Discussions about China’s foreign aid program used to be dominated by a “foreign aid vs. domestic poverty” frame. The criticism that China prioritizes the “face” of its sovereign over the welfare of its poverty stricken people often dogs media reports about China’s largesse overseas. This line of questioning was so strong that top officials in charge of China’s foreign aid used to complain about the public’s bitter intransigence on this issue. The Chinese Political Compass, an online survey of Chinese netizens’ ideological leaning, also includes it as one of the 50 typical issues that polarize internet debates in China.
It is therefore noteworthy that such debates are largely absent around China’s high profile “One Belt, One Road” strategy formally unveiled this year, a grand plan to revive the ancient Silk Road connecting China’s prosperous east coast with Europe, with overland routes that go through Central Asia/South Asia (“the Silk Road Economic Belt”), and maritime routes that go through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean (“the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”). More specifically, President Xi Jinping’s recent delivery of a 46 billion USD aid package to Pakistan, a key country for the materialization of the strategy, almost completely dodged such questioning domestically. What happened?
It’s not that the criticism disappeared entirely. But even the occasional grumble is quickly shushed away by netizens who consider themselves more literate in economics. To be fair, the original criticism was indeed based on the public’s misconception about China’s large foreign exchange reserves. Many (mistakenly) believe that such an “asset” can be readily dispensed domestically to support much needed developments in the country’s poor landlocked regions.
But the ebb of this once intense debate cannot be easily explained away by a somewhat magic elevation of economic literacy levels in the population. Other factors are probably in play here, and one of them might just be how this administration chooses to frame the “One Belt, One Road” strategy in a fundamentally different manner.
Ever since President Xi first proposed the initiative during his tour of Central Asia and Southeast Asia in late 2013, it has been framed in terms of a grand visionary strategy. The intentional invocation of the Silk Road brings about an image of a world that is radically different from its current state, where large areas of Eurasia are haunted by poverty, religious fundamentalism and war. In that ancient world, the need for trade between Europe and China created prosperous trade hubs along a challenging route going across mountains and deserts. The trade of goods facilitated the exchange among cultures and civilizations, ushering in an era of great progress and creativity.
The framing of the initiative in such grand, visionary terms effectively transcends the somewhat petty debate about “who should the government give money to” and elevates the whole discussion to rumination about “China’s position in the world.” It has the effect of bypassing online demographics who are unable (or simply do not care) to engage in such a conversation. (Particularly noteworthy is that the liberal voices on the internet have been almost entirely silent on this issue so far.) And those who choose to engage, mostly elite media outlets and “geopolitical junkies”, have been very much focused on interpreting the grand strategic intentions behind the initiative, further reinforcing the narrative of a “brilliant geopolitical maneuver”.
Even though it manages to avoid an annoying line of domestic criticism, the rolling out of the strategy still faces other “public opinion traps” that are manifested by how Xi’s latest Pakistan visit has been received domestically. One of the traps is the sino-centric perspective that views the world as organized concentrically around China. As soon as China and Pakistan announced their relationship to be an “All Weather Strategic Partnership”, domestic commentators gleefully began to rank countries based on their relationship with China, with Pakistan at the unquestionable top (center) and Japan at the pitiful bottom (periphery). The word “Pakis-tie” (巴铁, “tie” as the Chinese pinyin for “iron”) starts to replace “Pakistan” even in the reporting by official media, an apparent reference to the President’s description of the relationship between the two countries as “iron brothers”. Reports from the People’s Daily website about Pakistani friendship towards China (e.g. primary school children calling the Chinese President by his nickname, Pakistani twitter flooded by China-loving contents) went to such a length that some claims became utterly dubious (e.g. the existence of a crime called “sabotaging Pak-China friendship” in Pakistan). Prominent online outlets explain to its audience why an “All Weather Strategic Partnership” is superior to partnerships that China forms with other countries: e.g. a mere “constructive strategic partnership” with the U.S., and a “strategic mutual benefit” relationship with Japan (not even a partner). Such a hierarchical ranking of nations based on their “friendliness” with China may easily be associated with the ancient tributary system where “barbarian” states were ranked based on their level of subjugation to the central kingdom. Actually, certain China observers proactively bring up the tributary system as a reference point.
The temptation to read China’s strategic intention in purely zero-sum terms may also prove problematic. The establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a key component of the Silk Road Economic Belt. It connects Kashgar in western China with the Pakistani port city of Gwadar on the coast of the Arabian Sea. Many Chinese commentators and media tend to emphasize its geopolitical benefit of allowing China to bypass the Strait of Malacca, which is currently China’s main maritime pathway to resources in the Middle East. But this so-called strategic benefit is largely based on a scenario wherein the the Strait is blockaded by a hostile military force (aka. the United States). This reading has provoked a rebuttal arguing that if such a scenario does occur (which amounts to a declaration of war against China), then maintaining a Pakistani port on the Arabian Sea will not give China much strategic advantage given the port’s own vulnerability. Another zero-sum reading of the initiative focuses on the rivalry between India and China, seeing India as an important chess piece of the United States’ strategic pivoting towards Asia. By investing in its “iron brotherhood” with Pakistan, China is basically vying with India (and United States) for political influence in South Asia. But this line of argument also readily overlooks the the potential for a China-Bangladesh-India corridor under the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative.
The delicacy in China’s vision for a “community of shared destiny” in Asia is that while setting decisively against the U.S approach, it also painstakingly tries to transcend it. As laid out in Xi’s speech at the Boao Asian Forum this March, almost all the key elements of this vision are pitched against their perceived U.S. “counterpoints”. For instance, it emphasizes “an Asian way of respecting each other’s comfort level” (code for “I won’t throw Human Rights issues right at your face”), the respect for each country’s “social systems of its own choice” (code for ” I won’t impose ‘universal values’ on you.”), the upholding of multilateral consultation (as opposed to unilateral interventions) and a basis for security that ensures “security for all” (instead of “a security based on other’s insecurity”). Most importantly, all the initiatives under this vision, be it the “One Belt, One Road” or the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, are supposed to be non-exclusive. The risk is: such a delicacy can easily get lost in a familiar “turf war” narrative wherein China is simply grabbing its sphere of influence from what originally belongs to the U.S.
Many political elites in China firmly rejects the comparison of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative with the Marshall Plan, with all its Cold War connotations. Some of them have already started to worry about domestic “misinterpretations” that may only intensify outside suspicion of Chinese intentions, a precursor to hostility and rejection. Based on what has been triggered by Xi’s Pakistan visit, such a concern is not completely baseless.