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Chinese Development Finance is Changing. We Just Don’t Know Exactly How.

File image of a branch of office of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in Beijing. AFP PHOTO / GREG BAKER

A lively discussion broke out over the weekend about Boston University’s new Chinese overseas development finance database and whether the dramatic plunge in lending that purportedly took place last year is accurate. Some scholars are suggesting that BU’s data overlooked lending to SOEs, for example, and that Chinese development financing patterns are changing but not necessarily going down — and certainly nowhere near as much as the BU researchers contend.

At this point, it’s too early to tell who’s right and which methodology is more precise but that’s almost beside the point for most of us. The key takeaway here is that Chinese development finance is now undergoing some big changes that we clearly don’t fully understand but will likely have sizable economic and political impacts.

These kinds of disputes are nothing new. When AidData first started back in 2013, some scholars accused the research unit at William & Mary College of publishing “rubbery numbers.” More recently, there’ve been disagreements over the extent of China’s “hidden loans” to developing countries and how those liabilities were accounted for in research papers.

This is what happens when you try to put together a jigsaw puzzle with a blindfold on. China’s opaque system doesn’t make it easy for anyone, even Chinese stakeholders themselves, to figure out what’s actually going on.

Most likely, none of these databases tell the whole story, and that isn’t their intention. But when we look collectively at new data & analysis from BUCARIAEICSISDevelopment ReimaginedRhodium Group, and more, a clearer picture does start to emerge.

As you can now see from the current discourse, we’re blessed that so much new analysis is coming out. Now, we just have to figure out what it all means.

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