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How the U.S. Media Perceives and Communicates Chinese Railway Projects in the Belt and Road Initiative

Photo via Fox News.

This article was collectively written by China House Fellows Liang Bingyu 梁冰玉, Lu Xueying 鹿学颖, Ma Yingqian 马樱倩 and Wei Xiaoqing卫晓晴

“Wanna be rich? Build roads first!”

There is an old Chinese saying, “If you want to be rich, build roads first.” Standing on the front yard of the 21st century, we attach high importance to transportation. Recall “Joy Shared with Happiness(同喜同乐)”, a short sketch on the 2018 Spring Festival Gala? It emphasized the China-Kenya positive friendship based upon the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway. Chinese perception of the railway projects is not consistent from that of the West, especially within US media. This article examines 36 coverage from 10 different U.S. media and finds that those perceptions of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) railway projects are mainly negative and neutral.

Railway Matters

On September 21, 2017, the “Revival” reached a speed of 350 kilometers per hour, a new milestone of China’s high-speed rail. China’s railway technology has been developing rapidly and climbing the world’s rankings.

China is expanding railway construction across the world. The BRI, proposed in 2013, connects 65 countries from Asia, Africa, and Europe, and spreads the speed of China to the world. Railway constructions in Africa promoted the development of African integration and internal trade. The Mombasa-Nairobi Railway was the first railway built in Kenya in the past 100 years, a pharynx of the East African railway network.

U.S. Media Perceptions

However, even with advanced development, there are voices from influential media outlets questioning the BRI and China’s railway construction. According to Mr. Luo Siyi, a financial researcher at People’s University of China, Western media often seriously underestimate the importance of the BRI. “The West is skpetical to accept that the main engine of world economic growth is no longer the United States or Europe, but Asia, to which China’s contribution is indispensable.”

What happened? This article aims to explore the communication and awareness of Western media, US media in particular, on China’s railway construction in the BRI. US media also appear to have the most dominance and scope of coverage. According to the 2019 Top 10 World Media Ranking, the US occupied 8 of the 10 media companies, suggesting its significant influence globally. In the 2019 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, it had an absolute advantage in terms of communication and media, thus driving prevailing opinions.

“Joyous Africans Take to the Rails, With Chinaʼs Help” or “We Cannot Afford This.”

One Washington Post article from October 2016 covering the Ethiopian railway construction was neutral talking about the positive effect of cutting off traveling time. However, it also raised concerns about environmental impacts. Another CNN coverage on the Tazara railway emphasized the railway’s overall impact on linking East Africa together. Tazara cultivated the export market for its booming steel and construction industries. But still, conservationists conveyed doubts on how to preserve wildlife as the railway cut through Kenya’s national parks. The economic benefits are undeniable, and environmental issues are inevitable. These are indeed two sides of the same coin.

This article collects a total of 36 related coverage on Chinese BRI railway construction. In the grading system of the attitude analysis, the positive and negative word count was calculated in the percentage of positivity to negativity and then distributed with the mark from 1-5. 100% represents the complete neutral attitude and linking the article to a mark of 3. 50% marks negativity twice as much as positivity and stands for 1, while 200% is the opposite and stands for 5. Though the neutral part accounts for 39%, the overall result also shows a perception with 39% of negativity compared to 22% of positivity.

Looking at the positive coverage, the understanding is that China’s railway construction in Africa is more of a strategic move and has accelerated local development at an incredible pace. What they mutually focus on are mainly the following three aspects.

  1. Promote trade and economic development.
  2. Increase transportation efficiency and bring in investment.
  3. Enhance diplomatic relationships and trade connections.

On the other hand, the three most used words apart from proper nouns are projects, infrastructure, and debt. Railway construction, as part of infrastructure enhancement, has been affected by the heated debt issues for quite a time.

Is the generous loan another form of “neo-colonialism”, using the underdeveloped regions’ reliance on capital? By throwing out the debt issues, the overall attitude was skeptical. It points out the “debt trap” and the political agenda of the “China threat theory. A debt trap is a situation in which a borrower is led into a cycle of re-borrowing or rolling over their loan payments because they are unable to afford the scheduled payments on the principal of a loan.

Environmental pollution and wildlife danger issues have been frequently discussed as well. Especially, the local tribes may fiercely resist the projects as they believe Chinese behaviors are predatory. Corruption is another serious issue in the international sphere. The significant amount of investment has indeed enabled various projects, but also fostered corruptive leaders in some countries. Furthermore, most projects would employ Chinese labor force instead of the locals, which exacerbates local unemployment.

In 2016, the New York Times reported on the argument of China “Seeing Its Own Money at Risk”, implying that the creation of a de-Americanized world is the solution to a potential government default in the U.S. One news piece from the Washington Post in 2018 turned to China’s new train to Iran. China’s image was regarded as the dichotomy of the United States. “Beijing has taken the latest measure to intensify trade relations,” opposing the US sanctions. The establishment of such hostility conveys a negative message to the readers.

The intention of BRI is positive, but there are indeed unexpected consequences during the construction. Our priority is to address these problems if we want to continue with our initiative smoothly.

How Should We Tell the Belt and Road Stories?

From the perspective of media publicity, China can be more transparent by releasing valid data reports in English in media. Facts speak louder and help reduce misunderstandings.

In terms of infrastructure construction, China should require a more thorough and feasibility study, take possible consequences into consideration and make solutions beforehand. It should also ensure the quality of projects.

From the cultural and ethnic perspective, we should strengthen the training of Chinese railway workers in cultural customs and religious taboos. It is necessary to establish regulations in advance in order to minimize cultural and religious conflicts.

Both African governments and the Chinese government should strengthen the supervision and control of land pollution, land degradation, and illegal trade in the process of industrialization.

BRI construction is a long-term development process. It also takes time to change the negative perception propelled the US and international media. If our humble advice would be of any use to address these problems, BRI and railway are on the good track.

China House is a social enterprise that brings young Chinese to the global south for research, conservation activities and development projects.

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