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.

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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.

Rising China in the eyes of its closest neighbors

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

by Tom Baxter

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

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

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

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

art of neighboring

Reimagining histories

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

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

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

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

China as threat / China as opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we learn?

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

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

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

December round-up: Reform, Opening, Belt and Road

As China celebrates 40 years of reform and opening up, the BRI needs to find its own place in and beyond Deng Xiaoping’s legacy

On December 18, 1978, the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party began its four-day deliberation at the Jingxi Hotel in Beijing. These were the coldest days of a year. But Chinese history books often associate the meeting with the image of thawing ice. It marked the official launch of a grand transformation of China that has since been known as “Reform and Opening Up.”

The 40th anniversary of the historic event dominated the political and media agenda of last month. And it is worth noting how the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was presented against the backdrop of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy.

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The 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party marked the official launch of a grand transformation of China that has since been known as “Reform and Opening Up.”

At a high-profile gathering commemorating the anniversary on December 18, President Xi Jinping referred to the 1978 moment as a “great awakening of the Chinese Communist Party”. Whether or not the Party was asleep before that is debatable, but the significance of the historic watershed is unquestionable. In 1978, China waved goodbye to three decades of Maoist fanaticism and embraced a more pragmatic, common-sensical path toward development. The ideological restrictions on individuals, businesses and society were gradually loosened. The countryside quickly recovered from the shackles of collectivization. The private sector emerged and prospered. Foreign capital flowed in. And the result was a booming economy that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and enabled the Party to declare that a “national rejuvenation” was right around the corner.

The BRI naturally found its place in Xi Jinping’s speech that walked the audience through that journey again. It was presented as a logical extension to the decision to open up the country to the outside world, first through a few coastal special economic zones, then along the rivers that radiate inland. As China integrates into the global market, it’s time to go beyond its own borders and begin doing business around the globe. “We moved from letting in to going out,” as President Xi put it.

The idea of the Belt and Road as “Reform and Opening Up phase II” is not entirely new. Chinese experts had been making the argument ahead of the anniversary that BRI inherited and expanded the essence of Opening Up. In a narrow sense, one of the stated strategic objectives of BRI is to link China’s landlocked provinces to west-bound trade routes all the way to Europe through Central Asia. In a broader sense, BRI is seen as staying true to the reform’s key message of “integration”, fitting China into existing global institutions and frameworks such as the WTO.

At this point in history, emphasizing the continuity between BRI and the Opening Up would probably help remove some sharp edges of President Xi’s signature initiative in the eyes of external observers. But despite the insistence that BRI is the child of reform, it is undeniable that the initiative is not without tensions with Deng Xiaoping’s legacy. Its (perceived) geopolitical ambitions and challenge to existing international institutions and norms can be at odds with Deng’s teaching of “hide your capabilities and bide your time”. The dominating role played by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the initiative can also be read as a reversal of policies encouraging and nurturing the private sector.

Those tensions were tacitly touched upon in an earlier analysis by Chinese Academy of Social Science scholar Xue Li titled “BRI and the New Reform and Opening”. Xue argues that the BRI’s global impact is probably going to be larger than that of Reform and Opening Up. It continues on the path of opening the Chinese market (largely facing developed economies) but moves on to “unlocking others” (mostly developing economies). According to Xue, this is a departure from China’s traditional philosophy of “winning over others by perfecting one’s own virtues”(远人不服则修文德以来之). Instead, the new administration decides to go all the way to the distant “others” and help them with social and economic development.

He notes that China does not have the power/right to set development strategies for other countries and cannot force them into the BRI. The initiative is a “development strategy” for China, but can only be a “cooperation proposal” for the outside world. This leads to the elevation of “neighborhood diplomacy” in terms of strategic importance, another departure from reform-era diplomatic priorities that “put major power diplomacy, especially with the United States, at the absolute center.” The pivot towards neighboring developing countries, Xue contends, is a clear trend since 2016 and a response to the perceived shrinking/stagnating space for furthering diplomatic relations with more developed countries. His article also implies that China is no longer content with simply accepting the global frameworks and is making efforts to fix some of their flaws through negotiations rather than confrontations.

The analysis underscores the extent to which BRI needs to maintain a linkage to the 1978 legacy while distinguishing itself as an update and reinvention. And that need is not all externally focused (i.e. to placate Western critics). Internally, the public may also need some convincing that with a full-throttled push for the BRI, they are still on the Reform and Opening Up bus that they bought tickets for. One Weibo post captures the difficulty for the Chinese public to appreciate why they should be concerned with the development of, say, Africa or India. “40 years ago, our own opening up helped developed economies find an outlet for their capital and enterprises that their internal markets and free trade agreements within the OECD bloc could not provide.” Now, the Weibo commentator argued, it’s China’s turn to wanting that solution for its internal difficulties: employment, environment, etc, and the public should come on board with that logic in mind.

With all the talks of fixing the global order and “neighborhood diplomacy”, the celebration of the 40th anniversary was still largely a tribute to the past. One item of the program was the awarding of Reform Friendship Medals to 10 foreigners who had made distinguished contributions to Reform and Opening Up. They were American, Japanese, German, British, Swiss, Spanish, French and Singaporean. No one from the developing world received that recognition. It would be interesting to see if in 2028, when Reform and Opening Up policy turns 50, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans or Kenyans would be honored in the same manner for assisting China in its renewed quest for national glory.

September monthly round-up: great power mentality

FOCAC exposed tension between Chinese overseas involvement and domestic public opinion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August Monthly Round-up: BRI turns 5 years old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Power Rivalry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Development… with Chinese characteristics

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

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

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

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

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

Big picture and local voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disconnect

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

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

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

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

 

How should the Chinese media approach Belt and Road reporting?

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

Michael Anti

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

P: So how can such reporting improve?

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

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

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

 

“The Fourth Estate doesn’t apply here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

P: Can you elaborate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contesting Ideas

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

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

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

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

“Poster boys”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The quest narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

The absent civilian

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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