One Belt, One Road, One Global PR Blitz

Over the weekend, Beijing hosted an international conference to promote its “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to link China with countries across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East through trade and investment in infrastructure. President Xi Jinping provided a contrast to President Trump’s “America First” policy by calling on the international community to unite like a “flock of geese.” In the lead-up to the meeting, the government waged a propaganda blitz, creating a series of videos and animations aimed at educating young people both in China and around the world about the project. At What’s on Weibo, Manya Koetse previews several of these efforts, adding that, “the Belt and Road propaganda machine is running at full speed.” At the South China Morning Post, Sarah Zheng describes the event’s elaborate welcoming banquet:

With president Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan seated in the front row next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the show featured the time-honoured Kunqu opera classic The Palace of Eternal Youth, a performance of the nationalistic soprano I Love You, China, and music from Dream of the Red Chamber – a television series based on one of China’s Four Great Classic Novels.

Performances were set against backdrops of some of China’s most beloved locales, from Hangzhou’s West Lake to Beijing’s Summer Palace. Sun Wukong, the mythical monkey king from the 16th century epic Journey to the West, even made an appearance.

International elements were also woven into the performances, such as Western ballet and the famed Italian song ‘O sole mio.

Reflecting China’s desire to shine at this summit, the evening show – dubbed Millennial Road – required about half a year’s preparation, and was directed by Chen Weiya, who was executive director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, China Youth Daily reported. [Source]

Small businesses also got into the act, capitalizing on the event to brand items ranging from toothbrushes to Mixed Martial Arts events. Te-Ping Chen of the Wall Street Journal reports:

All sorts of businesses are celebrating government investment in roadways, maritime routes and other infrastructure. There are belt-and-road-themed handbag and car-rental companies, a “Road and Belt” coffee brand, a musical singing turtle branded with a “One Belt, One Road” logo, as well as belt-and-road tea canisters, scarves and chinaware.

Packaging for Mr. Hu’s toothbrush set, eight for 10 yuan ($1.45), is decorated with the silhouette of trotting camels and a brief explanation of the trade plan, which it says will allow people from all nations to have a “shared life of harmony, peace and prosperity.”

In all, hundreds of firms have registered names invoking a trade vision that has plenty of nicknames—OBOR, the Belt and Road Initiative, B&R—none of which trip easily off the tongue.

That is in addition to state-sponsored rollouts, like the China Mobile OBOR mobile-roaming plan, several theme parks and belt-and-road-themed calligraphy and arts exhibitions. Also, a sand-sculpting competition and sundry B&R classical-music shows. [Source]

See also a CNN interview with Jeremy Goldkorn about the “optics” of the event:

As is now standard procedure when Chinese cities host major international events, polluting factories were temporarily closed and other steps taken to ensure blue skies, while stringent security measures put much of the city on effective lockdown.

Petitioners across the country have been held or prevented from traveling to Beijing during the meetings. RFA reports:

“During the Belt and Road forum, there has been a huge crackdown on petitioners, with illegal kidnappings and detentions by local governments,” a Shandong petitioner surnamed Jiang told RFA.

“They’re spending tens, hundreds of billions to support foreign countries, but back in China, ordinary people can’t even get reliable health care coverage or pensions,” Jiang said.

More than a dozen Sichuan petitioners including Li Zhaoxiu, Yan Tafeng, and Zhou Wenming were detained by interceptors en route to the forum venue at Huairou on Sunday and taken to the out-of-town unofficial detention center at Jiujingzhuang on the outskirts of Beijing, they told RFA.

“When I was in Beijing yesterday, there were police checkpoints at all of the public transportation stops, particularly those heading out to Yanqi Lake and Huairou, with police checking people’s ID,” Li told RFA. “When they find petitioners, they take them to Jiujingzhuang.” [Source]

Staff at the influential liberal think tank Unirule Institute of Economics were locked out of their offices ahead of a planned seminar, while the founder, Mao Yushi, was prevented from leaving his Beijing home, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. Meanwhile Xinhua issued a list of 45 directives instructing Chinese journalists how to cover a number of sensitive topics especially relating to territorial sovereignty, including Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea.

Bloomberg News reports on the significance of the event for Xi Jinping and what his administration hopes to gain from it:

The Belt and Road Forum is the first dedicated to a home-grown initiative created by Xi — China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping died in 1997. He is looking to project strength at home ahead of a twice-a-decade reshuffle of the Communist Party’s top leaders, an image unlikely to be marred by the fact that all Group of Seven heads of state and government were absent except Italy.

“The main significance of the forum is optics: Making Xi Jinping look presidential and effective at home and making China look rich and powerful on the world stage,” said Michael Kovrig, senior adviser, North East Asia for the International Crisis Group. “Western countries are skeptical that they will really benefit economically, and worry that the initiative will increase Chinese influence, both economic and geopolitical, across Eurasia and beyond.” [Source]

The Economist sums up the problems facing the government initiative and why all players may not be fully on board, even as businesses in many countries, including the U.S., are eager to reap the rewards of China’s promised $1 trillion in investment:

The scheme is running into three linked problems. First, it is unclear what its priorities are, or who is running it. “We haven’t really come up with a specific goal,” says Zou Tongxuan of Beijing International Studies University. Every province has its own belt-and-road investment plan. So do hundreds of state-owned firms. The government’s strong backing has helped to get many projects up and running faster than might have happened otherwise (Mr Xi first began to talk about the idea only in 2013). But no one is in day-to-day charge, so thousands of financially dubious schemes have the imprimatur of a belt-and-road project. And the overweening behaviour of Chinese companies in some countries where they operate has stoked fears in some places of an over-mighty China.

[…] A second problem is finding enough profitable projects to match the vaulting ambition of the scheme, which aims to create a Eurasian trading bloc rivalling the American-dominated transatlantic area. It is not certain, for example, how successful the London-Yiwu rail line will be, given that (though faster) it is more than twice as costly as shipping. The Chinese hope to export their expertise in building high-speed rail. But China’s speedy construction of thousands of kilometres of it at home depended on cheap labour and the power to evict anyone who got in the way. That may be hard to replicate.

[…] Third, locals in some countries are angry about what they view as China’s heavy-handedness. In parts of Asia, democratic politics have been challenging China’s commonly used approach to deal-making—cosying up to unsavoury regimes. This had begun before Mr Xi devised the belt-and-road scheme. In 2011 Myanmar suspended work on a vast Chinese-financed dam at Myitsone, to popular acclaim. In Sri Lanka, the government elected in 2015 has been engaged in endless wrangling with China over the building of a Chinese-invested port in the home town of the country’s autocratic former president. In January protests against China’s plans there turned violent.

[…] The problem is partly one of scale: China is so vast that belt-and-road countries fear being overwhelmed by it. Loans from one bank, China Eximbank, for example, account for a third of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign debt. Yunnan is one of China’s poorer provinces. Yet its economy is still four times bigger than that of its more populous neighbour, Myanmar. Countries both long for and dread Chinese investment. [Source]

As the New York Times’ Michael Forsythe pointed out on Twitter, Chinese investment in developing economies is no guarantee of a country’s future success:

Bloomberg reports that many participants in the forum were disappointed in the lack of substance from the meetings:

The pomp left little room for serious talk about overcoming the challenges facing such a sweeping initiative. One participant in the policy discussion sessions who asked not to be identified said the events offered little more than prepared remarks praising Xi, wasting an opportunity for substantial debate on how to collaborate and best spend China’s money.

Even before the event got under way, some diplomats in Beijing were complaining the Chinese hadn’t allowed sufficient time for input while preparing the event’s final communique, according to people familiar with the process. The draft combined commitments to open international markets with endorsements of China’s diplomatic goals, the people said. [Source]

The final joint communique issued by the 30 attending heads of state emphasized global cooperation and committed to opposing protectionism and supporting the Paris Agreement on climate change. But, as Quartz points out, it is not clear what impact, if any, such commitments will have on the ground. The document was signed by only 20 of the 64 countries which are included in the Belt and Road plans:

But it’s worth noting that among the 30 signees to the OBOR statement are many countries with authoritarian regimes, including Cambodia, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan. Also, many countries in the group are under China’s economic sway. And some of the nations, such as Fiji, could hardly be considered major players on the world stage. What’s more the OBOR group is not one based on any kind of formal membership, unlike the G20, so the statement carries less weight. [Source]

China has been criticized for cozying up to autocratic regimes in order to push this project. In the South China Morning Post, Ryskeldi Satke and Nicolás de Pedro write that, “Essentially, Beijing is facing a risk of associating itself with rampant corruption in the autocratically ruled countries of despite positioning this Initiative as China’s successful foreign policy achievement abroad.” In , human rights activists remain concerned that the China- Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key part of the Belt and Road Initiative, will negatively impact the local Baloch population. Ten laborers working on roads linked to the CPEC project were shot in Gwadar on Saturday. Gwadar is part of Balochistan, a region that has been home to a long-simmering insurgency.

After initial uncertainty about the initiative, the European Union—minus the imminently exiting United Kingdom—unanimously declined to fully endorse it because of concerns over transparency and social and environmental issues. British chancellor Philip Hammond, meanwhile, described the UK as a “natural partner” in the program, in an apparent continuation of his predecessor’s enthusiastic but controversial embrace of China. Former British diplomat Kerry Brown noted ahead of the summit that the UK has little choice but to pursue closer engagement, even if its current capacity to do so is lacking.

India has been tipped by Credit Suisse as the scheme’s biggest potential investment recipient, with Russia, Indonesia, Iran and Egypt following. The company noted, though, that “China’s actual investment in the belt and road countries might fall short of expectations,” while sensitivities over investment in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir have somewhat dampened India’s enthusiasm. Elsewhere, the scheme has been variously described as a possible healer of divisions in the Middle East, and a potential pitfall for the African countries involved.

At The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi sums up the outcome of the meetings:

Overall, the Belt and Road Forum was unlikely sway anyone’s perceptions of the massive project. None of the announcements or speeches made at the forum fundamentally altered preexisting interpretations of the Belt and Road (both good and bad). Anyone familiar with relevant policy documents from the Chinese government (most notably the “Visions and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” issued in 2015) was not going to glean much new information from the BRF. It was more a celebration of the project – and China’s diplomatic clout in getting it accepted by as many countries as possible – than an expansion of its parameters or a serious consideration of the challenges that face the Belt and Road. [Source]

Understand the five major projects associated with the Belt and Road Initiative, via a SCMP visual explainer, and read more about the project via China Law and Policy Blog’s One Belt One Road – A Lot More Than Just A Weird Name.

Samuel Wade contributed to this post.