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Why China’s Belt & Road Initiative is a Lot Like a Rorschach Test

By China House Fellows Geng Xingshuo, 19, University of Rochester; Yang Zimo, 16, Lee Academy Shanghai; Cheng Yin 16 Tianjin Foreign Language School

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a program which initiatives are creating fresh waves of road, rail, port, and energy investment in countries around the world, making the continents more connected internally and with the outside world while it is a program that is believed to be a new way that China uses to colonize other countries.

The BRI As Seen by the Chinese Government and Chinese Citizens

a. Chinese Government’s Perspectives:

As the initiator of BRI, China’s standpoint and voice are crucial in understanding this unique project to a great extent. It is also pivotal to separate government’s and the public’s viewpoints for the very special essence of China’s means of propaganda, so as to reach more well-rounded opinions from different groups.

From Chinese government’s perspective, it firmly believes that the BRI brings positive impacts to China and makes all involved groups better off. “The BRI not only brings China positive economic externality and alleviates financial burden, but also resolves domestic energy deficiency due to the massive tech and production development to a great extent” Joel Wuthnow, a senior research fellow in National Defence University claims. Also, according to our interview with Dr. Tenghan Chen, a post-doctoral student in Fudan Institute of Belt and Road and Global Governance (BRGG), typical infrastructures in African countries such as railway and open port are served to anticipate the future trading profits while China would expand its market in Africa.

Besides a good deal of economic benefits, BRI also stems from it to bring China momentous political benefits that is unprecedented. Specifically, BRI’s political benefits are securing and reinforcing China’s right of speech and elevating its international status. Many see China’s strategic interest in Africa is to gain political support from local governments.  As stressed in Joel’s article, BRI amplifies China’s influence in Africa, then solidifies its role and status in international stage by gaining valuable support from African governments. In some ongoing international competitions with the US, China would be more confident and competitive by incorporating African’s support.

b. Chinese Public’s Perspectives:

When zoomed in to individual feelings and perspective in BRI, Chinese people’s feeling were more complex. We interviewed Liam Lo, an average Chinese college student in Shenzhen. When we asked about his own understandings in the BRI. He replied with only one sentence: “I felt sorry for our government, for it cared more about foreigners than its own citizens.” Though his words might sound a little bit radical, it does articulate a voice from certain Chinese people: With over 5.5 million Chinses now in poverty, rather than focusing on overcoming poverty in rural regions, the government invested 4 trillion dollars in BRI project. This imbalance makes certain people on social platforms like Weibo angry about this project.

Furthermore, to some Chinese people, they consider some African culture as inferior when they learned about them. In this sense, they are not willing to learn the very essence of African cultures and this might lead to more cultural misunderstandings and even clashes could arise from more contact of different cultures.

There is never an accurate conclusion in how Chinese people view BRI due to the huge individual differences. Nonetheless, we can tell that as BRI gradually proceeds, this project is becoming more controversial and debatable among Chinese citizens.

Africans: Hate or love— its more like a mixing pot

On platforms like twitter and Facebook where China is often criticized, it is not a rare phenomenon that there are voices from Africans claiming the Chinese are trying to control over countries like Africa through economical means, while at the same time study has found that 63% of citizens surveyed from 36 countries generally had positive feelings towards China’s assistance. Why that sixty percent of Africans like China? Some things that stood out were China’s infrastructure, development, and investment projects in Africa, mainly because Chinese contractors always adopt labor-intensive methods. This results in job creation, which is a harsh demand for the Africans.

To explain why African’s attitude towards China varies greatly, we interviewed those who had been working in Africa, and asked whether he or she has heard any negative comments from local people about BRI. Surprisingly we found that as far as he had acknowledged, people in Africa do not know much about Chinese infrastructure programs, not to mention BRI, and therefore do not judge Chinese much based on the pros and cons of influences that was brought by infrastructure programs.

However, they get to know China from day-to-day interactions with Chinese traders and contractors. Their impression mostly depends on individual encounters. When our interviewee was doing a project inside the Chobe National Park in Botswana, he found that the local officials were initially unfamiliar with the Chinese. But after our interviewee diligently followed their procedures, the Africans become friendly towards them.

Effects That Are Brought to Africa: Beneficial or Harmful?

Medias are claiming that these infrastructure projects, such as railroads, will negatively affect Africa’s ecological environment and local people.

However, Tenghan has remind us that, first of all, it should be clear that Africa’s ecology itself is very problematic: The natural environment is complex and diverse, and the ecosystem is sensitive and fragile. Drought, desertification, vegetation degradation, snow mountain melting and other phenomena are relatively serious.

Under such innate conditions, whoever goes to Africa to do infrastructure will bring new pressure on local ecology, and Belt and Road is no exception, but it cannot be said that Africa’s ecological problems are brought by Belt and Road.

African projects are criticized because their inherent ecological vulnerability is magnified by the infrastructure. Another reason is that the early Chinese projects were not properly evaluated, especially because of the lack of third-party environmental organizations, which made it difficult for the Chinese companies to justify the problems that arose, as was the case with the Myitsone hydropower plant in Myanmar. But China is not indifferent to ecological changes.

Recently, Kazakhstan was selected in Central Asia to launch a landmark environmental management cooperation with the Aral Sea ecological restoration in the countries along the Belt and Road, and the related technologies and mechanisms are expected to be extended to more ecologically fragile areas in Africa when they are mature.

Expert’s View on the BRI

There are two contending perspectives on the BRI project among the academics. One perspective views BRI as a massive debt trap, neocolonialism, and cause of the serious environmental issue. The other perspective views BRI as an opportunity for African countries, which face severe infrastructure deficiencies and lack of solution and money to deal with such problems, to fill their infrastructure gap and boost their economic growth.

a. Debt Trap

The term “debt-trap diplomacy” was introduced by Indian academic Brahma Chellaney in early 2017, describing a powerful lending country that intends to extract economic or political concessions from the borrowing nations when they cannot repay the debt.

China’s projects to some developing countries exceed the target country’s financial capacity, including the size of the project, the size of the investment loan, etc. China’s huge amount of lending causes servicing and repaying the debt a significant burden for the government in the coming years and decades despite at a concessional rate. However, the truth is China does have specific responses to countries that are unable to pay their debts, but they usually just defer them and still demand repayment.

b. Neocolonialism

Many countries have to resort to payments in kind to pay their debts. The scholar Xiaochen Su, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo, claims that: “The concept of “in-kind payments” smacks of colonialism in some ways.” He referred to the example of European colonists constructing infrastructure in Africa at the turn of the century, ostensibly also for local economic development. However, in essence, these projects were mainly used by Europe to harvest natural resources.

Similarly ,while constructing infrastructure, the Chinese have also made significant investments in local mines and processing facilities. For example, the projects of Nairobi-Mombasa and Addis Ababa-Djibouti railways both connect inland regions with mineral deposits with essential ports on the Indian Ocean. Natural resources are expected to make up at least part of the cargo transported by the new railways and roads built with Chinese funds to feed the Chinese industrial machine.

c. What are the main benefits of the Belt and Road for Africa

For Africa, the biggest benefit of the Belt and Road is that it will help lift the region out of poverty.

According to McKinsey & Company survey of 1,000 Chinese companies in eight African countries, on average, 89 percent of employees are African. Chinese companies have created millions of jobs on the continent, encouraging further development of economic development.

Infrastructure investment is the main driver of China’s economic growth, providing a source of employment, promoting economic growth, developing labor skills and opening up markets, which is now doing the same in some parts of Africa.

Conclusion

There is no correct answer for the Belt and Road Initiative. The diverse views listed above may be the product of different political, cultural, and project expectations. These views may be contradictive or mutually supportive because when multiple groups or independent thinkers view something from very different starting points, “their priority of this project,” “their role in the society,” will send them to various destinations.

Like the Rorschach test, the same picture will show different shapes or objects when viewed by people with different personalities or psychological states.

This is why the Belt and Road Initiative remains divisive and controversial both at home and abroad. While some call it a Chinese conspiracy, others regard it as the most essential and crucial multilateral diplomacy program of the 21st century. But when you think about it, all the projects are divisive and controversial regarding multi-stakeholder relationships. Once different groups are involved, there will be different feelings, thoughts, and opinions, and this is the diversity that the Belt and Road Initiative represents.

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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