Development blogging: understanding social media support for BRI

What a new genre in Chinese social media tells us about how the Belt and Road Initiative is perceived domestically

*Note to readers: I wrote this article originally for my other blog Chublic Opinion, titled “Anxieties of development: emerging voices in Chinese social media.” But the themes explored here are also relevant for readers who are interested in learning where China’s overseas initiatives sit in domestic public opinion.

In August 2018, an online post by “Shenzhen Ningnanshan” (深圳宁南山, hereafter “SN”) piqued the interest of Global Times chief editor Hu Xijin, who pointed his followers to the lengthy list of complaints about high property prices and education costs that, according to SN, threaten to sap the morale of an “urban middle class that has fundamental faith in China’s developmental trajectory”. Hu, who often presents himself as an interlocutor between the regime and the public, acknowledged the complaints’ “authenticity” and “sincerity”. In a published response, Hu reminded government officials to read SN’s article carefully, as it represents “the real worries of the People’s Republic’s hardworking constructors.” These people should be heard and shown the country’s future directions.

The exchange underscores the weight assigned to urban middle class voices by a political elite keen to monitor a constituency consequential to national progress and stability. But SN is no ordinary disgruntled working man. At the beginning of his post, he wrote that his articles were often read by “people up there”, meaning Party leaders and officials, and he hoped that this one reached them too. SN’s extraordinary influence in social media is part of a bigger story of development blogging‘s ascend in Chinese cyberspace. It has become a genre, fueled by the economic slowdown and heightened trade tensions with the United States. Microbloggers such as SN dedicate their social media space to big questions like China’s place in the world and if it can overcome the middle-income trap. And they find a growing audience, including “people up there”, tuned in to listen to their diagnoses of China’s ills and prescriptions for cures.

The escalation of the US-China trade tension in early 2018 became an assembly rallying cry for these online voices, who collectively shaped how the Chinese public perceived the clash between the two countries. SN’s Mar 24 post “Trade War: an interlude in China’s rise to surpass the US” was one widely read online analysis of what the trade war was really about. It distinguished itself from two kinds of “extreme voices”. On the left, Maoists were calling for China to go back to autarky, a state of non-trading economic self-sufficiency, while on the right, people were advocating for deep concessions that would surrender much of China’s industrial and technological agenda. SN’s views were essentially realistic nationalist, conceding that China was not ready to take on the US at this very moment but firmly believing in the inevitability of national rejuvenation through the conquering of technological commanding heights in multiple key industries.

The history of “online statecraft” by Chinese netizens dates to the dawn of China’s Internet age, as early users of chatrooms and BBS forums heatedly debated China’s geopolitical strategies and military posture. The perceived futility of such online discussions in a country with very limited political participation has been a subject of ridicule, as manifested in a popular online joke about a “basement-dwelling patriotic youth“, who preoccupies himself with questions of national security but can’t even guarantee his own personal safety against the intrusions of the state.

Different from the brand of juvenile statecraft that resembles an online projection of masculinity, the emerging development bloggers build their profiles to exude maturity and credibility. SN’s Zhihu page (Chinese equivalent of Quora) describes himself as a “middle class person moving bricks in Shenzhen” (“moving bricks” is a humorous online reference to making money). His Weibo account carries a tag line that says “re-recognizing our own country.” Although his true identity remains unknown, many believe that he works with supply chains in Shenzhen, giving him first-hand insights about the frontier of Chinese technological advancements. A Zhihu user tried to paint an imagined profile of him: “around 40 years old, grew up in a modest family, graduated from a top Chinese university, works at a major manufacturing company and earns 1 million RMB a year.” Some of SN’s peer bloggers are more upfront about their real-life identity. A group of Weibo accounts which frequently interact with and promote SN’s posts, self-identify as the Society of Wind and Cloud (风云学会), which is supposed to be associated with the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). One of the key voices from the group, Chen Jing (陈经), is research director at Asia Vision, a company specialized in Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Beijing Saidong (北京塞冬, hereafter as Saidong), another popular development blogger who has friendly interactions with SN both online and offline, is a Peking University-educated computer scientist who works in the Internet sector.

Their technology/industry background gives them credibility when they write on issues related to China’s growing industrial might or its competition with other countries in developing next generation semi-conductors, even though their topic areas go way beyond their professional domains. Chen Jing, for example, writes extensively on microeconomics, trade, and… football. In 2016 he even published a book called “China’s government-organized economy” that claimed to have discovered the secret of China’s economic miracle: an economic model that is neither market nor planned, but run by multiple levels of the government using market-based approaches. The idea is not entirely new but it shows the appetite of typical development bloggers, who enjoy throwing out grand theories about China’s rise. They sometimes refer to themselves as the “industrial party”(工业党), people who firmly believe in a country’s industrial might as its passport to success.

The “industrial party” bloggers share a lexicon of terms such as “per capita GDP”, “demographics”, “supply chains” and “national fortune”, which reflects a tendency to think in aggregates and a competitive arena-shaped world view. Their interest in (obsession with) nations, their rise and fall, prosperity and poverty, fill their Weibo/WeChat pages with lengthy, data-heavy accounts of national competition and dominance. Popular posts written by SN in the past year include titles like “The competitiveness of China’s low-end industries“, “China’s development and the East Asian hell model“, and more bluntly, “Challenging white superiority: the competition a thousand miles away“. Collectively they depict a picture of a merciless ladder called “development” on which nations laboriously climb. At the top of the ladder sit countries with the highest per capita GDP, enjoying comfortable privileges, while other lower income countries fight to occupy favorable positions underneath. “Overall, the white world, Europe+North America+Australia/New Zealand+Israel, still makes up the top echelon of nations,” writes SN in a post responding to an IMF data release, “when per capita GDP goes above 40,000USD, only very few non-white nations can enter that area… Japan and a few ethnic Chinese economies, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore managed to achieve that. We should have confidence in ourselves.”

The racial message is even more explicit in his wildly popular post on how China could break from the East Asian model. A sense of injustice oozes from the text when he observed how, in the past two decades, the 20 or so countries that surpassed Japan in per capita GDP were mainly European. “The life of Europeans is really laid back, while East Asians, whose intelligence and hardwork are universally recognized, have to endure intensive, hellish work hours.” He continued, “there must be a problem when a lazy people’s economic performance goes beyond a hardworking people’s.”

The problem, as SN saw it, was an “invisible hand that pinned East Asian economies on a few narrow and fiercely competitive industrial tracks”. Most of them lack vast agricultural lands or natural resources that support lucrative businesses such as agrochemicals or energy extraction, sectors dominated by Americans and Europeans. More importantly, he asserted that military shackles placed by the United States on East Asian states, particularly Japan and South Korea, suppressed their technological potential, as military-to-civilian transfer is a major pathway of technological innovation. He also maintained that Western capital had been extracting disproportionally high returns from investments in premium East Asian companies such as Samsung, exploiting their “capital superiority.” Those restrictions and suppressions limited East Asian states to a small number of industries such as semiconductors, forcing people in those countries to compete fiercely for a finite number of middle-class jobs generated by those sectors. China, free from the above constraints, could be the only East Asian nation with the potential to redefine an East Asian developed economy, he declared.

If this sounds alarmingly like a (milder) version of Japan’s complaint about a suffocating “Anglo-Saxon encirclement” prior to World War II, fellow bloggers only reinforce the impression by repeatedly invoking the imagery of shrinking “development space” for China. Only in this case, the “space” is not so much the physical territory that pre-war Japan was paranoid about, but rather the remaining seat at the table of developed economies in a game of musical chairs. The sheer size of China’s population makes some wonder how the current global order can accommodate another billion people to join the high-income club. “It took a world-class conglomerate like Samsung to pull 50 million of South Koreans into developed status. China has a population 28 times larger. How could the world absorb another 28 Samsungs?” wrote Weibo user Qingpuluo the day after Trump declared a trade war on China, using very rough mathematics. He believed that China would not reach developed status within the existing global framework by simply “trading with developed economies.” It needs new space.

This is also a theme that SN often explores, although his views are colored by a more ideological tinge. Again using back-of-the-envelope calculations, he asserted in one of his posts that 1.4 billion newcomers to the industrialized club would “completely change the face of “developed economies”, which currently cover just 800-900 million people. Racially speaking, Asians would replace Caucasians as the majority. Politically speaking, the West’s control over the world would be much diminished as China becomes the first developed Asian power that’s not subject to Western military control. Culturally speaking, the “cultural composition” of what it means to be “developed economies” would fundamentally change with China’s entry. He insisted that the white-majority developed world wouldn’t tolerate such tectonic shifts and would be prepared to stave off China’s rise.

In keeping with the industrial party’s manufacture-centric world view, some bloggers looked at the issue through a “global value chain” framework. Citing a recent report in Japanese media, Machinery & Engineering Strategy (机工战略), an industry voice represented on Chinese social media, observed how US companies took in as much as 40% of total global corporate profits (of 18,000 publicly listed companies from 100 countries).  Another blogger distilled the phenomenon into a globalization pyramid made up of 3 camps of countries: at the top are technology and capital providers, in the middle are labor providers and at the bottom are natural resource providers. China’s struggle to move from camp 2 to camp 1 and grab a bigger share from the highest tier of the value chain is considered a major uphill battle that the country has to fight. Saidong has found a real-life illustration of the battle in the global value chain of electronics, where China has evolved from an assembler to a major parts supplier and brand owner, chipping away, bit by bit, the economic cake from Apple, Samsung, and Japanese/Taiwanese manufacturers. “The extensive electronics value chain creates high-end R&D jobs, mid-level trade and logistics opportunities and low-end assembly line employments that can accommodate a huge and diverse workforce,” he argued, “it’s a godsent for any developing economy.”

The idea of “development space” shapes the thinking of development bloggers when they consider major strategic topics such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To be clear, unlike the way it is scrutinized and debated in the West and in recipient countries, the BRI is barely an issue on Chinese social media, likely due to its lack of connection with the day-to-day experience of ordinary Chinese netizens. One notable exception is the “industrial party”. Deeply concerned about China’s future position in the world, these bloggers quite often engage in intellectual exercises about China’s adventures overseas and what they mean for the country.

Africarail
Development bloggers are exceptions to a Chinese social media largely indifferent to China’s overseas endeavors. Image from an SN post discussing Chinese railway developments in Africa

In a recent long post for the Society of Wind and Cloud, Saidong did an extensive analysis of Africa’s future demographic changes and their implications for China. With multiple graphs, he highlighted the pyramid-shaped population structure of today’s Africa and marveled at how it resembled that of India 40 years ago. Based on a few bold assumptions, he calculated in a quick-and-dirty fashion, that Africa’s total population would reach 2.5 billion in 30 years while its GDP per capita would enter the 3000-4000 USD terrain. “We will witness the emergence of an Africa that’s 2.5-4 times the economic size of today’s India”, he predicted. By then, the continent would have produced a group of mega-population countries. Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt would all boast populations over 200 million. As he saw it, in 2050, these countries would still be relatively poor and not fully industrialized. Yet their vast internal markets would make ideal destinations for Chinese industrial products, infrastructure construction capacities (and overcapacities), and Internet services. “Africa, with its size and potential, represents a new market that a late comer like China can more easily access,” Saidong argued, apparently alluding to the resistance China may face when it enters existing markets with established players. At the end of the article he reminded his readers that in the 21st century, China’s “national fortune” would be decided by how it approaches the “6 billion people in African and Asian developing countries.”

When they apply such a world view inward to scrutinize China’s domestic developments, the development bloggers constitute a formidable force on the Chinese Internet, challenging some of the Communist Party’s most important policy agendas. Just as they are sensitive to demographic changes in other developing countries, they are keenly aware of China’s rapidly aging population and are some of the most vocal online critics of family planning policies. The perception of growing populations as a source of national strength and growth potential shapes their attitude toward the one-child policy. In a widely circulated Weibo post, SN took on China’s population control and real estate market at once. “Years of propaganda in our country treat population purely as a burden,” he wrote, “but a large and growing population can actually bring lots of benefits.” These benefits, in his mind, include a great number of entrepreneurial opportunities and the job creation ensued, cheap labor and service that propel new business models, and higher returns from property booms kept afloat by the continued urbanization process. Because of the depth of China’s domestic market, it has the guts to confront the United States without the fear of “economic collapses experienced by Turkey or Iran”.

In the same vein, development bloggers are perpetually worried about China slipping into the same  demographic predicament of its neighbors, Japan and South Korea. The abject lives of Japanese retirees and the country’s looming pension crisis are constant reminders of what China’s own fate may look like down the road.  At the beginning of 2018, confronted by China’s newly released birth statistics of 2017, Saidong warned that in 5-10 years China’s demographic atrophy would be as severe as, if not direr than Japan’s, thanks to 30 years of arbitrary acceleration of a natural process of lowering birth rates and other driving forces of an aging society.

In addition to their intellectual propensities on the population question, their own status as members of an upper-middle class rooted in China’s booming high-tech sectors seems to have made them advocates for certain middle-class-centric policies, all of them centered around child-rearing. The underlying message appears to be that, since high-tech manufacturing is the pillar of China’s next industrial revolution, people employed by such sectors need to be well taken care of by the state for them to concentrate on their excellent work. For instance, reforms in China’s pre-school system and primary education in recent years that tilt heavily towards burden-shedding for kids meet with heavy criticism from this group. Letting children off school at 3pm instead of 5 or 6 creates extra work for parents who need to find ways to fill those hours for which schools no longer bear responsibility. It also creates a massive extra-curricular education market that exploits parents who fear that their kids are not being given sufficient tutoring to prepare them for fierce future higher education competitions. The group also considers rising property prices in Chinese cities a major sore point for this social class and a drag on demographic improvements. Not only is living space being squeezed due to ever higher real estate prices, making it difficult to raise more kids under one roof, but also marriage and child bearing ages are being pushed back as young people have to work longer before accumulating enough capital to form families, if they do so at all.

Complaints like these, and the resonance they generate, tend to produce response from the likes of Global Times’ Hu Xijin. But as Hu himself reminded SN in his piece, the distribution of wealth in today’s Chinese society had made readjustments around issues like property price particularly challenging. While a city’s new comers may look for cheaper paths to property ownership, the city’s propertied class may, in contrast, hope for even higher real estate values for themselves. Measures favoring one side of the equation may stir discontent in the other.

Hu’s response highlighted the social class signature of SN’s brand of development blogging on which its critics often focus. Some of the more visible detractors claimed that, constrained by the narrow interest of their social class, policy prescriptions offered by SN and his peers are biased and could harm the nation as a whole. Maqianzu, a blogger associated with the left-leaning Guancha.cn, has argued that measures to lighten the burden on urban middle class, as SN advocates, would undermine overall social mobility. High property prices in big cities, as he sees it, are a way to continue funding infrastructure expansions in underdeveloped parts of the country and they will provide upward movement channels for the poor. He also has dismissed SN’s complaint about overburdened middle class parents, claiming that ultra-competitiveness in basic education is a result of more qualified students entering the system, another sign of positive, upward mobility in the society. “China has no hope if its middle class is allowed to have a laidback lifestyle,” he wrote provocatively. Instead, the country’s long-term prosperity depends on an over-worked mortgage-bearing middle class that’s constantly kept on their toes. For Maqianzu, the idea that the offspring of today’s middle-class are entitled to effortlessly inherit the social status of their parents is borderline reactionary.

More scathing criticism condemns SN’s writing as nothing more than a kind of “development porn”, using selective, misleading materials to depict an overly rosy picture of China’s economic prospects and industrial prowess, stirring up cheap nationalistic sentiments as its online predecessor, “military porn” often did.

Even if it is just another type of intellectual opium that the Chinese Internet routinely produces, if “people up there” are really paying attention to what the SNs are blogging about these days, they may find it reassuring that a not so small segment on social media is fully supportive of the leadership’s push to bring Chinese manufacturing to the next level against a strong trade headwind. They may be alerted by the intensity of frustration this group of people feel about the Party’s track record in managing the country’s population, education and property market. They may also be encouraged to find a reliable cyberspace ally more powerful in many ways than the official propaganda machinery in its ability to coalesce the hardworking middle class around an assertive agenda of Made in China 2025, Belt & Road Initiative and geopolitical adventures that reclaim China’s development space in the world.

September monthly round-up: great power mentality

FOCAC exposed tension between Chinese overseas involvement and domestic public opinion

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was a highlight of the past month and once again put China’s overseas involvement under domestic spotlight. Held in Beijing from Sep 3-5, the extravagant event brought high-level representatives from 53 African countries to two days of dialogue, deal making and celebration of China-Africa friendship. In his opening speech, President Xi Jinping announced a $60 billion package to finance development in Africa and spelled out the “5 NOs” and “4 CANNOTs” principles (五不四不能) that would lay the foundation for China-Africa relationship in the coming years. The principles mainly served as a re-affirmation of China’s long-standing non-interference, “no-strings attached” aid policy and a warning to third-party forces trying to undermine the relationship.

In many senses the forum delivered what was intended of it. Politically, it confirmed China’s commitment to the continent as a benevolent partner. Economically, it produced a long list of major infrastructure and investment deals between African stakeholders and their Chinese counterparts. And it even paid environmental dividends for the host city by bringing a week of sapphire blue sky (dubbed “FOCAC blue” by the city’s residents) which ended as soon as the forum was over.

But the high-profile forum also exposed a chronic tension between China’s overseas engagements and its domestic public opinion, a pitfall that policy makers usually strive to circumvent. As soon as China’s $60 billion pledge to Africa was made public, the Chinese Internet was buzzing with murmurs and whispers of disbelief and sarcasm. Under Weibo posts that featured President Xi Jinping’s speech announcing the renewed pledge, where comments were often censored or outright blocked, netizens reacted with emojis of dismay and disapproval.

FOCAC Weibo
Under Weibo posts that featured President Xi Jinping’s speech announcing the renewed pledge, netizens reacted with emojis of dismay and disapproval.

“The controversy around aid to Africa is not so much about whether such investments deliver good returns. It’s a way to express domestic frustrations. The Chinese public can be generous if their own lives are comfortable,” said one commentator on Weibo.

FOCAC happened at a tricky time when the Chinese public was anxious over a series of domestic measures on taxation and social insurance that would affect the pockets of millions of Chinese enterprises and individuals. Among those policies rolled out briefly before FOCAC, shifting the collection of pension fund deposits to the tax authority, widely perceived as more stringent in its efforts, was interpreted by the media as the government’s attempt to fill an enlarging national pension hole which would result in a net reduction of many people’s monthly take-home salary. China’s high social benefit charges have been a burden on enterprises hiring large number of employees. For years, corporates try to dodge their share of pension payments by lowering the reported salaries of their employees, while worker are more than happy to pocket more take-home salary that they can dispense on their own terms.

The government’s revenue-grabbing move touched off widespread complaints from the society, and the high-profile $60 billion pledge to Africa (equivalent to almost 400 billion in RMB) understandably received a fair amount of trolling. To some extent this represents the worst nightmare of Chinese policy makers: Chinese financing overseas is pitched directly vis a vis its domestic fiscal policies. For a long time, the Chinese government has been low-key (to the extent of being secretive) when it comes to releasing its foreign aid figures, largely because of concern over domestic criticism. Senior aid workers have openly complained about the public’s hostility towards Chinese aid overseas. The Chinese Political Compass, an online survey that maps Chinese ideological spectrum online, lists the foreign aid question in its questionnaire as one of the 50 issues dividing and polarizing the Chinese Internet.

Experts believe that the Chinese public is misguided. Wang Yiwei, a scholar at Remin University in Beijing and an expert on the BRI, claimed in a Weibo post that majority of China’s pledged financing would require return on investment. It’s not free lunch. And based on China’s track record, returns on Chinese investments in Africa are “unparalleled” by its investments elsewhere. “Chinese are not stupid. They won’t rush to a place if it doesn’t mean economic opportunities for themselves,” Wang proclaimed, “those who spread rumors about Chinese involvement in Africa are trying to create tension between the public and the leadership.”

Wang was mainly referring to the previous round of Chinese pledge made at the 2015 Johannesburg FOCAC, which also amounted to $60 billion. Within that package, only $5 billion was grant money that did not require repayment. The rest was either concessional loans (loans with below-market interest rates), or injection into equity funds that are largely market-based and generally seek (modest) profits. The new $60 billion package announced on Sep 3 is made of $15 billion of grants and no-interest/concessional loans, $20 billion regular loans, $10 billion private investments and another $15 billion dollar injection into special funds.

Information from Africa seems to bear out the claim that China talks more serious business in Africa than people generally perceive. Bright Simons, president of the Ghana-based MPedigree Network, wrote that while China appeared generous with pledges, it was strict with actually unlocking them into real financing. Of the 2015 pledge, only 2/3 (45 billion) had actually come through, most of which “in the form of sovereign-backed, natural resource securitized loans.” Zimbabwe was particularly bad at translating Chinese pledges into actual financing, redeeming just 2.5 billion of Chinese funds from over 33 billion promised over the past two decades. Angola did much better in this regard largely due to its oil reserves that allowed a reliable means to service its loan payments to China.

Weibo commentators who consider themselves endowed with a long term view urge policy makers to disregard public sentiments and stay on course of its African strategy: “You should stick with  things that are fundamentally right.”

On the other hand, the Global Times‘s editor in chief Hu Xijin reminds readers that they should equip themselves with a “great power mentality:” “China will not be able to maintain its global stature today if it does not fulfill its obligations as a great power,” he wrote, “the idea that foreign assistance is immoral as long as you still have poverty inside the country represents agrarian era thinking and cannot guide our grand practices today.”

Like it or not, the architects of China’s grand schemes along the Belt and Road would probably have to tango with domestic public opinion for a while.