Following China’s footsteps from Andes to Amazon: advice from a Colombian journalist

Andres Bermudez Lievano, who has covered China for a Latin American audience from Beijing and Bogota, shares his views about how China reporting in the region can improve

China and Latin America exist largely in a commodity-centered relationship that is defined by a distinct close-distant paradox, bound together by increasing volumes of trade but separated by physical and psychological distance.

For Andres Bermudez Lievano, the relationship is both the cause and consequence of inadequate reporting about China’s involvement in the continent. As a veteran China reporter from Colombia, Andres has been following China’s footsteps from Beijing, where he ran a news service for Latin American publications, to Bogota, where he tracks Chinese companies and bird watchers to help readers make sense of a China presence that they hardly understand.

Besides being a reporter, Andres also spent two years working in the government office in charge of negotiating one of the world’s most historic peace deals, between the Colombian government and an armed rebellion group (FARC), that ended a half-century armed conflict. The experience equips him with particular insights into conflicts and how they should be covered by media. A great number of China-related stories in Latin America are conflict-filled, from communities resisting Chinese extractive industries in areas devastated by violence to countries caught in the crossfire of US-China trade disputes. These social and environmental conflicts often lend themselves to simplistic, dramatic presentations that Andres has a bone to pick.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw recently interviewed Andres on the side of a workshop in Yangon, Myanmar, another country grappling with conflicts complicated by a large inflow of Chinese interests. Andres shared his views on how to better tell stories about Chinese overseas footprint in Latin America and offered invaluable advice to peer reporters around the world who are trying to cover the expanding Chinese presence for their own readers and audiences.

Andres
Andres (right) with villagers of Caquetá, a conflict-stricken department of Amazonian Colombia where the activities of Chinese oil companies have stirred up controversies.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (PPDC): Could you give us an overall picture of Chinese involvement in Latin America, particular in relation to the Belt and Road Initiative?

Andres Bermudez Lievano (A): Latin America has not had a historically significant relationship with China, beyond maybe one or two immigration booms more than a century ago and some ideological connection in the 1950/60s. It’s only since the early 2000s that the relationship started to warm up again due to China’s growing appetite for resources and commodities that Latin America could offer in large quantity.

Now everybody has to face the political and economic reality that China is already Latin America’s second largest economic partner, leading the third by a wide margin. And it has already become the number one partner for significant economies like Brazil, Chile and Peru. Despite the closer economic bond, you still have that simple understanding of China reduced to clichés, in government, academia, civil society and in media. This is made worse by the fact that there is almost no presence of Chinese actors on the ground, except for a couple of Confucius Institutes.

This is characteristic of a commodity-centered relationship which is transactional by nature. You don’t have a long-term China presence that people can relate to. Therefore, we have a big gap between close economic ties and true understanding.

BRI in LatAm

PPDC: How is this reality manifested in media coverage about the BRI and Chinese involvement in Latin America?

A: There are generally two prevalent frames adopted by media reports on China. One is the perception that China is a dangerous actor, that they are taking away everything, they are so strange, you never know what they are really here for.

The second frame is more of a fantasized China. One common argument among many businesspeople who want to do business with China from Colombia and wider Latin America is “there are so many millions of them, it’s obviously a good deal”. But when they come to China, they immediately hit the wall. They do not understand the market and the Chinese consumers. They have never figured out Chinese taste and what ticks the Chinese people. Our understanding of China does not go far beyond the fact that “it has many people”.

This results in a very simplistic coverage about China. It’s already not very often that media in Latin America cover China. Even when they do, they often get it wrong or they get it in a very black and white way. You have a lot of stories about social conflicts distilled into very simplistic narratives (e.g. small communities against monstrous Chinese corporate giants). You have a lot of reporting about trade numbers without even explaining what those numbers mean. When media report on “trade deficits with China,” for example, nobody bothers to explain why it exists or what goods are being traded both ways, leaving the impression that China is invading with cheap imports. However, deficit is not a problem in itself: it’s the nature of the traded goods that matters. Costa Rica manages to sell value-added products like computer microchips to China in large volume. And that tends to be an underreported story.

As the US relationship with China sours there is a new trending coverage, which is how our relationship with China can affect our ties with the US, which it shouldn’t. Unlike a marriage, you actually can have mature relationships with two different countries. Serious countries like Chile, Costa Rica and Peru would argue that they have successful and well-negotiated Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with both the US and China. Why not?

PPDC: What is the consequence of such simplistic coverage of Chinese footprint?

A: The consequences are manifested on a conceptual level. First of all, we have no nuanced view of the socio-economic or environmental footprint of the Chinese presence. China’s involvement in the continent is complex and multi-dimensional. For example, I have reported on how wealthy Chinese bird watchers create opportunities for conservation efforts in Latin America. And yet a very respected conservation biologist that I know simply couldn’t wrap his mind around that idea as he has been so deeply influenced by the image –which is sometimes also true- of China as a biodiversity “bulldozer”.

When our analytical framework of China is entirely oriented towards commodities, we cannot understand China on a more complex level. We focus our attention on selling oil, soybean or beef to China and think little about value-added products or a more evolved relationship. Moreover, we tend not to see the impact behind the trade numbers. An increase of soybean exports can have a direct or indirect result of deforestation in Latin America. The interactions between those two factors are already complicated and usually there are more factors in play. But in a commodity-driven analysis these other factors do not come in.

Equally importantly is the pervasive inability to understand the internal complexity of China and its many players that are active in Latin America. Lately there has been a lot of discussion in Ecuador about problems with the Coca-Codo Sinclair hydroelectric project funded by China and built by a Chinese company. When cracks appeared in the structure soon after its completion, one major newspaper ran a story titled “Chinese company Harbin will weld cracks in dam”. They didn’t know that Harbin is a city in China, different to state-owned Harbin Electric International Company. This was a story about THE most important China-related project in Ecuador and they couldn’t get the company’s name right.

This is not restricted to Ecuadorian media. We confuse the China actors all the time. Very few major economies have such an intertwined web of companies and government. To understand the entire State-owned Enterprise (SOE) system is not easy. But without that we easily confuse the Chinese government, SOEs and Chinese private companies. And that affects how reporters cover a situation. Contrary to what many believe, Chinese private companies are sometimes more obscure than an SOE when they operate abroad. And they face LESS public scrutiny. A Chinese SOE blundering abroad is a much larger story as they are better known economic players back home and dispense with what’s considered publicly-owned funds. Knowledge like this will help a reporter gain a nuanced understanding of the vulnerability and strength of key Chinese players in their stories.

PPDC: What does your experience with researching and covering conflicts tell you about reporting on Chinese projects in Latin America?

A: You know conflict is one of the areas that I cover the most, so I tend to reflect more on this. Social conflict or socio-environmental conflict caused by infrastructure and extractive projects is an area we are not reporting properly. Seeing the conflicts after they erupt is already a bit too late. But at least we are seeing them. What reporters really need to do is to lift the rug and look underneath.

There are fundamental social fabrics to the conflicts in our societies that aren’t necessarily created by China, but tend to emerge when Chinese-invested projects go wrong. For instance, respecting the rights of ethnic minority groups is an area we are not doing very well. Non-compliance with such rights, especially the right to free prior informed consent (FPIC), is a major issue. Colombia struggled with it. But when I went to Ecuador, I found that many projects literally never complied with it. You can see how in a series of Latin American countries they end up going around rights that are constitutionally protected. Chinese companies can exacerbate this existing situation in our societies because this is part of China’s reality: China has a complicated relationship with its own ethnic minorities and this probably make Chinese companies less sensitive and less likely to understand the importance of compliance.

Another common problem underneath those conflicts is the scarce availability of public records in many Latin American countries. Everything from contracts, relocation plans to environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are very difficult to access, leading to a strong sense of secrecy and mistrust among affected communities. And even when they are available, we as journalists and civil society have another challenge of not having the skills to read many of these documents properly. For example, in an infrastructure deal between China and a recipient country, is it really better for that country to have more equity share in that project than letting China have more? What is the risk-ownership ratio that will bring the most benefit to the country? These are not issues we can properly interpret for our readers unless we have access to the files and can digest them properly.

Another reality that is fundamental to understanding many confrontations surrounding projects is the sophistication of community resistance. Across Latin America, communities have understood that it’s better for them to fight cases legally, as we have relatively serious legal systems, with strong constitutions and well-respected constitutional or supreme courts. Communities are currently winning major cases in courtrooms. This has caught many governments and corporates unprepared. Communities are more legally empowered than before and sharing their legal strategies with peers.

PPDC: On a micro level, what do you look for in a conflict situation? What exactly lies “underneath the rug”?

A: Relationships among different actors involved in a controversial project are entangled. More often than not, it is not the simple equation of A vs. B. Sometimes projects are approved on a national level, but even local governments are kept in the dark. So in a conflict seemingly between a company and a town, there might be a hidden central government and a sympathetic local government involved, let alone a set of secondary players: public “ombudsman” institutions, private security companies, military or police forces, legal and environmental NGOs, indigenous organizations…

Plus, people don’t usually understand that conflict is a process. They don’t just happen in one specific moment but over a long period of time. Part of doing good reporting on conflicts is to understand how they really began and how they play out over time. If you look carefully, you will find that there are usually a lot of myths around the origin of a conflict. All of this helps us understand how tensions escalated and what are the future possible scenarios. 

A good piece of journalism about a social conflict or an environmental conflict should be able to show all the sides involved, the different things at stake, and whether there is space for real dialogue. Actors involved in a tense conflict situation often have a “race-horse syndrome”, limited by a narrow tunnel vision. Our reporting is supposed to render a more complete picture of the problem, and it can potentially, one would wish, enable actors to better reflect on how to deactivate a social crisis.

PPDC: What would be your advice to peer reporters who are keen to shed light on some of the same dynamics around Chinese projects in their own regions?

A: For stories specifically related to Chinese interests, it is important to incorporate the Chinese actors’ point of view.

And in this regard we are oftentimes guilty of not making enough of an effort to contact them. Even though we know they are not likely to answer or they have to refer the request to headquarters in China, it’s important we continue seeking answers from them. If anything, doing so builds pressure on them. And ultimately, the Chinese side need to realize that it does them more harm to not have their side of the story reflected in the coverage.

We need to enhance skills for reporters to understand key documents such as project contracts and loan deals. And we should also be able to fact-check claims from all sides, including the affected communities themselves. I have encountered communities instrumentalized by NGOs and radical groups that shout slogans like “they take our water!” without any specific facts that proves it. Often groups in conflict will emphasize more extreme positions (thinking these are more convincing), when in fact the more interesting nuggets of information emerge when you get past these simplistic and crowd-pleasing soundbites.  

And finally, we reporters need to follow up on projects over time, understanding them as evolving processes. There is a large Chinese mining company in Peru that carried out a huge, ambitious and well-publicized relocation of a local community which was considered a successful case in the industry. For many that was the end of social conflicts and of the journalistic story. At the exact sixth anniversary of the relocation plan we teamed up with a Peruvian outlet to revisit the place. What the reporter discovered on the ground was completely unexpected: instead of a poster child relocation case, it had developed into two different conflict situations. On the one hand, some people still refused to relocate, which meant the original conflict was still there. On the other side, the new town turned out to be not functional. It looked beautiful on photos, but shop owners did not have customers and their living stand had diminished, meaning a new conflict had emerged.

In infrastructure projects we tend to only follow up when something bad happens. “The Chinese built this road or bridge which now has a crack”, we realize. But few journalists come back to check if the bridge is actually being used or if the dam really provides as much energy as the developer says. Going back to check the utility of the infrastructure project is as important as checking the problems it is having.

Interview: What’s missing in the conversation about China’s expanding global presence?

Longtime Belt and Road observer Zhang Hong shares her insights about the historical evolution of China’s “Going Out”

ZhangHong
Former Caixin journalist and George Mason University PhD candidate Zhang Hong (Stella)shares her observations about China’s “Going Out”.

Within the Chinese journalistic community, a “foreign correspondent” is a rare species. Unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese media do not have a long history of dispatching reporters globally to cover events from where they are unfolding. Due to resource constraints and, more crucially, a lack of strong domestic demand for news thousands of kilometers away from home (with the exception of a handful of countries such as the United States), media organizations in China invest grudgingly into overseas operations. The situation differs between state-owned outlets (such as Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network), which in recent years have increased their global presence, and more independent outlets (such as Caixin). For the former group, the need to establish Chinese image overseas, more than the improvement of Chinese understanding of foreign affairs, has been the driving force of its global expansion. For the latter group, with all the intention of doing better international reporting, the lack of state support in setting up a stronger footing in foreign countries cripples its international ambition.

Zhang Hong (Stella) was, in her own words, one of the first-generation foreign correspondents working for a non-state Chinese media organization. Stationed in Europe and North America for Caixin Media between 2009 and 2014, she filed stories for Caixin’s readers on topics ranging from reforms in Poland to the Crimean crisis. She described her years in London and Washington as “drifting”, having to conduct journalism in a foreign land without much institutional support from home. While reporting from one country to another, she picked up an emerging theme that later became her research focus as a PhD candidate at George Mason University: the growing presence of China beyond its border and its political and economic implications.

In an interview with Panda Paw Dragon Claw, Stella shared her observations about China’s “Going Out” from both her standpoint as a journalist and a researcher. She believes a “China model” is indeed discernible from the practices of China’s state capital overseas, even though it doesn’t entirely fit the predatory image that Western media are accustomed of depicting lately.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw(PPDC): When you were a foreign correspondent for a Chinese media outlet, what was your mission?

Zhang Hong (Z): My intention was to write stories with more independence than what we usually saw in Chinese state media. I always believe that international news reporting should help our Chinese readership, citizens of a great power, to obtain an understanding of the world that matches China’s global status. A citizenry without empathy for its peers around the globe would become dangerously self-centered and hubristic.

But I found that I couldn’t do what I intended to do and was affected by a sense of powerlessness. Compared to Western foreign correspondents, we did not have the kind of institutional history and tradition that guide our operation overseas. Most non-state Chinese media only began to dispatch correspondents to other countries in the second half of the last decade, after a relatively liberalized period built up their coffer and ambition. When we were stationed in a foreign country, most of us did not have an office and had to build our sources and network from scratch. Since we were not part of China’s official media establishment, we were excluded from correspondence from Chinese embassies and consulates. We were largely “on our own.”

Situation of state media colleagues were slightly better, even though they were very much shaped (and constrained) by the nature of their outlets. Many of them couldn’t do reports that were at odds with the domestic and foreign policy agenda of the Party. And they were often stationed there to spread China’s own voices, more than they were required to do high-quality reporting about that country. For example, state media reporters were sometimes tasked to publish op-eds in local media, a not unimportant part of their job description.

PPDC: What kind of China “Going Out” stories did you cover when stationed overseas?

Z: I left journalism in 2014, and before that I was mainly based in Europe. It was before the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) became an international spectacle. The pre-BRI stories about China’s “Going Out” that I ended up covering were mainly about Chinese companies shopping for European businesses and assets that were on sale after the debt crisis of 2009. The image of China around that time was that of a “nouveau riche” foreign investor. The Europeans were a bit skeptical of the Chinese’s ability to well manage what they had acquired. And that was the main discussion about China’s overseas adventures.

PPDC: Understandably, that story changed with the BRI…

Z: The BRI focuses very much on infrastructure building, with the Chinese state, not just Chinese companies, at the center of it. The level of Chinese overseas involvement (and the stake) is much higher now than when I was covering the space.

PPDC: With the BRI now so prominent on the global agenda, and popular narratives about it being reinforced by talks of “debt traps” and US-China arm wrestling, what do you think are elements missing in the current conversation?

Z: I think the first element that is not well understood and covered is the historical aspect. BRI should be viewed in the context of China’s multi-decade political and economic evolution. Modern China began its adventure into the global market in the 1990s, and not until 1999 was the concept of “Going Out” as a strategy first laid out. Major Chinese energy companies started to systematically move into other markets around that time. In preparation for the accession to WTO in 2001, a set of policies were also created to facilitate integration into the global market. The period laid the ground for an explosion of “Going Out” activities in the 2000s. On the one hand, China’s economic reform turned the country from a closed autarky to a world factory, driving up demand for resources from around the globe. On the other hand, Chinese companies, nurtured by strong domestic demand, ventured out for new markets and supplies. BRI is an extension to that two-decade journey. To some extent, China is almost driven by an urge to compensate for being absent from the global scene for too long. It is still retaking the globalization class.

Another aspect that’s worth emphasizing is that BRI reflects the “long view” that is embodied in the Chinese political system. China’s one-party system allows the ruling Communist Party to make long term plans and strategies. That’s why you find strong continuity from the “Going Out” strategy to BRI. This is not to say that Chinese leaders in the 1990s were particularly prescient. But it does appear that the approach of “crossing the river by touching the stones” works pretty well in China’s internationalization process, where later leaderships could build on the programs of their predecessors and adapt their strategies by studying the lessons learned.

In my opinion, the reason why stories of “debt traps” or China’s “predatory” behaviors become prevalent is that the international community does not fully understand this historical evolution. And the lack of transparency on the Chinese side is also to blame. When people cannot comprehend the seemingly “sudden” appearance of China on the horizon, they respond with fear and apply familiar narratives to make sense of it.

PPDC: Besides its historical context, what else is unique about the “Going Out” process? Is there a “China Model” being exported?

Z: What I’ve taken note of, as I have written in an article about Chinese investment in Sri Lanka, is the central role played by Chinese state capital in the “Going Out” process. Their prominence does speak to a powerful “formula” of economic growth in China, whether or not you’d like to call that a “model”. This formula is obsessed with infrastructure development, as this is where state capital has comparative edge over private capital. The vehicles of China’s state capital, the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), are a new class of international players in the global economic system that we have never seen before. Fed by a massive internal market and their monopoly status in key sectors, they have grown into gargantuan corporate conglomerates within a short period of time. With that much of capital on hand, they were able to take advantage of the vacuum left by the 2008 financial crisis and extend their tentacles to new places in the world, building and consolidating their access and control of world’s resources.

These conglomerates enjoy unique advantages in the current global economic structure. Backed with the state’s financial and political support, they are much more risk-tolerant than their Western competitors, which enables them to go into the infrastructure sector in developing countries with highly uncertain economic outlooks. Engaging in such strategic sectors in turn locks in long-term structural opportunities for China in these countries. For example, after building the standard-gauge railway for Kenya, Chinese companies will remain in Kenya for years to train the locals how to operate the system according to Chinese protocols; the next generation of Kenyan engineers will know more about how to build things according to Chinese technical standards than European ones.

PPDC: How does the Sri Lanka situation illustrate the model you outlined above?

Z: The Sri Lanka case demonstrates how certain elements of the “China Model” can indeed be exported through BRI. Under a strictly defined “market economy”, the construction of Hambantota Port does not make much sense. There is no natural demand supporting a major port built out of a traditional fishing village. But China’s state capital, coupled with its existing global network, may create demand to match the supply (a new port facility on the Indian Ocean). China Merchants Group, the state-owned Chinese conglomerate that will be running the Hambantota Port, could rearrange some of its global shipping routes to go through Hambantota, creating business for an industrial zone that is to be built adjacent to the port. With CMG’s global reach and resource allocation abilities, there is a fair chance that the Hambantota port may take off as a major trade node.

In this sense, China’s development model does have some “exportability”, even though China’s one-party system itself can hardly be recreated elsewhere.

PPDC: You speak of the Chinese leadership taking a “long view” when it comes to Going Out. Is exporting the China development model the ultimate goal?

Z: I guess the ultimate goal is the so-called “national rejuvenation”. As stated by the Chinese leadership, it is to build China into a real global superpower. Probably due to the Party’s Marxist ideology (which emphasizes the economic base as a determinant in all human activities), there seems to be a firm belief that the goal needs to be achieved through economic means rather than military means. Previous socialist regimes, such as the Soviet Union, never managed to plug itself so deeply into the global economy, let alone occupying structurally important positions. For China, becoming a global superpower in the new era means attaining a strategic, structural advantage in the global economy. And its SOE-driven state capitalism is an instrument to that end. In Party talks, there is already explicit language calling for SOEs to have “capabilities of global resource allocation” and “occupy a privileged position in the global value chain.”

PPDC: As you said, the understanding of those dynamics is still very poor outside China. Do you think there is a role that Chinese media, think tanks or others can play to help shape global perceptions of the BRI?

Z: There could have been a role for them to play, as theoretically speaking they should have better access to the Chinese actors participating in BRI, providing insights that outsiders often do not have. But in reality it is hardly the case due to the generally closed culture with regard to the press. It seems Chinese journalists (barring those from the state media tasked with propaganda) hardly have better access to Chinese companies and government officials than their foreign counterparts. This might also have to do with the fact that reporter tends to be an entry-level job in China; veteran reporters either get promoted to editorial roles (so they are no longer on the frontline doing reporting) or leave the profession after being disillusioned (I myself being an example). So you are left with young reporters who are energetic and passionate about doing good reporting, but without the necessary experience. Plus, Chinese media, when doing stories, still have the tendency of writing to the ears of the decision makers, hoping to have some influence there. So I am not quite sure the Chinese media as a whole is capable of shaping the conversation as part of the global civil society.

PPDC: In 2012, you’ve written a blog titled “the Cambodians who don’t want a dam”, which documented local resistance to a China-built dam and the rejection of China’s development-first mindset. Do you think Chinese media can play the role of safeguarding against the negative impacts of the Going Out process, as many have hoped?

Z: I’m not very optimistic that they can. Having left China’s media industry, I am not in a position to comment on my colleagues’ works today, as I understand that the room for independent reporting has shrunk even more compared to five years ago. However, I am a little disappointed that, for all the attention BRI is getting across the globe, we can think of very few cases of systematic and methodic reporting of BRI from the Chinese media that can draw wide attention. I get the sense that non-state media today are becoming more and more like their state media peers in reporting only one kind of BRI story: that of Chinese investment bringing benefits to other parts of the world. I understand the limitations Chinese journalists are facing, but for someone who used to have high hopes for the profession, this is disheartening.

PPDC: If media is not there as watchdogs, how should the Going Out process been governed given its massive political, social and environmental impacts?

Z: Scholars have described Chinese players as being more elastic with rules: they can follow higher standards when they enter developed markets but are more than happy to do the bare minimum when local governance is weak. At the end of the day, without strong regulation at home, adhering to high standards of corporate conducts is only “optional.” Paradoxically, for all my skepticism about Chinese state capital’s impact on the prospect of global human development, I think it might be easier to induce responsible behaviors in China’s SOEs than private firms in the short term. I think there is real appetite for it right now as the leadership wants China to be seen as a “responsible power.” SOEs are encouraged to take measures to protect the environment and provide services to local communities where they operate. Therefore, if the international community continues to push for these issues, they might gain enough traction in the political agenda, which can then be translated into requirements for SOEs’ overseas operations. That said, having the regulations is one thing, how they are implemented is another. To fundamentally create a system where Chinese players can be held accountable for their overseas activities, deeper governance reform and cultural change within China would be necessary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Power Rivalry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Development… with Chinese characteristics

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

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

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

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

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

Big picture and local voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disconnect

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

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

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

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

 

How should the Chinese media approach Belt and Road reporting?

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

Michael Anti

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

P: So how can such reporting improve?

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

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

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

 

“The Fourth Estate doesn’t apply here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

P: Can you elaborate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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