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Unpacking the Chinese Government’s New Development Vision

Image via Xinhua/Xu Zheng

This weekend the Chinese government released a new white paper on development. It comes in unassuming guise – it’s basically a MS Word Doc with the workaday title of China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era. But in its own way it’s eye-popping.

If (like me) you have an irrational fetish for long lists of country names, this document is for you. The bulk of the white paper outlines the different kinds of engagement between China and the global south. To see it all together is quite something: water treatment plant in Cameroon! Hospital in Jamaica! Broadcast centre in the Comoros! Irrigation in Kyrgyzstan! It even pointed out that, thanks to Chinese coaching, the Papua New Guinea ping pong team won two silver medals at the 2019 Pacific Games (“the team’s best ever performance.”)

The white paper can be read as a panoramic landscape of Chinese engagement with the global south.

More capable minds than mine are currently unpacking its implications across Twitter. But, here are some initial observations:

As Marina Rudyak pointed out, the white paper seems to continue the shift from a focus on aid to one on development, which was kicked off by the establishment of the China International Development Cooperation Agency in 2018. What’s notable here is the scale: there seems to be an underlying agreement that for the BRI to deliver, Chinese companies need functioning markets around the world – ideally running according to Chinese standards. This contains a second, more audacious assumption: that it’s possible for China to kickstart this development itself, in many countries at once.

It also acknowledges the tension between the good of partner countries and that of Chinese actors. Many initiatives can be labeled “development.” Not all of them actually benefit both sides, and the white paper takes the rare step of mentioning this reality. Stella Hong Zhang has shown that this is articulated more clearly in the Chinese text, but even the English text makes an oblique distinction between “pursuing the greater good and shared interests, with higher priority given to the former.” How the line between the greater good and shared interests is traced will define how future generations see the BRI.

Third, it’s now clearer than ever that Africa’s relationship with China isn’t unique. The white paper outlines similar dynamics around the world. The boom in China-Africa relations preceded the coining of the BRI, and was arguably a test-run for many of these other relationships, as well as providing the frame and vocabularies through which we understand them. Now more than ever it’s crucial to compare insights from Africa with those drawn from other parts of the global south

Fourth, there is an understandable instinct to immediately disregard the community-of-shared-destiny rhetoric of these documents as boilerplate concealing Chinese self-interest. However, one should acknowledge the power this rhetoric has in the global south, especially compared to the inward focus of the Trump and Brexit eras.

The fact is that the only vision of inclusive global problem-solving currently being promoted is a China-centered one. There is no coherent counter-narrative coming from Western powers. No matter how the BRI fares, this contrast is sure to shape the coming decade.

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