One Decade On, the BRI and Its Media Backers Struggle to “Tell China’s Story Well”

In 2013, Xi Jinping introduced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and called on state media to “tell China’s story well.” Almost ten years later, the CCP’s external propaganda apparatus is struggling to present a positive image of China’s investments abroad. Several recent incidents along the BRI indicate continued local resistance to Chinese engagement. Determined to spin these events in their favor, Chinese state actors in government, media, and business have attempted to control the narrative, but with varying degrees of success.

Assessing state-media commentary on the subject last week, David Bandurski at China Media Project explained how the CCP has largely failed to establish credible international channels for communication, despite this having been a decades-long priority for Chinese leaders:

Xi Jinping’s bid to close China’s gap in global discourse power (话语权) with the West has focused on remolding older CCP approaches to external propaganda (对外宣传) around the notion of strategic storytelling. The objective, first outlined in August 2013, is to “tell China’s story well,” which will enable the more effective transmission of “China’s voice.”

[…Two recent articles in the People’s Daily], juxtaposing policy approaches and concrete cases, offer a revealing summary of how the Party and its flagship newspaper approach the issue of external propaganda. And one clear takeaway for those who observe the broader question of Chinese influence is that core Party media have made little notable progress in developing their own international channels for communication since “going out” was defined as a key goal in the late 2000s.

[…] China insists that it is ready to speak more loudly and compellingly in the world and that it wishes to convey a “real, three-dimensional and comprehensive China” (真实, 立体, 全面的中国). But this goal is ultimately thwarted by its inability to listen, and its insistence on repressing diverse and human voices in favor of the one-dimensional and self-gratifying voice of the state. [Source]

Last month, Global Voices released a report about the narrative frames used by local and Chinese actors when commenting on the BRI in the media. It cultivated a public dataset of 748 media items illustrating local perceptions of the BRI in 14 countries and identifying different narrative themes. Introducing the report for Global Voices, Ivan Sigal described the tension between BRI narratives propagated by Chinese and local actors:

Beijing has frequently created effective narratives that place China at the center of development and influence. Yet our research uncovered an often-contentious dynamic between the grand narratives promoted by China and its proxies and agents, and the diverse local narratives of citizens, activists, journalists, and governments. We observed the power of local narratives to influence, and sometimes even halt, Chinese development ambitions. We noted attempts by China to wield influence through local, often elite proxies, either to support its perspectives or suppress public discussion. We also observed other countries attempting to build up counter-narratives that promoted their own vision of development, often in competition or uneasy cooperation with the Chinese vision.

The BRI is a narrative with imperial, world-ordering scope, backed by billions of dollars, with a goal to organize the world in accordance with a specific vision. This narrative is a projection of possible futures that emanate from a center of power—the polar opposite of the vision of networked societies and their manifestation, for instance, in open communications technologies. Networked societies, with their many nodes of power and influence, are bursting with local, ephemeral narratives, and, at least aspirationally rely on deliberation and debate to construct a collective vision of the world. [Source]

Chinese state-media actors have been cultivating local media to propagate particular narratives through the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN), a transnational network of 213 media organizations from 99 countries whose secretariat is run by the People’s Daily. An executive of one BRNN member organization stated that “the original consideration for establishing the BRNN is to share information, display achievements made by countries and regions along the Belt and Road, and build a news network with strong influence.” The editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily added that the BRNN will be “a story-teller of cooperation achievements.” 

Last month, the BRNN announced the winners of the first Silk Road Global News Awards, highlighting global media that tell stories of the BRI. The winner of the In-depth Reporting Award category was a 2018 article in Eurozone magazine titled “Kazakhstan Belt and Road Initiative: The Road to Somewhere,” written by Chris Wright. The article gives a glowing review of a BRI container port in Khorgos, Kazakhstan, which is “genuine evidence of cross-cultural cooperation and serious investment,” according to the author. “[I]t is everything BRI is supposed to be about. International connectivity; closer cooperation with neighbours; and more ways to export Chinese goods, both to neighbours and far beyond,” but without any “geopolitical bargaining.” 

But a very different picture of China’s investments in Kazakhstan emerges from the new website Eco China Info, launched one month before the BRNN awards. Curated by researcher Sergei Solyanikov, the website aims to document the social and environmental consequences of BRI projects in Kazakhstan. One of the infrastructure projects that it profiles is the Astana Light Rail Transport (LRT), which people have called “a monument to Kazakh corruption” after evidence of embezzlement surfaced. Construction began in 2011, but only 15 percent of the project has been completed thus far.

Another recently-announced BRNN award was the Special Contribution Award, which was given to Mushahid Hussain Syed, head of Pakistan’s Friends of Silk Road club and chairman of the Pakistan-China Institute. (A Pakistani singer was also featured in the Belt and Road song that was performed during the China Media Group’s Spring Festival Gala last weekend.) Pakistan, which traditionally has had very close relations with China and was ranked as the country most influenced by the PRC in DoubleThink Lab’s 2022 China Index, has recently witnessed popular pushback against BRI projects. Last month there was an explosion and protest near the Gwadar Port, central to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Panda Paw Dragon Claw newsletter described how Chinese actors framed the issue online and in the media to boost public reception in Pakistan:

Some Chinese media outlets noted statements by Pakistani officials that the explosion was a pure accident caused by a short circuit, which was then confirmed by COPHC, the Chinese company that runs the Gwadar Port. The clarification came to support the views of some Chinese commentators that India’s “social media forces” were using the occasion to paint a picture of local hostility and unrest around the port. Apparently finding that most of the arguments focusing on the destruction of 25% of Pakistan’s oil reserves were circulated by Indian Twitter accounts and picked up at face value by Chinese commentators, they reminded fellow Chinese social media users to be on alert to such manipulation.

Unfortunately, the effort to dispel doubts over the security situation at Gwadar immediately met with a major challenge. In the week of Dec 22, Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman, leader of the local protest led by Gwadar Rights Movement (Haq Do Tehreek) called on Chinese citizens to leave the port or face potential attack, a major escalation after weeks of mostly peaceful protest. […] Mainstream Chinese media was almost completely silent on the situation, leaving a few online commentators with a long-term interest in overseas Chinese endeavors to introduce the situation to the Chinese audience. They framed the issue as the Gwadar Port being used by Rehman as a hostage to advance personal political gains (Rehman is reportedly eyeing a Provincial Assembly seat), and emphasized Pakistan’s promise to China to protect CPEC personnel and assets.

As the protests were ongoing in Gwadar, the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad appeared to be running a counter-campaign to boost the image of the project in Pakistan. On Dec 28, Ambassador Nong Yong received a delegation from Pakistani think tank ISSI, which included former Pakistan Ambassador to China Naghmana Hashmi. The delegation had just come back from a tour of Gwadar funded by the embassy and reaffirmed their commitment to “conveying a truthful, positive image of CPEC”, partly through platforms such as the Gwadar Business Forum and Friends of Gwadar. Two days later, the Chinese Embassy held a ceremony giving awards to 34 Pakistani staff members of multiple CPEC projects, including Gwadar Port, for their outstanding services. [Source]

Backlash against China has boiled over in Afghanistan. Last month, ISIS attacked a Chinese-run hotel in Kabul, injuring five Chinese nationals. ISIS explicitly stated that “Chinese communists” were among their targets in the attack, and has previously cited China’s oppression of Uyghurs and relationship with the Taliban as motivating factors for its hostility. Since the U.S. withdrawal last August, China has sought to fill the gap through an increasing number of investment deals with the Taliban and a further integration of Afghanistan into the BRI. Earlier this month, a Chinese company signed a $540-million deal with the Afghan government to develop an oil and gas field in northern Afghanistan, marking the largest deal since the Taliban takeover. 

Much of the Chinese state-media framing of China’s engagement in Afghanistan has ignored underlying local anti-China sentiment and instead praised Chinese government actions, such as humanitarian aid donations. One of the three articles about the ISIS attack published in the Global Times was an in-depth feature that repeatedly described the Chinese embassy’s heroic role in responding to the situation:

When hearing that a lot of blood was urgently needed to rescue the seriously injured compatriots, Ambassador Wang [Yu] and his staff offered their blood on the spot without any hesitation, each providing a 450cc bag full of blood.

[…] On the eve of the New Year, the Chinese embassy once again sent staff members to visit them in the hospital and to send New Year gift packages as a blessing for their quick recovery. 

[…] In Kabul, the Chinese embassy spared no effort to help [a survivor of the attack named] Xiaoyun leave smoothly and safely.

[…] In a WeChat message Xiaoyun later sent to Chinese embassy officials, she expressed her thanks to those who offered helping hands in the trip. “So many people have made a lot of effort in [helping] me, and words can’t adequately express my gratitude for all your hard work,” she wrote. “I deeply appreciate my motherland and the embassies.” [Source]

Indonesia has also been a battleground of BRI contestation. Last month, two workers died at the Gunbuster Nickel Industry facility, a BRI project in Morowali, Central Sulawesi owned by China’s Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry Co. Ltd. The deaths triggered a set of labor protests in January that led to clashes between local and Chinese workers and two more deaths last week. The China-Global South Project (CGSP) stated that Weibo censors took down comments about the incident under posts by major Chinese social media outlets, but did not target posts elsewhere on the platform. CGSP said such censorship allows misinformation to spread in the absence of credible reporting, which may work to the disadvantage of Chinese state actors seeking to influence BRI-related narratives. Peh Hong Lim and Adrianna Zhang from VOA reported that both local and Chinese workers were exploited by the company, and barred from speaking to the press:

[According to Li Qiang, founder and executive director of China Labor Watch,] the company framed the strike as an anti-China movement and gave the Chinese workers steel sticks and other tools to guard the facility. He said the company also held the Chinese workers’ paychecks as a means of control. Some workers hadn’t received their paychecks for three to five months.

“The Chinese workers are victims themselves whose labor rights and interests are violated,” Li said. “If they don’t show up [to guard the facility] they may even lose their job.”

[…] Li also said that the Chinese workers are not willing to talk with the press due to fear of retaliation by the company.

Last year, the Delong Industrial Park banned Chinese workers from speaking to the press or on social media about anything the company felt would damage its reputation. Anyone who violated the rules faces fines up to 100,000 RMB (roughly $14,820) and even termination. [Source]

China Labor Watch (CLW) released a report last November titled “Trapped: The Belt and Road Initiative’s Chinese Workers,” which documented various labor abuses against Chinese workers at BRI projects worldwide. Following up with the companies mentioned in that report, the Business and Human Rights Resource Center invited them earlier this month to respond to these accusations and complete a business and human rights survey. Out of 22 companies solicited, including the Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry Company Ltd. that runs the nickel facility in Indonesia, only one replied


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