Edge of Chinese Loans

Despite the corollary of this, the ERC faced a bigger struggle when facing its Chinese contractors in applying pressure and getting compliance compared to the Turkish, where they had a more transactional commercial relationship. In this sense, the tied nature of financing has been a constraint to the exercise of agency. Firstly, in the inability to choose the contractor, which was a condition of financing in both Chinese funded light rail and standard gauge railways. Secondly, in the appointment of Chinese construction company representatives as the employer’s representative,, a position which generally takes the project owner’s side (in this case the ERC) in holding contractors to account on the project implementation and construction. This was the case in the Addis-Djibouti railway, where ERC were compelled to select CIEEC as the employer’s representative. This had repercussions for the level of trust and accountability between the ERC and contractors, as the ERC perceived the employer’s representative and contractors to be in a form of ‘collusion’, and not adequately representing the ERC’s interests.

The political model of finance, despite its advantages in terms of loan repayment, has led to an ineffective employer-contractor relationship. One example of this can be seen in when the project owner (ERC) tried to push the contractor CREC to fulfil a commitment to procure and provide spare parts for maintenance work on the light rail. Pushing the contractor directly was ineffective. Contractors were slow to respond to demands and, with the ERC behind on payments to the contractors for railway operations and management fees, their leverage over the firms was limited. Instead, according to the ERC’s manager on the light rail, they had to pull on political levers, calling on the Chinese embassy and economic counsellor’s office, who then applied direct pressure to the firms to order and pay for parts, and to pay for a new maintenance workshop.

This poor relationship between host and contractor also has implications for the long-term sustainability of the project, particularly for skills and technology transfer. Interviewees at the ERC expressed a sense of missed opportunity in the construction phase of the Addis-Djibouti railway, in terms of the potential for learning and knowledge transfer on railway construction for local staff. There is also a distrust of the firms’ interests in technology transfer on the part of Ethiopian respondents, who see genuine capacity building as a conflict of interest with the incentives of the Chinese companies to hold onto their intellectual property and knowledge, ensuring their continued involvement in the railways’ management. ERC has since learned from this experience and built in an engineering skill transfer component in its Yapi Merkezi deal.

The very fact the two contractors—specialists in construction, not operation—remained in the first place to take over the operations and management signals a failure of capacity building during the early phase. Significantly, CREC and CCECC were both pressured to extend their operation and management role beyond the initial six years agreed in contracts..

Under pressure from China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the ERC, the firms have later set up a capacity building center outside of Addis Ababa, conducting in-house training sessions themselves for staff in maintenance, engineering, and even driver training. Further funding via Chinese aid have supported student exchange for ERC workers at several Chinese universities with railway specializations, and in 2018, MOFCOM pledged funds for a new railway academy, which will specialize in railway vocational training.

In this, the flexibility of this coordinated Chinese model abroad compensated for the poor employer-contractor relationship. The Chinese contractors have continued to fulfil the operation and management parts of the contract, despite late loan payments on the part of the cash-strapped ERC. The comprehensive breadth of skill transfer initiatives involved from both state actors and contractors, in financing new colleges, student exchanges and training courses, are advantages that competitors like Turkish Yapi Merkezi, cannot fulfil, and do not have an interest in.

Furthermore, these state-led and firm-led training and technology transfer initiatives offers not only the transfer of technology, equipment and contractors, but also whole systems of management: the dissemination of China’s own railway technical and managerial standards, operating procedures and protocols, all of which will have a similar impact on the development of Ethiopia’s young railway bureaucracy—in the same way that China’s own railway borrowed from European and foreign partners. This can generate potential path-dependence effects that can ‘lock-in’ advantage for Chinese firms and technology in the future. This can already be seen in the case of the Turkish-built railway, where despite the use of European construction techniques, the design of the railway itself had to conform to Chinese locomotives, and the signaling system to be integrated with the Chinese system that carries the rest of the network.


The burst of Chinese lending overseas following the global financial crisis has been a boon for the development of Africa’s nascent railway sector, and a means to offshore China’s domestic capacity and promote its own railway technology. After this initial exuberance, however, the tide has been slowing down. Debt sustainability has become a keenly politicized issue in Ethiopia and elsewhere, particularly given the railway’s operational challenges. Low uptake, power supply issues, and regional ethnic grievances have complicated the operation of Africa’s first electric railway. This has become a risk to its economic profitability in the long-run—and thus the sustainability of the debt that financed it.

Notably, none of the China-financed railway projects have had independent financial feasibility studies conducted. They were driven instead by the interests of winning contracts for Chinese firms and technology manufacturers overseas, and to satisfy the infrastructure ambitions of Ethiopian political elites. However, the lingering question of the projects’ financial feasibility has induced greater risk aversion on the part of both Chinese and Ethiopian partners, seen in the skeptical comments from state insurer Sinosure, and also puts into question the future expansion of the railway network. A branch extension from the Turkish-built line from Weldiya to Mekele in the North, contracted to the China Communications Construction Corporation (CCCC), for example, has also stalled due to lack of financing. Further loans from China Eximbank will not be forthcoming until the Addis-Djibouti line can be proven to work.

As China’s Belt and Road Initiative continues to broaden in scope, the case of Ethiopia’s railways illustrates the strengths and pitfalls of China’s coordinated model of infrastructure finance. Compared to the European and Turkish project, the advantage of Chinese lending for Ethiopia’s railway infrastructure has been significant leniency and flexibility in the creditor-debtor relationship. This has enabled the ERC to expand its agency in the relationship and ability to manage and prioritise its multiple lending partners. However, there is a trade-off to this flexibility: it has not necessarily lead to a better project. In the case of the Addis-Djibouti railway, it has undermined the ability of host government agencies to oversee and control foreign contractors, which is crucial for new institutions like the ERC, as it seeks to build its own experience and capacity through working with foreign partners.

Chen Yunnan is a Senior Research Officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and PhD Candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She was previously a Global China Initiative fellow at the Global Development Policy Centre, Boston University. At the SAIS China Africa Research Initiative (CARI), her research focused on the rise of China in global development, particularly infrastructure finance in Africa. She has worked at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, and China Dialogue, London. She holds an MA in political science from the University of British Columbia, and a BA in politics, philosophy and economics from the University of Oxford.


Looking at the Belt and Road through the lens of Marxist geography

The Belt and Road is driven by a capitalist logic recognizable to any large economy

By Tom Baxter

In November last year researchers from the Transnational Institute (TNI) wrote a framing paper on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on behalf of the Asia Europe People’s Forum. The paper provided a quite different and refreshing perspective on the BRI, seeing it through the lens of political economy and, in particular, Marxist geographer David Harvey’s theory of the “spatial fix” for economies facing crises of overaccumulation. Steering clear of the noise of proponents’ and opponents’ political sloganeering around the Initiative, the researchers dug into the underlying economic drivers of the Belt and Road. Such an approach is potentially enabling for advocacy groups in that it helps to identify different actors and their motivations within the Initiative and provides new discussion points and perspectives for researchers and anyone else interested in the Belt and Road.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw interviewed the three authors of the framing paper, Stephanie Olinga-Shannon, Mads Barbesgaard and Pietje Vervest, on their critical perspectives on the Belt and Road Initiative.

PPDC: Looking at Belt and Road as a whole, many have seen the motivation for the initiative through the lens of geopolitics – China attempting to increase its influence around the world. In your briefing, however, you reject this view in favor of the macro-economic push factors, which you describe as a “capitalist crisis with Chinese characteristics”. Can you tell us more about this reading of the BRI?

TNI: Viewing the BRI through the lens of political economy, rather than geopolitics, a different picture emerges. Rather than a ‘grand strategy’, we see the BRI as a broad and loosely governed framework of activities seeking to address a crisis in Chinese capitalism. Under the capitalist mode of production, crises routinely emerge and – as argued by geographer David Harvey – an indicator of such crises is the “overaccumulation of capital”. This overaccumulation can be defined as: “some combination of surplus capital looking for productive investment, surplus commodities looking for buyers, and surplus labor power looking for productive employment”. This then requires some sort of fix. As Harvey argues, such fixes are discernible throughout the history of capitalist development. For example, Britain’s export of surplus capital and labor in the nineteenth century to the United States, Australia, Argentina and South Africa. Or more recently, the export of surplus capital from Japan in the 1960s, South Korea in the 1970s and Taiwan in the 1980s. Significant parts of the export from the latter three in fact went to China and helped build up productive capacity there. In the framing paper, we argue that the BRI needs to be seen in the context of such fixes that have also been taking place in China to solve moments of “overaccumulation”.

As we try to show, similar activities to those currently happening under the BRI, in fact began in the 1990s in a similar moment of overaccumulation, as Chinese companies began operating abroad, including state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Thus, in this view, the BRI, like ‘Going Out’ and ‘the Great Western Development Project’ before it, provides a broad framework to incorporate and encourage these activities that seek to provide a solution to overaccumulation.

Almost any activity, implemented by any actor in any place can be included under the BRI framework and branded as a ‘BRI project’. This campaign mobilisation approach to policy making is common in Chinese economic policy. It allows Chinese SOEs and provincial governments to promote their own projects in pursuit of profit and economic growth, while the central Chinese government maintains a semblance of leadership and control over the initiative. Where necessary, the central Chinese government plays a strong politically supportive role, through local embassies, or national ministries or agencies such as the National Energy Administration or the Ministry of Commerce. But at the same time, with such a broad framework, and a multitude of actors involved, the Chinese government has struggled to effectively govern BRI activities.

PPDC: In particular, you talk about BRI as a “spatial fix” to China’s economic woes. Can you explain more about this concept?

TNI: David Harvey explains that when capital, for different reasons, can no longer find profitable outlets, crises characterized by surpluses of money, commodities and industrial capacity emerge, leading to “mass unemployment of labor and an overaccumulation of capital”. Capital is understood here as a process rather than a thing, whereby money is invested into productive labor in order to earn more money. If this process stops, surpluses of capital sitting ‘idle’ – that is, not in process (including money, commodities and machines) – emerge side-by-side with surpluses of labor power (meaning workers, who are unemployed). Under capitalism, such barriers to the process of capital can lead to situations of social unrest. Under globalized capitalism, any and all governments must manage these crises, if they are to remain in power.

David Harvey cover

Such crises are often managed by what Harvey terms a ‘spatial fix’, that is, as Harvey writes in his book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, the “absorption of these surpluses through geographical expansion and spatial reorganisation”. The crux of spatial fixes is to provide new opportunities for productively combining capital and labour in pursuit of profit. Spatial fixes can take many forms, such as opening up new markets by breaking down trade and investment barriers or building large-scale infrastructure projects to absorb surpluses while facilitating expansion into new territories. While these spatial fixes have occurred throughout the history of capitalist development, they are necessarily unable to permanently resolve the crisis, they merely delay or relocate it. In the framing paper then, we try to conceptualise the BRI as encapsulating the latest in a series of spatial fixes happening since the 1990s.

PPDC: What do you see as the principal motivations for Chinese companies, in particular SOEs, to invest along the Belt and Road?

TNI: We see profit as the main motive for Chinese companies, including SOEs, to invest abroad. Since reforms to corporatize Chinese SOEs in the 1990s, they have been required to become self-funding and their success is evaluated by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) primarily based on economic targets, including profit. Investments and projects abroad are one of the means through which these SOEs are pursuing profits. This pursuit can take many forms, e.g. from the construction of infrastructure, to hunting for cheaper manufacturing opportunities, to constantly reducing shipping costs in different ways.

We aren’t thinking in terms of ‘along the Belt and Road’, as this assumes one big physical project, but see these as a broad range of investments branded under the BRI framework. Investments have also been branded by their promoters as ‘BRI activities’ in countries that have not signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) relating to the BRI.

Branding investments and projects under the BRI provides Chinese companies, especially SOEs, with financing opportunities, political support for projects both from the Chinese government and potentially from the government where the project is located, and the prestige of their project being part of a global initiative.

PPDC: Given that BRI is designed to release the pressure valve on China’s overcapacity industries, many of which are polluting heavy industries, to what extent do you think the Belt and Road can really be “greened”, an intention that was reiterated at last year’s Belt and Road Forum in April?

TNI: ‘Greening’ the BRI will be challenging given the scope of the BRI and its focus on mega infrastructure and mega production. As renewable energy capacity has increased in China, some Chinese companies have developed strong technology and experience in this field. However, the use of this capacity and technology has not necessarily been used in BRI-branded projects outside of China. Furthermore, activists and researchers are increasingly showing there is also a ‘dark side’ to renewables, for example Corporate Europe Observatory’s research on so-called ‘renewable gas’.

The type of energy projects implemented in participating countries also depends on what these governments want. Where there is a demand for coal power and large-scale hydropower, profit-seeking Chinese companies will be keen to fulfil these demands. At the same time, we have seen strong lobbying from Chinese energy companies to promote their projects. In Myanmar, for example, hydropower companies, with the support of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon and the National Energy Administration, have lobbied the national government for the expansion of large-scale hydropower in the country’s north.

We also need to think about what is meant by “green”. In China, large-scale hydropower is viewed as ‘green’ and has been key to the reduction of China’s energy emissions. Large-scale hydropower has, however, had devastating impacts on communities affected. It is important that ‘greening’ the BRI does not mean destroying the lives and livelihoods of those involved.

PPDC: In contrast to placing China’s domestic economic issues as the main drivers of the BRI, you describe the geopolitics of Belt and Road as “a consequence” of the Initiative. Can you tell us a bit more about this perspective?

TNI: We argue the primary drivers of BRI are political-economic. The types of profit and growth driven activities currently being branded under the BRI were implemented long before the BRI was announced. However, the BRI does encourage the building of political and public support for the initiative (BRI priority areas number one and five), and trade and investment on such a mammoth scale is apt to change the economies and relations of many places involved, at both the national and local level. The BRI has already impacted relations between China and participating countries, and between participating and non-participating countries. Japan and the United States, for example, have launched similar initiatives in response to the BRI, in an attempt to prevent their own influence from diminishing.

PPDC: If the geopolitical implications of BRI are a consequence rather than a motivating factor, why do you think the initiative has triggered so much scepticism from Western governments, in particular the US?

TNI: Regardless of the drivers of the BRI, many western governments are viewing the BRI through how it impacts their interests (including the interests of capital emanating from their respective countries). As the BRI is increasing competition and BRI-branded projects are changing the physical landscape and movement of goods, people, resources and energy, this is undoubtedly impacting those interests. However, just because the BRI is perceived to be driven by geopolitics, doesn’t mean that it is.

PPDC: You also explain that China and the BRI are, contrary to more commonly heard interpretations, not trying to overthrow the international order, but rather are proactively engaging with international organisations to create legitimacy for and smooth the path for the initiative. Can you tell us more about how China is doing this and the likely intentions and outcomes?

TNI: In recent years we have seen a significant increase in the Chinese government’s involvement in the UN and other international organisations, including funding, personnel and cooperation. At least 29 international organisations have signed MOUs relating to the BRI, and the Chinese government, for example, is promoting the BRI as a key means to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This builds legitimacy for the BRI and seeks to change the perception of the BRI from a threat, to the BRI as a global and cooperative initiative to promote development. The Chinese government, for example, has also been a key advocate for a UN Treaty on Transnational Corporations and Human Rights. Another key moment was President Xi’s 2016 speech to Davos, where he made it clear that the Chinese government was willing to be a champion of free trade, as President Trump espoused more protectionist trade policies. These commitments show that the Chinese government is seeking to play a key and increasingly prominent role in existing international organisations, rather than overthrow them.

A notable exception is the establishment of ‘BRI courts’ for commercial and investor-state dispute arbitration. Here, rather than work within the existing (and flawed) international arbitration system, the Chinese government is establishing their own courts under the People’s Supreme Court. This is likely to create a venue for arbitration that is more in favor of Chinese companies but follows the same model as similar venues in Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong. The Chinese government is, therefore, not overthrowing the existing system, just tweaking it in favor of Chinese actors. We are, therefore, likely to see an international system that increasingly involves and favors Chinese actors, but not an overhaul of this system.

PPDC: Looking at BRI as a “spatial fix” underpinned by economic considerations, what are the most hopeful pathways for better environmental and social governance of the Initiative? 

TNI: Viewing the BRI as a broad and loosely governed framework of many activities, rather than a pre-planned grand strategy, is politically enabling for activists on the ground, in that individual BRI activities (though large) are thereby not so different from other projects that they may have successfully challenged. Rather than being reduced to mere pawns in a larger geopolitical powerplay between governments, people can be mobilized and organized to engage in and/or challenge these activities as they see fit. While still very difficult, it is easier to halt or alter individual activities than an entire grand strategy hence opening up pathways for better environmental and social governance of BRI-branded projects.

Some activists and NGOs have had success halting BRI projects taking a ‘follow the money’ approach. Financiers of BRI branded projects, in some cases, have been willing to review  their financing if the project is shown to be unprofitable or harmful. For example, in March 2019, the Bank of China agreed to review their financing of the Batang Toru hydropower dam in Indonesia following concerns raised by campaigners. The bank has not yet announced the results of their review and the financing for the project remains in doubt. However, activists opposing the dam continue to be threatened and in October 2019 activist Golfrid Siregar died in suspicious circumstances.

Another successful approach has been through litigation in national courts. For example, in Kenya, the deCOALonize campaign won a court case to stop the construction of a BRI-branded coal-fired power plant in Lamu. Their case was based on environmental grounds and the companies’ lack of consultation with affected communities.

Lastly, the Chinese government is sensitive to criticism and does not want to be perceived as an imperial actor. As discussed above, the self-branding nature of BRI activities means that the brand is difficult to control. This presents risks for the Chinese government, who cannot control, and may not even be aware of harmful BRI-branded projects abroad. This sensitivity can also provide an opening for activists and NGOs.

PPDC: Anything else you want to add?

TNI: Chinese investments are often racialized in a way that investments from other countries are not. That is, investments are referred to as ‘Chinese’ or by ‘China’, while investments from other countries are mostly viewed as from a specific company. For example, an international investment by Shell is rarely seen as ‘Dutch’ investment but investment by Shell the company. It is also often assumed that the activities of Chinese SOEs are under the tight control of the central Chinese government, when in reality these enterprises are loosely governed by central or provincial government agencies with limited capacity. As profit-seeking companies, they are, in fact, not innately different from other international companies. It is important that we refer to individual Chinese actors, such as companies and provincial governments, by their names so as not to racialize investments and contribute to anti-Chinese sentiment.

Stephanie Olinga-Shannon researches the Belt and Road Initiative at TNI, with a particular focus on Myanmar. 

Mads Barbesgaard works on agrarian and environmental justice and land and ocean politics at TNI and teaches at the Department of Human Geography at Lund University @Madsbarbesgaard. 

Pietje Vervest is an economic anthropologist coordinating TNI’s economic justice program.



Between the lines: new reports offer a peek into Chinese policy banks

Research teams at Chinese and international institutions collectively shed light on the practices and thinking of CDB and Exim Bank.

In the past few weeks, reports released by teams at UNDP, China Development Bank, the Boao Forum for Asia and NRDC-Tsinghua University open windows into the operation of China’s policy banks when it comes to overseas financing.

None of the reports, even those compiled by China Development Bank itself, are particularly revealing in their description of practices and policies of the state controlled banks, underscoring the general opaqueness of those financial institutions. Most of the information presented in the reports is based on already published materials (policy papers, case studies, news reports etc), and only the Tsinghua University team’s report involved interviews with policy bank executives, providing fresh, first hand information on the banks’ sustainability policies.

Nonetheless, in this desert of accessible information on Chinese state actors, the reports’ compilation of information on the banks’ operations provides some interesting additional insights into how the two policy banks attempt to align their investments with Belt and Road goals and the global sustainability agenda, if you read carefully between the lines. In particular, we get a sneak peek into their differing approaches to environmental and social standards, and how loans for risky but much needed development projects are made secure, at least from the banks’ perspective.

Policy Banks on the Belt and Road

There is already an existing literature on the roles played by China’s main policy banks, China Exim Bank and China Development Bank(CDB), in China’s overseas industrial build-up. It is still worth highlighting, however, the distinctive roles of the two banks, as described in the UNDP-CDB “Harmonizing Investment and Financing Standards towards Sustainable Development along the Belt and Road” report (hereafter as “UNDP-CDB report”). CDB, being the world’s largest national policy bank, offers mainly mid-to-long term non-concessional, commercial loans on the Belt and Road, while China Exim Bank provides mostly concessional loans and export seller’s/buyer’s credit based on market interest rates. According to the UNDP-CDB report, by the end of 2018, CDB had provided financing for over 600 Belt and Road projects with accumulated value of USD 190 billion (USD 105.9 billion still outstanding). The Exim Bank’s Belt and Road portfolio is larger in size, with outstanding loans over 1 trillion RMB (about USD 143 billion) spread across 1800 projects.

A key observation made by the UNDP-CDB report is that loans still occupy a dominant share of Belt and Road financing, as opposed to equity investment. This may be due to the fact that most Chinese financial participants of the Belt and Road Initiative are banks, whose mandate is to provide lending (especially for commercial banks). Nevertheless, the UNDP-CDB report notes that Chinese financing may have also tilted toward loans for their relatively low risk and ability to pool resources for supporting large projects, while equity investment involves longer term exposure to risks over the entire lifecycle of projects and higher transaction costs. But, as a previous blog post on this site has shown, this preference might be changing for some Chinese Belt and Road players as they become more attracted to the higher and sustained return of projects funded through equity investments.

Policy Banks on the Belt and Road
Source of information: UNDP-CDB report

BRI’s heavy infrastructure focus means that the banks’ Belt and Road portfolios tilt heavily towards energy, transportation and construction, with the energy sector the largest recipient of bank financing. The go-to data source for BRI researchers – even for established and connected Chinese research teams, such as at Tsinghua University – Boston University’s Global Economic Governance Initiative shows that coal makes up the majority of the two bank’s BRI financing between 2000 and 2017, followed by oil and gas financing.

Sustainability, Sustainability, Sustainability

One question that observers of the BRI often have is how come Chinese policy banks, despite a domestic emphasis on sustainable development, continues their funding of overseas projects with questionable sustainability, both environmentally and financially. Many analyses approach this question by looking at the banks’ “safeguard policies”, i.e. to what extent can mechanisms at the banks rule out financing “bad” projects. But an interesting insight from the NRDC-Tsinghua report “Research on Green Investment and Financing Standards for Policy Banks in the Belt and Road Initiative” (hereafter as “NRDC-Tsinghua report”) is that domestically, Chinese policy banks, particularly CDB, approach sustainability not so much from a safeguard point of view, but rather from an industrial policy point of view. China’s “green banking” policies are essentially an extension of the central government’s industrial policy. Its central components are sector-specific or client-specific credit guidelines. Through those sector-specific policies, CDB systematically channeled more than RMB 1.6 trillion (about USD 229 billion) into supporting China’s domestic green transformation agenda, which involves the set-up of low-carbon cities and smart cities, pollution control and environmental rehabilitation, renewable energy development and circular economy. In the process, CDB sets up a regular communication channel with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), a key maker of Chinese industrial policies, to screen and create a pool of bankable industrial energy saving projects.

Without the same level of industrial policy coordination and strategic guidance, Chinese policy banks have a much less clear green mandate when financing overseas, and have to resort to basic safeguards based on host country policies. According to the NRDC-Tsinghua report, this approach has clear limitations. The idea of deferring sustainability standards to host country regulations seems to have been deeply rooted in the thinking of bank executives. The NRDC-Tsinghua team’s interview indicates that those executives are fully aware of the “strictness of environmental and social safeguards developed by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank”. But they also believe that strict standards “limit where banks can go in terms of their businesses”, as they require too much on the side of the recipients. These executives nevertheless conceded that when local standards “prove inadequate”, they are willing to bring in Chinese standards (if more robust) as a stopgap. The rationale for applying Chinese standards is to elevate their global acceptance for future technological exports.

The deference approach also applies to grievance mechanisms, where Chinese policy banks demonstrate a clear preference for complaints to be directed to recipient country authorities rather than themselves. Addressing the issue of deference, the UNDP-CDB report recommends governments and financial institutions to assess host country standards and identify countries lacking the ability to implement standards or those lacking standards altogether. Based on such assessment, capability enhancing efforts can be made in the form of technical support or modest grant financing. “Defer to the host country on standards that are already aligned with best-practice standards,” the report prescribes, “but work with the host country to boost implementation, compliance and monitoring capabilities.” This approach can “substitute practices received with limited enthusiasm”, a subtle criticism by report authors of the Bretton Wood institutions’ “conditionality” methods.

Both the NRDC-Tsinghua report and the UNDP-CDB report outline how environmental and social review is embedded in the policy banks’ internal procedurals, with slight differences, as shown in the table below. Before delving into the table, one should note that neither bank currently has dedicated offices or teams to handle environmental and social standards. The safeguard is therefore scattered ( or “embedded)” in bits and pieces across the banks’ due diligence and approval processes without any overarching overseers of how green their lending is. Interviews by the NRDC-Tsinghua team also shows that Chinese bank interviewees have little comprehension of the “Environmental and Social Covenant” approach commonly practiced by international development financial institutions, which would put clients’ environmental and social commitments into loan agreement to become legally binding.

Policy Bank ESS
Source of information: UNDP-CDB report and NRDC-Tsinghua report

The above table might give the impression that safeguards are available and working at the Chinese policy banks, as the banks themselves often argue. But as report writers pointed out, the reliance on recipient country standards mean that in regions with weak governance, such as Southeast Asia, poorly-designed projects might get greenlights. And the lack of a central policy, a dedicated staff and clear project-level standards for environmental and social issues means they are at the risk of being treated as secondary concerns at each of those steps wherein their consideration is supposedly “embedded”.

Green Loan

If the bank’s safeguards seem a bit underwhelming, the Boao Forum for Asia’s “Belt and Road Green Development Case Study” report (hereafter as “Boao report”) brings to the fore interesting details of a solar mill project that CDB financed in Zambia. At Panda Paw Dragon Claw we love graphs and flowcharts that illuminate the workings of Belt and Road actors. The Boao report did a nice job of drawing the below diagram of the parties involved in the CBD solar mill loan:

Zambia Model
Source of diagram: Boao Forum report

Based on the report authors’ description, Zambia’s hydro-powered mills for cornmeal, a staple food for the country, faced curtailed power supply due to a lack of rainfall in 2014, leading to rising food prices. President Edgar Lungu launched the Presidential Solar Milling Initiative to construct 2000 solar mills around the country to ease the pressure on cornmeal supply. The initiative, with a total estimated cost of USD 200 million, was financed through a CDB loan worth USD 170 million. The rest would be paid by Zambia itself.

Despite its green merits – the mills are solar powered and have a public livelihood objectives at its core – the loan also has clear CDB features. Based on the description of the report and news reports from Zambia, the loan appears to be non-concessional (interest rate is unknown), although CDB waived all other fees associated with the loan. It is sovereign guaranteed from Zambia’s Ministry of Finance. A Chinese EPC contractor gets the contract to build the solar mills. And Sinosure, China’s policy insurer, provides mid to long-term insurance for the loan.

Touted as green finance, the loan nonetheless shows both the advantages and limitations of CDB debt financing. Zambia is considered “high risk” in World Bank/IMF’s debt sustainability assessment, and would be advised to avoid or limit non-concessional borrowing. This may restrict the country’s ability to raise funds from international lenders, making CDB’s offering highly attractive. (In cases like this, multilateral development banks would only offer concessional loans with very low or zero interest. And market rate lending will be made to private companies without sovereign guarantee.) While the solar mills may be fulfilling a genuine development need and have a viable future revenue stream (local cooperatives would pay to use the mills), a non-concessional loan inevitably adds to the overall financial stress of a country whose 2018 debt stock stood at USD 10 billion. On the China side, CDB has thoroughly risk-proofed its loan (sovereign guaranteed and Sinosure insured) and the Chinese EPC contractor will reap the benefit of a major construction deal. But Zambia has to figure out how to make the project work in the next 15 years so that the loan can be serviced.

In Zambia, there are already signs of trouble: the President has openly expressed dismay that some of the solar mills have become “white elephants” and is urging provincial officials to take action. Vandalism and theft (of solar panels) also plague the project. “Government borrowed money which has to be paid back with interest,” says Zambia Daily Mail, “Zambia cannot afford to waste resources in that manner (referring to the non-working solar mills).”

If providing financing and construction help get projects like the solar mill initiative off the ground, there is still a distance from a true “win-win” if one side bears a disproportionate risk of project failure while the other side enjoys the safety of near-term benefits.  If the latest reports collectively highlight one thing, it is the disproportional burden Chinese financing is putting on the weak shoulders of its Belt and Road partners, be it environmental governance or debt sustainability. If BRI is to be genuinely “mutually beneficial”, fine tuning that risk-benefit equation would be a first step.

Assessing China’s most comprehensive response to the “debt trap”: the Belt and Road ‘Debt Sustainability Framework’

Ma Xinyue argues that debt financing along the Belt and Road is as much a “trap” for debtors as it is for China

One of the most significant and anticipated outcomes of the second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing this April, was the Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries of the the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI-DSF) issued by China’s Ministry of Finance (MOF). Developed on the basis of the IMF/World Bank Debt Sustainability Framework for Low Income Countries (LIC-DSF), the framework offered some response to the barrage of accusations of China’s use of “debt diplomacy” along the Belt and Road.

Behind the politicized and moralizing tone of the “debt trap diplomacy” narrative is a question over “debt sustainability”, a question which concerns the economic health of both borrower and lender. Before labeling China’s Belt and Road financial behavior as a “trap,” this complex issue deserves diving into.

This prompts us to ask some sets of questions. Firstly, is China actually creating debt sustainability issues? If so, what’s the scale and nature of the problem? Secondly, how does the BRI-DSF absorb and differentiate from the existing debt sustainability frameworks? How sound is this framework? And lastly, what is the implication of this framework on China’s overseas presence? Will it solve the problem and alleviate risks of debt sustainability? If not, what else does it take?

“Debt trap” or “creditor trap”?

China’s debt financing to other countries in the world have mounted since the end of the financial crisis in 2009. In the energy sector alone, China Development Bank and the Export and Import Bank of China have lent $245 billion to other countries between 2009 and 2018, based on calculation from Global Development Policy Center. A newcomer to the scene of development finance, China indeed brings striking volumes of loans and investment.

The “debt trap diplomacy” narrative interprets China’s overseas finance behaviors as state-driven political leverage to gain influence over other countries by bankrupting its partners and bending them to its will (see for example, John Pomfret’s 2018 opinion piece in the Washington Post). A “snappy phrase invented by an Indian polemicist”, as Chas Freeman, the former U.S. diplomat to China puts it, the narrative has been popularized by media and politicians, especially in the U.S., criticizing the Belt and Road (e.g. Mike Pence, 2018; John Bolton, 2018). The most frequently referred to case is the Hambantota Port project in Sri Lanka, which was handed over to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease. Concerns about Chinese loans have also been raised in regards to the Maldives, Pakistan, Venezuela, and many more.

Such arguments have been refuted by the Chinese government as well as some recipient country governments. Both the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and Government of Pakistan that these two countries’ debt to China are only about 10% of their external debt, a fair share of which are concessional loans lower than market rates. Officials from the Philippines, Uganda, and Sri Lanka – to name a few – have also publicly defended their debt from China. Some scholars have also exposed the narrative.

The Center for Global Development – a Washington D.C.-based think tank – made the first systematic attempt to assess the debt implications of the BRI. Using a list of BRI lending pipeline deals compiled from public sources, they estimated immediate marginal impact of potential BRI projects on countries’ debt to GDP ratio – a “worst-case scenario of future debt,” and identified eight countries where debt to China might push their debt to GDP ratio beyond thresholds of 50-60% of GDP. It also listed a compilation of debt renegotiation and relief given by China since 2000, which were further explored by reports from Rhodium Group and Oxford Africa China Consultancy – even though the debt cancelation is said to have only been for overdue zero-interest loans, which are part of China’s foreign aid program.

The China-Africa Research Institute at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS-CARI) and the Global Development Center at Boston University (BU-GDP Center) published similar but empirical analyses of the debts of Africa and Latin American and the Caribbean countries to China based on their debt profiles and recorded debts to China. These reports found that, in the majority of cases, debt to China takes up a small share of countries’ total public debt, although in a handful of debt troubled African countries (Zambia, Djibouti, for example), debt to China does take up a significant share of their external debt, and they are also among the biggest borrowers from China.

Xinyue Figure 1 v2
Figure 1. Changes in PPG debt by source for Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, and Jamaica 2004-2016, Source: Rebecca Ray and Kehan Wang’s calculations using Gallagher and Myers (2019), World Bank IDS and MDB annual reports

The shared conclusion from these reports is that BRI will not likely be plagued with widescale debt sustainability problems, even though it is also unlikely that the initiative will avoid any instances of debt problems among its participating countries. A more recent working paper published by the World Bank also attempted to evaluate the long term debt dynamics impact of China’s loans, taking BRI investment related growth into account. Availability of credible data remains a constraint for these papers. Yet of the 30 countries included in their long-term debt dynamic simulations, in only in 2 countries BRI debt financing would result in increasing debt vulnerability.

Worth noting, however, is that debt relief and restructuring is both relatively common (recorded instance of relief so far reach $9.8 billion) and tends to favor the borrower country. In this light, the “debt trap” might seem more of a “creditor trap” for China than for the borrowing countries, as Stephen Kaplan puts it when analyzing the case of Venezuela. Indeed, from a geopolitical perspective, it is strategic for China to hold leverage in security choke points in case of fundamental disruption of global stability or an outbreak of war. However, financial leverages do not automatically translate into political leverages. Venturing to confiscate its debt-financed assets would mean risking all credibility and reputation for any other international engagement.

On the contrary, China faces more risks giving away debts in financially vulnerable countries. In cases of real financial distress such as Venezuela, China’s debt renegotiation might come with more loans issued in the same country in the hope of generating revenue and recovering the previous loans. Deutsche Bank was recently reported to have confiscated 20 tons of  gold that backed Venezuelan debt, but we don’t see Chinese financial institutions making similar moves.

The Challenge for Development Finance

Public debt financing is a common practice in all countries across the world, even though typical practice of each country varies by a great deal. For example, according to IMF, as of 2017, the general government debt to GDP ratio ranges from 9% (Estonia) to 238% (Japan). As stated in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, borrowing is an important tool for financing investments critical to sustainable development and covering short-term imbalances between revenues and expenditures. Government borrowing can also allow fiscal policy to play a countercyclical role over economic cycles.

Nevertheless, whether high debt to GDP ratios have an impact on a country’s economic performance is much-debated. Most economists agree that there are no certain thresholds or ideal levels of debt to GDP. Rather, it is the dynamics of debt that matters more. The simple logic of debt sustainability is that, as long as the rate of public debt increase does not continuously exceed the growth rate of the government fiscal balance, public debt is sustainable and will not affect economic activity in general.

Then comes the dilemma: given the urgent need to address the Sustainable Development Goals, public expenditure has to increase, but in many countries, the government’s fiscal space is cramped. Scaling up public expenditure requires debt finance, which in many cases would consume primary balance that could have been used for urgent public investment such as physical and social infrastructure development. But if done right, such financing should serve to strengthen the primary balance by facilitating economic and social development and by increasing tax revenue in the long run.

Debt Sustainability Frameworks for the Belt and Road

To “promote economic and social development of Belt and Road countries while maintaining debt sustainability”, China’s Ministry of Finance published its Debt Sustainability Framework (BRI DSF) at the April Belt and Road Forum. The BRI DSF is almost exactly based on the 2017-reviewed version of the IMF/World Bank framework for debt sustainability analysis.

As part of the IMF’s efforts to better detect, prevent, and resolve potential crises, the Fund introduced a formal DSF in 2002. To guide borrowing activities in low-income countries (LICs) in a more nuanced manner, the World Bank and IMF also launched a joint framework for debt sustainability assessment for LICs in 2005. The World Bank and IMF now jointly produce Debt Sustainability Assessments (DSA) for the applicable countries at least once every calendar year, and provide templates for these exercises. Chinese lenders could therefore use the IMF/World Bank assessments as a baseline to guide their activities.

The IMF/World Bank DSF – to which the BRI DSF is aligned – operationalizes debt sustainability management by assigning different thresholds of multiple debt indicators for groups of countries according to their debt carrying capacities, and provides risk ratings based on evaluations of the baseline projections and stress tests relative to these thresholds combined with indicative rules and staff judgment. The 2017 revision adjusted the thresholds with an effort to eliminate conservative bias. It incorporates more factors into the country classification methodology to estimate countries’ debt-carrying capacities.

All of these improvements are also incorporated in the BRI DSF. The only difference in the BRI DSF is in the stress test element. The BRI DSF includes an additional “new borrowing shock” stress test, adding greater stringency to the test.

Both frameworks adopt the same standards for identifying low income countries (based on their eligibility for concessional financial resources). As of May 31, 2019, 47 of the 131 countries that have officially signed BRI cooperation agreements with China are included in the List of LIC DSAs for PRGT-Eligible Countries. The graph below shows the distribution of debt stress risk ratings of these LICs from low to in distress. In addition, another 11 BRI countries not in risks of debt distress have been assigned suggested debt limits in General Resources Account (GRA) arrangements.

BRI Main map (v2)
Figure 2. Risk Profile of BRI Countries with IMF/WB Debt Sustainability Assessment, Source: IMF

For countries in debt stress or at high risk of debt stress, including some countries with moderate risks of debt stress, IMF and the World Bank would advise them to avoid or limit non-concessional borrowing (NCB) (or only accept in exceptional cases), and provide limits for concessional borrowing to some countries, leaving space for grants. For countries with moderate or low risks of debt distress, borrowing would be advised to be assessed on a loan by loan basis, with the option to request borrowing ceilings.

Of the 39 BRI countries subject to IMF/World Bank Group debt limits conditionality, 15 are subject to zero-NCB limit, 8 are subject to non-zero NCB limits, and another 16 are not subject to debt limits or have targeted debt limits, showing a rather balanced risk distribution. (Note that this does not represent the amount of loan granted to each group country, and thus does not accurately reflect actual risk portfolio of China’s overseas development finance.)

The Future with “Cautious Capital”

The DSF risk assessments already inform lending policies of other creditors including many Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs). With the issuance of the BRI DSF, China seems ready to adopt the mechanism too. For China, this is unequivocally a critical step in risk management for Chinese creditors and constructive response to the debt trap diplomacy theory.

According to very rough estimates using the available second hand compiled databases for the stock of China’s overseas debt finance, about 14% to 18% of China’s overseas development finance in BRI countries goes to LIC countries with debt limits, while the number of these countries (39) account for 30% of the BRI countries, indicating that those countries already receive less finance on average from China than non-LIC countries. Given that these estimates are based on flows of commitment rather than debt outstanding, some of these loans are likely to have already been paid off. Nevertheless, considering the sheer volume of China’s overseas finance, this would have been enough of a risk portfolio for China to manage, and also significant enough debt burdens for the recipient countries as well. Future credit making will require much prudence so as to gradually improve these situations.

Such caution has already been shown in the recent trend of China’s overseas development finance flows (See Figure 2 taking China’s overseas development finance in the energy sector as an example). Observers have witnessed a clear downward trend in China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China’s overseas energy finance since the peak in 2016. Where there is relatively reliable data, similar trends are also seen in the cases of all-sector official loans from China to Africa and Latin America. This trend also coincides with recent downward trends over all in the emerging markets and development countries, China’s stagnant FDI flows and overseas contracting activities, as well as strengthening domestic and cross-border financial and capital account regulations.

China overseas finance trend
Figure 3. China’s Annual Overseas Development Finance in the Energy Sector (million$), Source: Boston University, Global Development Policy Center, China’s Global Energy Finance Database

While the strengthening risk-management mechanism demonstrates China’s willingness for responsible engagement with the Belt and Road countries and better alignment with multilateral efforts, this trend also further stresses the inherent challenge of development finance, which carries the crucial function of correcting market failures and providing countercyclical financial resources while maintaining the ability to provide financial resources sustainability. As global financial regulation mechanisms such as the Basel Accords and credit rating agencies step up their scrutiny over development finance in the same way as commercial finance, it seems to be increasingly hard to channel sufficient financial resources to places and in times that need them the most – places where risks are also often higher.

Meanwhile, there is probably no perfect framework for debt sustainability analysis. As the effort of a DSF is to provide judgements about future macroeconomic dynamics in a scenario of debt stress, estimates of the discount factor and feedback effects of fiscal policies would inevitably be subjective, even if empirical analysis of historical data is full incorporated.

Moreover, a framework alone is far from enough. At the end of the day, what sustainable debt positions and sustainable development in general requires is nothing but soundness and sustainability of projects – financially, socially and environmentally. Risk management mechanisms cannot ignore project and social risks, as well as potential physical and policy impacts of climate change, which pose substantial risks to a bank’s carbon intensive energy portfolio

Instead of hindering the scaling up of development finance, risk management should enable development finance to strengthen vulnerable economies and generate multiplier effects over the long term to improve the status of public finance, and insure timely debt repayment. This is by no means an easy task, and requires coordination and trust between governments and the private sector.

Even though debt to China remains a relatively small share in the public debt portfolio of most countries, China has emerged as an important international creditor as the Belt and Road Initiative unfolds, and deserves to be part of the multilateral engagement in debt sustainability control. Meanwhile, given the challenges and imperfect nature of development finance risk management, a diversity of approaches could create healthy competition to get it right.

Xinyue (Helen) Ma is the China Research and Project Leader at the Global Development Policy Center (GDP Center) at Boston University. Ma has experience researching different aspects of China’s international investment with China’s National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC), Control Risks, and China Daily. She received her Bachelor’s degree in International Politics and History from Peking University, Beijing, and her M.A. in International Economics and Energy, Resources and Environment from Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), with a specialization in Infrastructure Policy and Finance.

Belt and Road insiders: What we think about “greening” the initiative

Interviews with banks and SOE executives shed light on what motivates Chinese players to (not) go green in BRI projects.

By Huang Wei and Tom Baxter

When it comes to issues arising from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), be they debt burdens, local community engagement or environmental sustainability, external stakeholders are often more confident with prescribing what China “should” do than offering convincing arguments about “how” Chinese actors can be made doing the right thing. One of the key barriers of translating visions into actions is the lack of access to the actual thinking of Chinese actors involved in the BRI, thanks to the opaqueness of the Chinese political, business and financial institutions.

With the aim of overcoming that very barrier, my team and I recently conducted a round of intensive interviews with practitioners who are at the forefront of China’s overseas endeavors, with a focus mainly on energy investment. The interviewees include large state-owned construction firms; financiers and insurers; and third party consultancy firms that provide accounting and legal services to the Chinese companies. We would like to use this rare window to understand more about the driving forces and roadblocks for greener investment along the Belt and Road.

The Chinese government appears to be increasingly willing to engage in discussion on the environmental sustainability of BRI, with numerous high level officials, including President Xi himself, calling for the Belt and Road to be a “green” initiative. In May last year a government document containing “green belt and road” guidelines was issued to promote such a vision. The document, however, consists of non-binding “guidance”, rather than legally enforceable regulations. In addition, being issued by multiple government departments, it left confusion more than guidance in its wake.

In the twenty months since that document was issued, advocacy groups, think tanks and even industrial associations have worked to flesh out and clarify the government’s intention, producing a proliferation of “voluntary compliance standards” and initiatives targeting everything from banking practices to corporate social responsibility.

But to what extent are such policies actually “greening” the BRI? Are “voluntary standards” and “initiatives” shaping the behavior of Chinese actors participating in the initiative? What is the real impetus for green investment along BRI? These are crucial questions that need to be addressed.

The interviewees were asked a set of questions that focus on their decision making process with regard to environmental standards, the motivations behind those decisions and their perceptions of “Green BRI” in general.

This article will not list out their answers in full. Rather, it attempts to pull out some of the main insights and common themes in order to shine a light on the thinking of key Chinese players when it comes to introducing higher standards for sustainability in BRI projects.

The Chinese government appears to be increasingly willing to engage in discussion on the environmental sustainability of BRI, Image:

The Profit Equation

The most evident conclusion from the interviews was that banks and companies generally don’t have motivation to go beyond recipient countries’ local standards and regulations as they still operate within the simplest market logic of profit maximization.

When we posed the question: How do you decide on your choice of environmental standards for a project? The majority of interviewees would understand the question as, what do higher environmental standards mean for profit.

During the initial process of bidding and negotiation for an overseas power plant, for example, companies need to come up with a project design plan that is both most economically desirable and that ticks the boxes of local environmental requirements and electricity demand. It is an extremely practical process, similar to solving a maximization problem under constraint that economics students are often faced with at school — choices are computed based on input of numbers into a standard formula. Inputting a higher standard will automatically shrink the profit margin and absorb capital that would have been earning money elsewhere. This serves to weaken a company’s competitiveness in a highly competitive field.

It is often argued that environmental risk need to be factored into this calculation for its potential negative impact on profit. But, as was evident from our interviews, when companies and banks talk about “environmental risks”, they are in fact referring to costs and penalties arising from non-compliance, which are real monetized indicators. “Risk” would only influence choice if it is considerable and tangible enough to be input into the profit formula, such as the risks of fines and penalties many heavy industries in northern China face since the introduction of strict emissions standards.

Shielding against market risks

A commonly used argument by critics of fossil fuel-based BRI energy projects is the potential risk of “stranded assets.” Expensive projects may end up as facilities inutilizable as environmental standards and climate change mitigation measures become more restrictive over time. Companies and banks are therefore urged to look beyond short term profit calculus. To many of our interviewees, however, this argument did not ring any alarm bells.

Companies tend to already see themselves as shielded from such long-term risks through the means of contracts at the project planning stage. One example of such a contract is the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) signed during the initial stages of investment in power plant projects. The PPA provides certainty in future price, volume and time period for electricity sold, meaning that any further cost of retrofitting would be borne by the recipient country government, not by companies. Whether or not local governments are aware of the risks that are left on their shoulders in signing such agreements is another question, and one that certainly deserves digging into.

In addition, the most common form of Chinese investors’ participation in overseas project is a short term, “turn-key” EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) contract, which ends immediately upon construction completion. Under an EPC arrangement, long term risks are not a consideration. Longer term contracts, such as Built, Operate, Transfer (BOT), do exist and entail a different set of considerations where longer term risk is a more important factor. The BOT model tends to be more common in investments in overseas hydropower projects.

As for the banks, lending is prioritized in capital structure and potential risks are usually covered by insurance companies such as Sinosure, meaning that banks are sheltered from revenue shock, significantly eroding the effect of the stranded assets argument.

Reputational risks

Advocates for a greener Belt and Road have also argued that companies’ potential reputational gains or losses, and political recognition that could confer, are a key factor in project decision making. Given the state-owned nature of the vast majority of Chinese companies and banks involved in Belt and Road projects, China’s domestic politics, including image and reputation, no doubt do play a role. Our interviews showed, however, that such factors have yet to be seen as tangible indicators for companies to enter into their profit formulas. In fact, contrary to conventional belief, going beyond market norms would put a company under greater scrutiny, which may or may not lead to greater recognition, but certainly adds extra risk to company operations.

Who holds the keys to change?

What and who can motivate for greener investment then? Well, it’s a billion-dollar, and potentially billion tons of carbon, question. But the interviews did uncover some of the key players and factors that are most influential over Chinese companies’ behavior. In my experience, the below “keys to change” are generally not well understood in the communities working to green the BRI.


The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) is an institution under direct management of China’s State Council. It is authorized to act as a shareholder of SOEs with responsibility over their performance evaluation. The SASAC performance evaluation is, then, the closest thing to a tangible measure of SOE reputation. It also gives SASAC distinct power over the career progression of heads of SOEs.

According to interviewees, the performance evaluation (which is not publicly available) still relies heavily, if not entirely, on profit indicators, leaving SOEs with zero incentive to jump out of the profit maximization mindset. Indicating SASAC’s influence over SOE investment behaviour, one interviewee said: “If SASAC could incorporate ‘green’ as quantitatively assessable criteria into the performance evaluation, it would be implemented in no time among SOEs.”


Sinosure is the single Chinese state-owned insurance corporation that provides export credit insurance. The fact that many advocacy groups categorize Sinosure insurance as financing is somewhat misleading, as insurance is actually more like the pre-requisite of financing during real investment cycle.

More often than not, Sinosure’s involvement in a project is what gives it the green light. Banks would rarely say yes to an overseas project without the nod from Sinosure to assure that political and market risks associated with projects far away from home are covered. With few alternatives on the market, Sinosure holds a near monopoly over “life or death” insurance for Chinese companies’ overseas investments and, by end of 2017, had enabled over 2.9 trillion RMB of overseas financing.

Given their vital role as risk-covering agent, there is huge potential to lobby Sinosure to be more attentive to environmental risks.


Morgan Stanley Capital International Index (MSCI) is the most commonly used equity market index for investment portfolio managers around the world. Since 2017, MSCI has been going through a long process of integrating China A-shares (Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchange traded RMB shares) into its Index. It is a milestone for China as the integration would enable publicly listed Chinese companies to gain access to international capital.

Significantly for our purposes, after being included in MSCI a company would be required to undergo Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) assessment and classification. Good performance would allow that company to be included in an ESG index called “the Green Leaders Index”. Any underperforming companies would be removed from that index. This would help portfolio managers who are wary of the risks behind bad ESG performance in emerging market to come to informed decisions. Given MSCI’s large client base, the impact of this indicator on a company could be significant.

Currently, many listed companies that underperform on ESG are seeking solutions from consultancy firms who provide advice on how to improve. This dynamic is not only an engagement chance for those who work on greening BRI, it also has broad implications for environmental advocacy within China.

Signs of Change

Despite the seemingly unbreakable profit calculus of Chinese SOEs, there have been some cases of projects adopting standards higher than the bare minimum required. Three special circumstances stand out:

  1. When there is willingness of a recipient country to go beyond average standards, such as for a flagship project. An example would be the ultra-supercritical Hamrawein coal power plant soon to enter construction in Egypt. For this mega-scale project, the Egyptian government has required higher standards and promised to pay for a higher electricity price. In return, the Chinese financier will give a discount on loan terms.
  2. When a project is backed by a syndicate loan that involves international banks, the project will have to reach the highest standard within the syndicate group (normally that of multilateral development banks such as the World Bank or European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). This effectively forces Chinese financiers to adopt higher standards than they would normally be required to.
  3. Some projects with extremely handsome rates of return will consider raising standards for a win-win outcome on both profit and reputation, according to one interviewee.

Where next for Green BRI?

No systematic change will come from special circumstances, however. To effectively leverage for a genuinely green BRI, stakeholders will have to consider closely how they engage with the dynamics of Belt and Road investments as well as carefully consider what exactly they are advocating for. As one interviewee bluntly put it, his company would only act differently if green requirements are translated into “departmental rules from the government, SASAC performance evaluation criteria, and clear reward-penalty mechanisms.”

The takeaways from the interviews are clear:

Firstly, stakeholders must always be mindful of the communication gap. In order to influence investors, advocates for a greener BRI must be able to speak to them in their language. This requires us to question our assumptions and make sure to study the nitty-gritty of the investment process.

Secondly, “profit” is clearly front and center in investors’ decision-making process. We should not put “green” on balance, hoping that it would outweigh “profit”. Instead, we need to put “profit” on balance, and think about how “profit” can be outweighed by environmental and other factors.

Lastly, outside of profit calculus, there are two strangleholds for investors: one is an assessable “green” benchmark and a clear reward-penalty mechanism from supervisory bodies; the other is a requirement for higher standards from capital providers. This has put the keys to unlocking “green Belt and Road” in a selected few players’ hands. Advocates would do well to focus their efforts on those who hold the keys.

This blog is co-authored by Huang Wei and Tom Baxter. Huang Wei was a Climate & Energy campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia. Her expertise is in China’s overseas energy investment, coal and air pollution in China.

** This article was updated on 27 December to clarify that ESG assessment for a company would occur after inclusion in MSCI, rather than as a prerequisite for inclusion. **

Unpacking Chinese financing of Pakistan’s “dream” power plant

Chinese companies are not just pouring concrete along the Belt and Road. Financing is a big part of China’s overseas involvement.

By Liu Shuang

There has been much discussion about China’s involvement in coal projects overseas. Critics point to the tremendous carbon footprint it may create, and call for a change in the practice. Analyses have highlighted the complicated dynamics that enable the continued build-up of coal fired power capacities around the developing world, against the stern warning of climate scientists.

Within that complex dynamics, financing is one central piece of the puzzle that is often poorly understood. Due to intrinsic difficulties in gaining access to information about how financial actors (especially Chinese ones) operate, presenting an accurate picture of key financial components at project level proves to be challenging.

This blog tries to shed some light on Chinese financed coal-fired power plant, by using a “strawman case” built out of publicly available information.

The case in point is the Engro Thar Block II (ETBII) project in Pakistan’s Sindh province, one of the key coal power projects listed under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As a major destination of Chinese coal investments globally, Pakistan provides a good observatory point to understand why coal projects along the Belt and Road continue to get funded by Chinese lenders.

Engro Thar Block II 2×330MW Coal fired Power Plant TEL 1×330MW Mine Mouth Lignite Fired Power Project at Thar Block-II, Sindh, Pakistan. Source: CPEC Website

“The Thar dream”

Ever since the discovery of the massive coal reserve in Thar in 1991, a desert area 500 kilometers to the east of Karachi, the anticipation of developing Pakistan’s indigenous source of energy has captured the imagination of the nation. The reserve is estimated to comprise 175 billion tons of lignite coal. Unlocking a fraction of it would be sufficient to power the entire country, which, to this date, still heavily relies on imported fuel oil for its electricity demand. But technological barriers had thwarted attempts to tap the resource in the past. And due to concern with climate change impacts, the World Bank withdrew its support for the endeavor in 2009, leaving the project in financial uncertainties for a few years.

The entry of Engro, one of Pakistan’s largest private energy conglomerates, breathed life into the project. But the prospect of developing the Thar minefield really improved after China got on board. In 2014, Engro Thar Coal-fired Power Plant (660 MW) was listed under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). And the year after, a consortium of Chinese finance institutions committed to fund the project, enabling the project to achieve financial closure in April, 2016. According to CPEC’s official project registry, the Engro Thar Block II project is a combination of coal mining and mine-mouth power generation, with the first phase of the coal-fired power plant consisting of two 330MW units.

Engro’s official website celebrated the project as a “significant feat”, marking “a new era for energy security in Pakistan and brings with it the realization of the Thar dream.”

Chinese actors

The project illustrates a typical financing structure that is increasingly common along the Belt and Road.

ETBII Finance

At least four categories of Chinese actors are involved in this case:

Lender : China Development Bank (CDB), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), Construction Bank of China (CBC)

Credit insurance: Sinosure

Construction company (EPC contractor): China Machinery Engineering (CMEC)

Project developer: Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC, with China Power International Holding and CMEC as shareholders)

As in many other similar China-financed projects, the structure features one Chinese policy bank (either CDB or the Export-Import Bank of China), two Chinese commercial banks and Sinosure. The arrangement helps spread financial risks across multiple Chinese players. While players such as CDB has attracted wide attention as one of China’s financial engines powering the Belt and Road Initiative, other key players have managed to stay out of the spotlight. One of them is China Export & Credit Insurance Corporation (Sinosure), whose involvement in such deals can often tip the balance between go and no-go.

Sinosure engages in a business known as “policy insurance”, non-profit oriented insurance bankrolled by China’s treasury, with the aim of promoting the country’s export and overseas investments. In a project like ETBII, Sinosure provides an Export Buyer’s Credit Insurance to the Chinese financial consortium against the risk of repayment delay or failure due to political or commercial reasons. For a range of risks from war to contract breach, the company offers a maximal 95% insured percentage. The safety net is critical in markets with high uncertainty and gives Chinese companies a considerable edge. Despite the seemingly bottomless “pockets” of Chinese policy banks and state-owned commercial banks, whether Sinosure is on board usually accounts for “50-60% of the weight” in their decision making, according to those familiar with the matter. And Chinese actors don’t even have much choice. Alternatives to Sinosure, commercial insurance companies or foreign insurers, are much less desirable for their high charges. Sinosure’s influence in deciding China’s overseas energy footprint cannot be underappreciated.

Even though on paper Sinosure may maintain an “agnostic” approach to the types of energy projects it insures, be they coal-fired or renewable, other project features can tilt it more toward coal. Guarantee from a project’s host country government matters to an insurer. Large fossil fuel projects, in this regard, usually have better access to state support than renewable energy projects much smaller in scale. Smaller project size also means a lower “financial threshold” of entry, attracting developers that, to insurers, are intrinsically riskier. Large fossil fuel projects may also leave behind more valuable fixed assets than renewable projects in occasion of a default, an important consideration for insurers. All those non-climate related factors may make Sinosure more inclined toward projects like ETBII.

A bankable PPA

In any major power project that involves financing from international lenders, the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) often ranks as the most important contractual component of the deal. On the surface, a PPA is merely an instrument that facilitates the sale and purchase of electricity. But more importantly, for most power projects, payment from the buyer under the PPA constitutes the only revenue stream for the project company to repay its loans. The negotiation and set-up of a PPA would often decide if a project is considered “bankable” to potential lenders.

The Pakistani authority has more or less standardized the PPAs of coal power projects, making them acceptable for international financiers. In a 2016 presentation by Pakistan’s Private Power and Infrastructure Board (PPIB), a government body that facilitates investments into the country’s power sector, it boasts government guarantee of power purchaser obligations, attractive Return on Equity (ROE), tariff indexation against inflation and government assurance of foreign currency conversion as terms that would sweeten a power deal for foreign investors. Most, if not all, of those elements will end up in a project PPA.

Based on the information published by Pakistan’s National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA), we could get a glimpse of the key components of the PPA for ETBII.  The following chart lists those components and juxtaposes them with equivalent PPAs of wind power projects in Pakistan for reference.

* A selection of multiple wind energy PPAs from the NEPRA website is used here for reference purpose

Beyond the fact that a coal power PPA usually features a relatively low electricity tariff, which is highly valued by Pakistan’s policy makers and regulators that put “affordability” of electricity at the center, the PPA also caters to the needs of other key stakeholders in the deal. From a lender’s point of view, the PPA’s tariff formula incorporates debt service considerations of the project, based on a standard interest rate (London Inter Bank Offer Rate plus 450 basis points) for foreign currency loans. In addition, it also promises an over 30% Return on Equity for the project’s sponsors (i.e. shareholders), which is higher than what’s typically factored in in PPAs of other similar projects (15%-20%).

The PPA represents a different kind of product that is being promoted along the Belt and Road: the knowhow of setting up financial frameworks of projects fundable by Chinese financial institutions. As Chinese banks and companies take leading roles in overseas power projects, they share their expertise with host countries, showing them how to make projects work. This is something much less tangible than the infrastructure projects ended up being built, but no less important.

The enabling environment

Chinese financing can only be materialized into projects with the help of enabling investment and regulatory frameworks in Pakistan, co-created by a host of government agencies. The bonding of the two elements releases “energy” that propels Belt and Road power projects forward.

In the ETBII case, beyond PPIB support of the project, endorsement statements were provided by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources and the Government of Sindh in support of the project, quoting energy security and the use of “indigenous resources” as main reasons; the province’s Environmental Protection Agency issued a No Objection Certificate, with no climate considerations included.

For those with a view to contain and even reverse the “chemical reaction”, understanding both the financing element and the enabling element will better prepare them for engagement and intervention. The strawman case is not meant to depict a complete picture. Yet the snapshot it creates should contribute to the mapping of key players and their interactions that illuminate the way ahead.

Liu Shuang is the Director of Energy Foundation China’s Low-Carbon Economic Growth Program. At Energy Foundation China, she develops and implements program strategies, manages grants on carbon emission scenarios, market-based instruments, economic analysis of environmental and climate policies, and mainstreaming climate research into economic growth. She holds an MSc in Environmental Economics from University College London and a BA in Economics from Peking University.

Letter from Ghana: Africa embraces its China partnership reluctantly

African leaders, more than a “benevolent” China, should set the tone for Africa-China relations, argues Kofi Gunu

By Kofi Gunu

When I first became aware of China’s growing influence in Africa, I was only ten years old. Ghana was set to host the 2008 African Cup of Nations, the continent’s biggest soccer competition, and work was progressing steadily on a new multipurpose stadium in my hometown, Tamale—one of the tournament’s host cities. Our remote savannah town swirled with rumors about the Chinese construction firm undertaking the project and the files of Chinese foremen who marched chain gang-style to the construction site each morning. I recall my Catholic priest explaining once that the contractor, apparently frustrated with the negative work ethic of his Ghanaian laborers, had replaced all but a few of them with convict labor imported from China.

Later I would learn that this was nothing more than a myth, one of many urban legends concocted by locals trying to make sense of the strangers in our midst. But for a long time afterwards, the imposing Tamale Stadium stood in my young mind as a symbol of China in Ghana and Africa, at once shrouded in mystery and impossible to ignore.

The scale of China’s involvement in Africa is a point of surprising contention. Western politicians and media, alarmed at the significant diplomatic, economic, and military roles China has assumed on the continent, often exaggerate its efforts. Chinese experts, eager to assuage these fears, hasten to cite studies which show that Chinese investment and aid to Africa is safely smaller than the West’s.

However, nothing can obscure the truth that China is Africa’s biggest economic partner now and into the foreseeable future. China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner. Additionally, according to the Bilateral FDI database and McKinsey, China is poised to surpass the US as Africa’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) stock within the next decade Chinese official development assistance (ODA) and other official flows (OOF) to Africa together added up to 6 billion USD in 2012, making China the third largest country donor to the continent. Besides, since 2012, loan issuance by Chinese institutions to African governments has tripled accounting for approximately one-third of all new sub-Saharan African government debt.

A recent groundbreaking report from Mckinsey & Company, that sought to evaluate Africa’s economic partnerships globally, showed China among the top four partners for Africa across five key dimensions: trade, investment stock, investment growth, aid, and infrastructure financing.

Source: Dance of the Lions and Dragons, McKinsey & Company, Jun 2017

To objectively analyze China’s footprint in Africa, we must first arrive where reality is. The reality is that China is indispensable to Africa’s development agenda.

This reality is one that many on the continent acknowledge but with mixed feelings. A recent large-scale public opinion survey showed that ordinary Africans appreciate the infrastructural development that closer ties with China has brought. Chinese-led projects and businesses also employ several million people across Africa. African policymakers, a growing number of them Chinese-educated, increasingly look to China, rightly or not, as a model for catalyzing growth and eradicating poverty.

These positive reviews notwithstanding, legitimate questions persist about the motives behind Chinese assistance. Resource-for-infrastructure deals, which may make perfect financial sense to Chinese bankers, set off loud alarm bells on a continent whose vast mineral wealth has been used to enrich everyone but its own people. Citizens decry a political elite that appears incapable of looking beyond narrow political considerations to safeguard Africa’s interests. With a few notable exceptions, African governments lack defined China strategies, master plans for translating increased investment in priority sectors into sustainable development or for ensuring technology and skills transfer. They are waiting for Chinese firms to take the initiative. This lack of confidence in our leaders, far more than a crisis of explanation as proposed in a blog entry by Shou Huisheng earlier this week, is the main reason Africans remain apprehensive about this budding partnership.

Take, for instance, tensions sparked by the influx of hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants to Africa in recent years. In Ghana, these tensions are felt most acutely in the small-scale mining sector, where the arrival of Chinese prospectors  with machinery and heavy equipment has transformed a hitherto unsophisticated industry into a major driver of ecological catastrophe. Galamsey, as the practice is commonly known, has caused irreversible damage to protected forests and polluted vital water bodies. Matters got to such a point that the government was forced to impose a blanket ban on small-scale mining last year and to arrest several Chinese operators, over the objections of the Chinese ambassador. But far from being placated, many Ghanaians continue to point fingers at the authorities for permitting Chinese nationals to flout the country’s laws in the first place. To quote a caller on a Ghanaian radio program: “The Chinese government will never allow us to go to their country and trash it. Why does our government allow it here?”

The fate of China-Africa relations depends on Africans like this caller who are willing to hold African governments accountable for protecting the continent’s interests as they engage with China. As African heads of state convene in Beijing next month for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), ordinary Africans are expecting them to show more agency in articulating a clear and well-prioritized China strategy. China’s presence in Africa will produce win-win dividends, not because benevolent China pre-ordains it, but because farsighted African leaders insist on it.

Kofi Gunu is from Ghana. He graduated from Tsinghua University’s Schwarzman College in 2018 with a master’s degree in global affairs and public policy. Prior to that, he held roles at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Global Green Growth Institute. He is currently completing a year of national service in Accra.


China in Africa: discovering the “China Model” through empirical evidence

Empirical research depicts a picture of Chinese involvement in Africa different from common perception

By Shou Huisheng

Africa is a continent where many Chinese ideas about investment and foreign aid are being piloted. As a result, China’s experience there is valuable for its involvement in other developing countries, particularly those along the Belt and Road. Since the early 2000s, “China in Africa” has been a major focus of international attention. The focus of the discussion is on the “China model” as reflected by the patterns of Chinese investment and aid. This blog tries to summarize that discussion, and outline how the international community, in particular Western countries view Chinese involvement in Africa. It is hoped that a better understanding of the discussion will help China improve its practices in other developing countries.

Common Misconceptions

Relying on empirical studies and statistics, many Western scholars have objectively evaluated China’s contribution to African development. They recognize that China’s infrastructure investments and foreign aid in African countries have fundamentally changed their developmental path. Many also acknowledge the uniqueness of China’s “unconditionality” approach. They believe that the “no strings attached” method does indeed give agency back to African countries trapped by Western conditional aid in the decades following World War II.

But such views tend to dwell only in academic circles. In government and public opinion, negative perceptions of Chinese aid and investment prevail and persist. In this regard, Rex Tillerson’s comments are quite representative. Before the former US Secretary of State visited Africa in March this year, he made a speech criticizing Chinese involvement in Africa. “Chinese investment does have the potential to address Africa’s infrastructure gap, but its approach has led to mounting debt and few, if any, jobs in most countries,” he told his audience. “When coupled with the political and fiscal pressure, this endangers Africa’s natural resources and its long-term economic political stability.” Later that week, in Ethiopia, he reminded African countries to “carefully consider” the terms of Chinese investments and the “predatory” model behind them.

Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed disapproval of Chinese involvement in Africa on Mar 6, 2018. Photo courtesy US Embassy in Senegal.

Some experts consider Tillerson’s views to be “singing the same tune” as Hillary Clinton, when she visited Africa in 2011 and 2012, even though things have changed much since then. But such views remain popular today. In sum, the “predatory model”, as understood through such a lens, means three things:

First, that China is promoting neo-colonialism in Africa. It supports proxy regimes, “divides and conquers” African countries, and bases investment and aid decisions on diplomatic and political considerations. Cheap Chinese loans make African countries dependent on China’s economic largess. Chinese investments mainly target primary resources and land, creating an unhealthy economic structure and unbalanced trade in recipient countries. Short-term prosperity may become a long-term trap.

Second, that Chinese investments actively seek corrupt and autocratic governments to work with. Unconditional Chinese aid in fact provides a free pass to these regimes. In other words, China’s autocratic government is actively looking for its own African proxies through aid and investment.

And last but not least, that the Chinese government and its corporations disregard local environmental, social and cultural concerns. They turn a blind eye to labor rights and the interest of minority social groups.

The real model in statistics

The negative perceptions are persistent, but they are not evidence-based. In contrast, some Western scholars have done long-term empirical studies of China’s presence in Africa. They have collected data on Chinese aid and investment, run fact-based analyses and come to conclusions different from popular perceptions. The AidData database developed at William & Mary College, and the China Africa Research Initiative led by Prof. Deborah Brautigam at Johns Hopkins University are two major sources of such analyses. Even though the data quality and methodology could be improved, these quantitative studies do complement the more anecdotal case studies and observations we often see.

Below are a few key observations from the empirical studies:

First of all, Western media has generally overstated the scale of Chinese investment and aid in Africa. People are made to believe that Chinese involvement in the continent is way larger than that of the West. A wide range of figures about the stunning scale of Chinese finances in Africa have been floating around, but many have been proven to be wrong. In addition, Western media often gives the impression that China’s Export Import Bank provides more loans to Africa than the World Bank does, despite the fact that the World Bank remains Africa’s largest development finance provider since 2010. These exaggerations do not just create anxiety in the West. They may also mislead African countries into believing that Chinese loans are easy to get.

The second observation from empirical data is related to resource grabbing. In fact, only 10% of Chinese loans to Africa goes into oil and minerals. And much of that is concentrated in just a few countries. The biggest loan in this area was offered to Sonangol, the state owned oil company of Angola. On the other hand, 56% of Chinese loans flow into transportation, electricity and telecom. In other words, China invests more in African infrastructure than natural resources.

The third notable fact is that roughly one third of Chinese loans require or allow African countries to repay in energy, minerals or agricultural products. China calls such arrangements “resource-backed loans”. These are often the target of “resource-grabbing” criticism in Western media. But in reality, even though the Chinese government and companies purchase large quantities of energy and mineral products, they seldom control the ownership of such resources. For instance, even if China imports 49% of Angolan oil, most of the country’s oil is controlled by American companies, with Chinese firms controlling less than 10%. The main purpose of having loans repaid in commodities is to hedge against financial risks, rather than controlling resources. This is a reasonable arrangement, given China’s own experience of attracting foreign investments with the same approach in the early years of its Reform and Opening. From as early as 1975, Deng Xiaoping encouraged commodity-backed investment deals with Japan, which allowed China to get access to much needed funding for development. China repaid much of those Japanese loans in commodities throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Data also shows that the destination countries of Chinese policy loans are no different from those of the World Bank, despite perceptions that they predominantly go to countries with rich resources and corrupt governments. Between 2000 and 2014, Ethiopia was the second largest recipient country of Chinese loans in the continent. The country isn’t particularly rich in natural resources, and China’s involvement there is mainly in building industrial parks, driven by the country’s large population and potential market size. Over the same period, Ethiopia was also the World Bank’s top borrower in Africa.

There also appears to be no strong correlation between an African country’s political ties with China and the likelihood of receiving Chinese aid and investments. Zimbabwe traditionally has a strong tie with China. However, it does not even make the top ten list of Chinese lending in Africa. Moreover, unlike ODA, China usually does not cancel a country’s loans. Chinese policy banks and commercial banks usually choose to extend a loan or lower the interest rate to deal with payment issues. Even Zimbabwe, widely seen in the West as China’s proxy regime in the region, complained about how difficult it was to get a cancellation of debts. Chinese bank officials have made it clear that they don’t waive debts against market principles.

Orange and Apple

And finally, the data tells us to differentiate numerous types of Chinese finances in Africa. In the West, people tend to group Chinese money all in one basket and consider it all directed by China’s diplomatic and political priorities. But Chinese ODA and commercial loans follow different logic. Statistics from AidData show a very weak correlation between Chinese ODA and a country’s natural resource endowment. It also has very little to do with political systems or governance capabilities. This is in line with the non-intervention principle that China upholds.

Western countries’ ODA tends to go into African countries with large populations. Chinese ODA is not, however, tied to population size. The one clear feature of Chinese aid is that it leans more towards low-income African countries. These characteristics indicate that Chinese foreign aid is more development-oriented than political or commercial-oriented.

Chinese commercial lending, however, is different. The same analysis from AidData shows that it has a much stronger propensity to go after natural resources, thanks to the Chinese market’s large appetite for African resources. They are also more likely to be associated with corrupt and autocratic regimes. Researchers at AidData offered two plausible explanations. First, some Chinese companies and government departments do regard corruption as a “lubricant” to commercial activities, and have brought certain problematic domestic practices to Africa. Another explanation is that Chinese commercial entities are less risk-averse than their Western counterparts, as commodity-backed arrangements and the likes effectively reduce risks in investing in such countries.

Both explanations have some validity. And the two factors could indeed work together. Considering that the economic growth of the continent in the past 20 years has been driven largely by energy and resource demands from China and other emerging markets, rather than the ODA or investments from Western countries, it is reasonable to state that Chinese commercial lending, with its distinct features, are better suited to the pragmatic needs of African countries. Being a “business partner” with corrupt governments is something ideologically repulsive to many Western actors. Convincing Western society that this could be overall beneficial to African development is a huge challenge for China. And for the moment, China should do its best to make its ODA and commercial investments more transparent in Africa.

To be clear, the main reason for the lack of statistics-based, quantitative research on Chinese aid and investment is the low transparency on the side of the Chinese government. Researchers have observed that existing statistics actually tell a quite positive story about China’s involvement in Africa and have suggested the Chinese government to be more upfront with collecting and releasing statistics. But apparently China still has lots to worry about when it comes to transparency (one of the biggest concerns is possibly domestic public opinion, strands of which see China’s involvement in Africa as “handing free gifts to other countries” while many regions of China are still relatively poor). Short-term improvement of the dataset is therefore unlikely. Nevertheless, the government should attach more importance to the matter and begin to invest more into setting a more quantitative and objective basis for assessing Chinese aid and investments overseas. The recent setting-up of China’s international aid agency (CIDCA) is a welcome move to facilitate the process.

Dr. Shou Huisheng is Senior Fellow at the Statecraft Institution, Research Fellow at the National Strategy Institute, Tsinghua University. Dr. Shou received his doctoral degree in political science from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The blog is based on a recent speech he made recently.