Anxieties of development: emerging voices in Chinese social media

 

MICday
Development blogging becomes a new genre in Chinese social media. Image: Web banner of the 2017 “Made in China Day” celebration organized by the Communist Youth League featuring several development bloggers

In August 2018, an online post by “Shenzhen Ningnanshan” (深圳宁南山, hereafter “SN”) piqued the interest of Global Times chief editor Hu Xijin, who pointed his followers to the lengthy list of complaints about high property prices and education costs that, according to SN, threaten to sap the morale of an “urban middle class that has fundamental faith in China’s developmental trajectory”. Hu, who often presents himself as an interlocutor between the regime and the public, acknowledged the complaints’ “authenticity” and “sincerity”. In a published response, Hu reminded government officials to read SN’s article carefully, as it represents “the real worries of the People’s Republic’s hardworking constructors.” These people should be heard and shown the country’s future directions.

The exchange underscores the weight assigned to urban middle class voices by a political elite keen to monitor a constituency consequential to national progress and stability. But SN is no ordinary disgruntled working man. At the beginning of his post, he wrote that his articles were often read by “people up there”, meaning Party leaders and officials, and he hoped that this one reached them too. SN’s extraordinary influence in social media is part of a bigger story of development blogging’s ascend in Chinese cyberspace. It has become a genre, fueled by the economic slowdown and heightened trade tensions with the United States. Microbloggers such as SN dedicate their social media space to big questions like China’s place in the world and if it can overcome the middle-income trap. And they find a growing audience, including “people up there”, tuned in to listen to their diagnoses of China’s ills and prescriptions for cures.

The escalation of the US-China trade tension in early 2018 became a rallying cry for these online voices, who collectively shaped how the Chinese public perceived the clash between the two countries. SN’s Mar 24 post “Trade War: an interlude in China’s rise to surpass the US” was one widely read online analysis of what the trade war was really about. It distinguished itself from two kinds of “extreme voices”. On the left, Maoists were calling for China to go back to autarky, a state of non-trading economic self-sufficiency, while on the right, people were advocating for deep concessions that would surrender much of China’s industrial and technological agenda. SN’s views were essentially realistic nationalist, conceding that China was not ready to take on the US at this very moment but firmly believing in the inevitability of national rejuvenation through the conquering of technological commanding heights in multiple key industries.

The history of “online statecraft” by Chinese netizens dates to the dawn of China’s Internet age, as early users of chatrooms and BBS forums heatedly debated China’s geopolitical strategies and military posture. The perceived futility of such online discussions in a country with very limited political participation has been a subject of ridicule, as manifested in a popular online joke about a “basement-dwelling patriotic youth“, who preoccupies himself with questions of national security but can’t even guarantee his own personal safety against the intrusions of the state.

Different from the brand of juvenile statecraft that resembles an online projection of masculinity, the emerging development bloggers build their profiles to exude maturity and credibility. SN’s Zhihu page (Chinese equivalent of Quora) describes himself as a “middle class person moving bricks in Shenzhen” (“moving bricks” is a humorous online reference to making money). His Weibo account carries a tag line that says “re-recognizing our own country.” Although his true identity remains unknown, many believe that he works with supply chains in Shenzhen, giving him first-hand insights about the frontier of Chinese technological advancements. A Zhihu user tried to paint an imagined profile of him: “around 40 years old, grew up in a modest family, graduated from a top Chinese university, works at a major manufacturing company and earns 1 million RMB a year.” Some of SN’s peer bloggers are more upfront about their real-life identity. A group of Weibo accounts which frequently interact with and promote SN’s posts, self-identify as the Society of Wind and Cloud (风云学会), which is supposed to be associated with the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). One of the key voices from the group, Chen Jing (陈经), is research director at Asia Vision, a company specialized in Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Beijing Saidong (北京塞冬, hereafter as Saidong), another popular development blogger who has friendly interactions with SN both online and offline, is a Peking University-educated computer scientist who works in the Internet sector.

Their technology/industry background gives them credibility when they write on issues related to China’s growing industrial might or its competition with other countries in developing next generation semi-conductors, even though their topic areas go way beyond their professional domains. Chen Jing, for example, writes extensively on microeconomics, trade, and… football. In 2016 he even published a book called “China’s government-organized economy” that claimed to have discovered the secret of China’s economic miracle: an economic model that is neither market nor planned, but run by multiple levels of the government using market-based approaches. The idea is not entirely new but it shows the appetite of typical development bloggers, who enjoy throwing out grand theories about China’s rise. They sometimes refer to themselves as the “industrial party”(工业党), people who firmly believe in a country’s industrial might as its passport to success.

The “industrial party” bloggers share a lexicon of terms such as “per capita GDP”, “demographics”, “supply chains” and “national fortune”, which reflects a tendency to think in aggregates and a competitive arena-shaped world view. Their interest in (obsession with) nations, their rise and fall, prosperity and poverty, fill their Weibo/WeChat pages with lengthy, data-heavy accounts of national competition and dominance. Popular posts written by SN in the past year include titles like “The competitiveness of China’s low-end industries“, “China’s development and the East Asian hell model“, and more bluntly, “Challenging white superiority: the competition a thousand miles away“. Collectively they depict a picture of a merciless ladder called “development” on which nations laboriously climb. At the top of the ladder sit countries with the highest per capita GDP, enjoying comfortable privileges, while other lower income countries fight to occupy favorable positions underneath. “Overall, the white world, Europe+North America+Australia/New Zealand+Israel, still makes up the top echelon of nations,” writes SN in a post responding to an IMF data release, “when per capita GDP goes above 40,000USD, only very few non-white nations can enter that area… Japan and a few ethnic Chinese economies, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore managed to achieve that. We should have confidence in ourselves.”

Saidonggraph
Development bloggers fill their online posts with graphs like this.

The racial message is even more explicit in his wildly popular post on how China could break from the East Asian model. A sense of injustice oozes from the text when he observed how, in the past two decades, the 20 or so countries that surpassed Japan in per capita GDP were mainly European. “The life of Europeans is really laid back, while East Asians, whose intelligence and hardwork are universally recognized, have to endure intensive, hellish work hours.” He continued, “there must be a problem when a lazy people’s economic performance goes beyond a hardworking people’s.”

The problem, as SN saw it, was an “invisible hand that pinned East Asian economies on a few narrow and fiercely competitive industrial tracks”. Most of them lack vast agricultural lands or natural resources that support lucrative businesses such as agrochemicals or energy extraction, sectors dominated by Americans and Europeans. More importantly, he asserted that military shackles placed by the United States on East Asian states, particularly Japan and South Korea, suppressed their technological potential, as military-to-civilian transfer is a major pathway of technological innovation. He also maintained that Western capital had been extracting disproportionally high returns from investments in premium East Asian companies such as Samsung, exploiting their “capital superiority.” Those restrictions and suppressions limited East Asian states to a small number of industries such as semiconductors, forcing people in those countries to compete fiercely for a finite number of middle-class jobs generated by those sectors. China, free from the above constraints, could be the only East Asian nation with the potential to redefine an East Asian developed economy, he declared.

If this sounds alarmingly like a (milder) version of Japan’s complaint about a suffocating “Anglo-Saxon encirclement” prior to World War II, fellow bloggers only reinforce the impression by repeatedly invoking the imagery of shrinking “development space” for China. Only in this case, the “space” is not so much the physical territory that pre-war Japan was paranoid about, but rather the remaining seat at the table of developed economies in a game of musical chairs. The sheer size of China’s population makes some wonder how the current global order can accommodate another billion people to join the high-income club. “It took a world-class conglomerate like Samsung to pull 50 million of South Koreans into developed status. China has a population 28 times larger. How could the world absorb another 28 Samsungs?” wrote Weibo user Qingpuluo the day after Trump declared a trade war on China, using very rough mathematics. He believed that China would not reach developed status within the existing global framework by simply “trading with developed economies.” It needs new space.

This is also a theme that SN often explores, although his views are colored by a more ideological tinge. Again using back-of-the-envelope calculations, he asserted in one of his posts that 1.4 billion newcomers to the industrialized club would “completely change the face of “developed economies”, which currently cover just 800-900 million people. Racially speaking, Asians would replace Caucasians as the majority. Politically speaking, the West’s control over the world would be much diminished as China becomes the first developed Asian power that’s not subject to Western military control. Culturally speaking, the “cultural composition” of what it means to be “developed economies” would fundamentally change with China’s entry. He insisted that the white-majority developed world wouldn’t tolerate such tectonic shifts and would be prepared to stave off China’s rise.

In keeping with the industrial party’s manufacture-centric world view, some bloggers looked at the issue through a “global value chain” framework. Citing a recent report in Japanese media, Machinery & Engineering Strategy (机工战略), an industry voice represented on Chinese social media, observed how US companies took in as much as 40% of total global corporate profits (of 18,000 publicly listed companies from 100 countries).  Another blogger distilled the phenomenon into a globalization pyramid made up of 3 camps of countries: at the top are technology and capital providers, in the middle are labor providers and at the bottom are natural resource providers. China’s struggle to move from camp 2 to camp 1 and grab a bigger share from the highest tier of the value chain is considered a major uphill battle that the country has to fight. Saidong has found a real-life illustration of the battle in the global value chain of electronics, where China has evolved from an assembler to a major parts supplier and brand owner, chipping away, bit by bit, the economic cake from Apple, Samsung, and Japanese/Taiwanese manufacturers. “The extensive electronics value chain creates high-end R&D jobs, mid-level trade and logistics opportunities and low-end assembly line employments that can accommodate a huge and diverse workforce,” he argued, “it’s a godsent for any developing economy.”

The idea of “development space” shapes the thinking of development bloggers when they consider major strategic topics such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To be clear, unlike the way it is scrutinized and debated in the West and in recipient countries, the BRI is barely an issue on Chinese social media, likely due to its lack of connection with the day-to-day experience of ordinary Chinese netizens. One notable exception is the “industrial party”. Deeply concerned about China’s future position in the world, these bloggers quite often engage in intellectual exercises about China’s adventures overseas and what they mean for the country.

In a recent long post for the Society of Wind and Cloud, Saidong did an extensive analysis of Africa’s future demographic changes and their implications for China. With multiple graphs, he highlighted the pyramid-shaped population structure of today’s Africa and marveled at how it resembled that of India 40 years ago. Based on a few bold assumptions, he calculated in a quick-and-dirty fashion, that Africa’s total population would reach 2.5 billion in 30 years while its GDP per capita would enter the 3000-4000 USD terrain. “We will witness the emergence of an Africa that’s 2.5-4 times the economic size of today’s India”, he predicted. By then, the continent would have produced a group of mega-population countries. Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt would all boast populations over 200 million. As he saw it, in 2050, these countries would still be relatively poor and not fully industrialized. Yet their vast internal markets would make ideal destinations for Chinese industrial products, infrastructure construction capacities (and overcapacities), and Internet services. “Africa, with its size and potential, represents a new market that a late comer like China can more easily access,” Saidong argued, apparently alluding to the resistance China may face when it enters existing markets with established players. At the end of the article he reminded his readers that in the 21st century, China’s “national fortune” would be decided by how it approaches the “6 billion people in African and Asian developing countries.”

When they apply such a world view inward to scrutinize China’s domestic developments, the development bloggers constitute a formidable force on the Chinese Internet, challenging some of the Communist Party’s most important policy agendas. Just as they are sensitive to demographic changes in other developing countries, they are keenly aware of China’s rapidly aging population and are some of the most vocal online critics of family planning policies. The perception of growing populations as a source of national strength and growth potential shapes their attitude toward the one-child policy. In a widely circulated Weibo post, SN took on China’s population control and real estate market at once. “Years of propaganda in our country treat population purely as a burden,” he wrote, “but a large and growing population can actually bring lots of benefits.” These benefits, in his mind, include a great number of entrepreneurial opportunities and the job creation ensued, cheap labor and service that propel new business models, and higher returns from property booms kept afloat by the continued urbanization process. Because of the depth of China’s domestic market, it has the guts to confront the United States without the fear of “economic collapses experienced by Turkey or Iran”.

In the same vein, development bloggers are perpetually worried about China slipping into the same  demographic predicament of its neighbors, Japan and South Korea. The abject lives of Japanese retirees and the country’s looming pension crisis are constant reminders of what China’s own fate may look like down the road.  At the beginning of 2018, confronted by China’s newly released birth statistics of 2017, Saidong warned that in 5-10 years China’s demographic atrophy would be as severe as, if not direr than Japan’s, thanks to 30 years of arbitrary acceleration of a natural process of lowering birth rates and other driving forces of an aging society.

In addition to their intellectual propensities on the population question, their own status as members of an upper-middle class rooted in China’s booming high-tech sectors seems to have made them advocates for certain middle-class-centric policies, all of them centered around child-rearing. The underlying message appears to be that, since high-tech manufacturing is the pillar of China’s next industrial revolution, people employed by such sectors need to be well taken care of by the state for them to concentrate on their excellent work. For instance, reforms in China’s pre-school system and primary education in recent years that tilt heavily towards burden-shedding for kids meet with heavy criticism from this group. Letting children off school at 3pm instead of 5 or 6 creates extra work for parents who need to find ways to fill those hours for which schools no longer bear responsibility. It also creates a massive extra-curricular education market that exploits parents who fear that their kids are not being given sufficient tutoring to prepare them for fierce future higher education competitions. The group also considers rising property prices in Chinese cities a major sore point for this social class and a drag on demographic improvements. Not only is living space being squeezed due to ever higher real estate prices, making it difficult to raise more kids under one roof, but also marriage and child bearing ages are being pushed back as young people have to work longer before accumulating enough capital to form families, if they do so at all.

Complaints like these, and the resonance they generate, tend to produce response from the likes of Global Times’ Hu Xijin. But as Hu himself reminded SN in his piece, the distribution of wealth in today’s Chinese society had made readjustments around issues like property price particularly challenging. While a city’s new comers may look for cheaper paths to property ownership, the city’s propertied class may, in contrast, hope for even higher real estate values for themselves. Measures favoring one side of the equation may stir discontent in the other.

Hu’s response highlighted the social class signature of SN’s brand of development blogging on which its critics often focus. Some of the more visible detractors claimed that, constrained by the narrow interest of their social class, policy prescriptions offered by SN and his peers are biased and could harm the nation as a whole. Maqianzu, a blogger associated with the left-leaning Guancha.cn, has argued that measures to lighten the burden on urban middle class, as SN advocates, would undermine overall social mobility. High property prices in big cities, as he sees it, are a way to continue funding infrastructure expansions in underdeveloped parts of the country and they will provide upward movement channels for the poor. He also has dismissed SN’s complaint about overburdened middle class parents, claiming that ultra-competitiveness in basic education is a result of more qualified students entering the system, another sign of positive, upward mobility in the society. “China has no hope if its middle class is allowed to have a laidback lifestyle,” he wrote provocatively. Instead, the country’s long-term prosperity depends on an over-worked mortgage-bearing middle class that’s constantly kept on their toes. For Maqianzu, the idea that the offspring of today’s middle-class are entitled to effortlessly inherit the social status of their parents is borderline reactionary.

More scathing criticism condemns SN’s writing as nothing more than a kind of “development porn”, using selective, misleading materials to depict an overly rosy picture of China’s economic prospects and industrial prowess, stirring up cheap nationalistic sentiments as its online predecessor, “military porn” often did.

Even if it is just another type of intellectual opium that the Chinese Internet routinely produces, if “people up there” are really paying attention to what the SNs are blogging about these days, they may find it reassuring that a not so small segment on social media is fully supportive of the leadership’s push to bring Chinese manufacturing to the next level against a strong trade headwind. They may be alerted by the intensity of frustration this group of people feel about the Party’s track record in managing the country’s population, education and property market. They may also be encouraged to find a reliable cyberspace ally more powerful in many ways than the official propaganda machinery in its ability to coalesce the hardworking middle class around an assertive agenda of Made in China 2025, Belt & Road Initiative and geopolitical adventures that reclaim China’s development space in the world.

How should the Chinese media approach Belt and Road reporting?

A conversation with Michael Anti, award-winning journalist, blogger and veteran media observer

Michael Anti

*This blog is republished from my new blog site Panda Paw Dragon Claw, which is focused on discussing China’s overseas footprint. If you happen to be also interested in Belt and Road stuff, make sure you follow that blog too!

Many Chinese netizens, including myself, recognize the pen name “Michael Anti” (real name Zhao Jing) as an internet legend. His blogs, back in the early 2000s, were must-reads of an emerging body of online writing that was distinctive in style and latitude from what people usually saw on media outlets back then. As a journalist, columnist and blogger, Anti represents the outward-looking, critical voice that introduces liberal ideals into the Chinese cyberspace. In 2005 he famously celebrated China’s Super Girl show (an American Idol style singing talent show) as a massive experiment of democracy, where tens of millions of Chinese viewers voted for their favorite singers through mobile phone SMS. His critique of the global and Chinese media/cyber landscape has established his reputation as one of the sharpest journalistic minds in China. He was the winner of the 2011 M100 Sanssouci Media Award, worked as a war correspondent for 21st Century Business Herald and a researcher for the New York Times Beijing bureau, and became a Harvard Niemann fellow in 2008.

Today, Anti is the editor-in-chief of Caixin Globus, a new media project incubated by Caixin Media, China’s leading business news provider, in 2016 that specializes in reporting news events and developments overseas. When I met Anti in his office two weeks ago, we started by talking about how poorly international news performs in Chinese media. “It’s almost always ranked at the bottom of viewership at news portals,” Anti told me. His answer to that challenge is to make Caixin Globus a “reader-centric” platform of international news. Unlike the standard model of setting up bureaus and dispatching correspondents, a costly arrangement that is out of reach for most non-state Chinese media, Globus has cultivated an impressive network of over 200 overseas contributors, many of them Chinese students of journalism or political science living in countries across the world. With this network, Globus has managed to deliver timely, often on-the-spot coverage of the Kim-Trump Summit, protests in Iran, and the general election in Germany, among other international topics. Anti’s vision is to give readers more say in Globus’s editorial decisions through a built-in mechanism that allows readers to flag what they are interested in. In his words, he would “give up the elitist position of deciding what readers should read” and deliver world news that is actually needed by its Chinese readership.

Globus has recently launched a new initiative to track the overseas ventures of Chinese enterprises. The rolling out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is also firmly on the radar of Anti’s global network. Our conversation naturally surrounds China’s overseas involvements and how the Chinese media should approach such developments far away from home.

 

“Our readers’ interest will ultimately fill the entire world map.”

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (P): What is the status of Belt and Road reporting in the Chinese media?

Anti(A): I think most of the media outlets, when they are faced with the Belt and Road topics, are in a state of hesitation. They don’t know who actually reads such stories. From an ordinary reader’s point of view, why would she or he want to read about BRI?

At the moment most BRI stories are about corporate pioneers, the enterprises that first step out of the Chinese market and go global. They are either about initial successes or failures, and the lessons generated out of those. The problem is that the Chinese media have neither the resources nor the local presence to find really good story leads. So they end up doing what I call “policy reporting”. Such coverage of general policy developments does not pique the curiosity of most readers, who only browse them for casual reading.

P: So how can such reporting improve?

A: In a sense it is premature to expect the media to go big in this area. Readers’ interest in the topic has to be cultivated gradually. Without growing reader interest, investing heavily into BRI reporting is futile. At Caixin we have recently erected a paywall. If a story does not earn us subscription, it will be considered a loss for the publication. As you know, BRI reporting is expensive. Even if we can reduce costs by commissioning from in-country contributors, it will still cost much higher than reporting from Beijing.

Many of our peer news organization do deem BRI as of strategic importance to cover. The question is how. At Globus we want to empower readers to tell us what to cover. Even though many of them are currently not asking questions about BRI per se, they are starting to take a personal interest in other countries’ visa or immigration policies. And the US-China trade war is now high on their reading list. Sometimes their curiosity brings our attention to totally unpredictable places. So I believe that, with time, our readers’ interest will ultimately fill the entire world map.

It then begs the question of how we spend resources to address that growing appetite. The conventional, elitist mode of “editors pick, readers read” is becoming more and more strained with the ever enlarging geography that news organizations need to cover. The BRI involves more than 60 countries! It’s too scattered. It’s unlike domestic reporting, where editors more or less know what main frames they should use for a given news event. In BRI reporting, some level of reader participation and guidance are definitely helpful. The result coming out of this interactive process will be a real reflection of the BRI that matters, not some imagined concept conjured up by editors.

 

“The Fourth Estate doesn’t apply here.”

P: Where do you get this idea of need-based reporting?

A: It actually comes from the earliest economic and business reporting, pioneered by the Economist almost 150 years ago, when news reporting was considered an informational service. Nowadays, Chinese media elites understand the role of media often through the lens of New York Times vs. Sullivan, or the Pentagon papers, where news media acts as the “Fourth Estate” (or fourth power) in a society, as a check to other formal powers. But if we go back to the media’s original role as an information service, we may find its value in rebuilding the consensual basis of public discourses, something that is lost in an increasingly polarized and tribal world. In the US, partisan polarization has hit unimaginable levels. China is not there yet but you can still sense that people too readily fall into camps in any given public debate. At such a moment, my concern is to construct the foundation of informed conversation. No matter which side you are on as a Chinese, can we have a shared point of departure as globalized citizens of a responsible world power? This is the kind of consensus-building I would like to invest all my time in right now.

P: Is there any place for the Fourth-Estate-style muckraking in BRI reporting?

A: I doubt it. To play the muckraking role, media would need to be able to influence public opinion on a given matter, thereby exerting pressure on policy making. But we are at such early stages right now that even basic knowledge still needs to be disseminated. It’s impossible to jump directly into a role that can move and shake policy.

P: But the need for Chinese media to play that role is already there, if you look at environmental and social controversies around China-backed projects globally.

A: This can be addressed without resorting to adversarial, critical reporting. We can put them under the framework of an informational service, by explaining local concerns and expectations as accepted norms. We can tell our readers, if you do not respect such norms, your projects or investments may fail. This way you achieve what may otherwise need adversarial reporting through more matter-of-fact analyses. We can take the environmental debates of a host country, summarize the mainstream thinking behind them, and present it as the prevailing norms that Chinese actors should bear in mind when they enter the country. I think the Chinese actors reading our reports will agree with this approach. Because at the end of the day, they seek the acceptance of local communities. There is no point arguing back from where they stand in China.

 

“China has arrived at the gate of being a globalized country. But its media isn’t ready yet.”

P: What kind of BRI stories should such a press tell?

C: So many stories can be told of China’s “going out”. First of all, readers care about why China is venturing out. It’s about motivation. Secondly, they are massively interested in learning how other countries view China. For Belt and Road reporting, understanding a recipient country’s “imagination” of China is crucial. If this element is not embedded into the reporting, I would consider it a failure as it assumes other countries see China exactly the same way as it sees itself. Understanding that each country is different is the prerequisite for producing really grounded BRI reporting. And in this aspect, Chinese media has not done a great job.

P: Can you elaborate?

A: Only a truly globalized nation will need globalized journalism. It first appeared as the British Empire set its foot around the world. The Economist is a typical early product of that phase of globalization: an encyclopedia of global political knowledge. Without the demand for such knowledge, a country’s media ’cannot be truly globalized. The Economist basically taught its readers how to approach local culture and norms. Only by respecting that can you do business with the local people.

I think China has arrived at the gate of being a globalized country. And it’s not even by choice. To focus predominantly on US-China bilateral relationship is no longer viable given today’s political environment. It forces China to turn to Europe, to get closer with South East Asia, and to promote BRI. There should be a globalized Chinese press in this era.

P: But it seems that the capabilities of the Chinese media do not match the new globalized nature of China’s diplomatic and economic relations?

A: Of course not! Fundamentally China’s media elites themselves lack globalized genes. There is a talent issue here. How many of China’s newspaper editors have practiced journalism in other countries? How many Chinese news organizations have international bureaus or local correspondents? The lack of international experience leads to lackluster international news reporting.

The bright side is that this is starting to change. The United States has actually helped us train many international journalistic talents through its J-schools. And at Globus we now have this expanding network of PhD students overseas who have lived in host countries for many years and are able to analyze situations on the ground. Ultimately, we will need correspondents based in those countries to fill the gap.

P: Beyond having experienced professionals, how can Chinese media deliver stories that accurately portray how other countries view Chinese involvements?

A: This falls under the question of reporting paradigms. In BRI reporting we probably need to go beyond the fact-centric approach of American journalism which is restraint in commentary and invites readers to reach their own conclusion by presenting just ascertainable facts. Considering that our readers often lack the very basic knowledge-base to interpret developments in a host country, I would encourage my reporters to be more adventurous with their methods. Sometimes you will need to be a bit more educational in your reporting to be effective, like what Lin Da does (note: Lin Da is the pen name of a Chinese writer couple living in the US famous for their educational prose collections introducing the history and politics of the US, Spain and other foreign countries to a Chinese readership). BRI reporting doesn’t have to stick with a standard news reporting paradigm. A reporter can be as enlightening and illuminating as possible, as long as he or she maintains objectivity.

“Pakis-tie”: How Could Domestic Perception Undermine China’s Silk Road Initiative

巴铁

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.