The Communist Party of China is experiencing a renaissance under its current leadership, as evidenced by General Secretary Xi Jinping’s resounding success at the Party’s 19th National Congress last month.
During his five-year tenure, Xi has created his own reality by fusing Mao Zedong’s dream of absolute state power with Deng Xiaoping’s dream of a robust socialist market economy. It is this unique set of conditions that has empowered and emboldened Xi to implement the most ambitious endeavor in Chinese — and perhaps human — history: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI is a global socioeconomic development strategy, which, according to the Chinese government’s March 2015 charter, “aims to promote the connectivity of Asian, European, and African continents and their adjacent seas” — particularly through vast infrastructure projects and broad deregulatory polices.
With the notable exception of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the collective reaction toward Xi’s vision has been outwardly positive. At the May 2017 Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, in the presence of United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, Xi and 29 other world leaders affirmed in a joint communiqué that they “welcome and support” the BRI.
Much of the debate over the BRI has centered on the possible underlying motives, and whether it will be commercially or politically successful. The more urgent concern — which remains largely unaddressed by both the Chinese government and the international community — should be how to mitigate and prevent the crime and terrorism that the initiative is inadvertently facilitating.
China and its state partners are not the only actors using the BRI to expand their mobility, connectivity, production capacity, and market share. Criminals are, too. The more Eurasia integrates via the BRI, the easier it becomes for criminal entities to recruit additional members, acquire new clients, diversify their portfolios, and outsource their operations to less-developed areas with laxer laws.
Ironically, many of the BRI’s transportation projects coincide with and elongate existing trafficking routes. For example, although Myanmar is already at the apex of the “Golden Triangle” (Southeast Asia’s primary opium-producing region), the renovation of old highways will make smuggling drugs easier, while the construction of new roads will expose formerly isolated areas to illicit activity. In other words, BRI infrastructure in rural Myanmar will provide criminals with access to customers and resources that were previously too remote to reach. As a result, opioid addiction will proliferate, and forests will be ravaged for timber, wildlife contraband, and arable land for poppy production. If these thoroughfares were properly secured, then their inauguration would herald positive growth. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that the government of Myanmar is willing or able to insulate these roads from crime — especially since drug lords routinely collaborate with corrupt officials to monopolize the country’s jade racket.
The opium trade in Myanmar impacts China as well. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), two-thirds of China’s opioids come directly from Myanmar. Consequently, at least 70 percent of China’s known heroin users are located in Yunnan (the province that borders Myanmar). Although Yunnan accounts for barely 4 percent of China’s population, it is the source of almost one-quarter of China’s new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. This is not surprising, given that heroin is typically administered intravenously, and hypodermic needles are proven transmitters of blood-borne diseases.
The BRI charter also proposes using e-commerce to enhance “cross-border trade.” However, just as physical infrastructure can be exploited by criminal entities, so can internet infrastructure. Between 2012 and 2015, online drug trafficking worldwide grew over 900 percent. The BRI’s e-commerce plans will likely cause this figure to rise even higher.
Due to China’s severe internet censorship and recent crackdown on cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin), engaging in transactions on the “dark web” within China is rather difficult. In developing countries, though, where internet access and cryptocurrency usage are barely regulated, the BRI’s e-commerce ventures will encourage cybercrime.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is one of the most important facets of the BRI — and one of its most dangerous. In the past three years, at least 54 Pakistani laborers have been killed in attacks on BRI worksites throughout the country. Balochistan province (which is home to the vital Chinese-operated port at Gwadar) appears to be the nucleus of this anti-Chinese campaign. In addition to a decades-long separatist movement by ethnic Balochs, the province’s capital city of Quetta continues to be a “safe haven” for Afghan Taliban leadership. The presence of BRI projects and Chinese expatriates in Balochistan presents Islamic terrorists with new pretexts and targets for their crusades. The Pakistani government’s ability to protect CPEC is dubious at best, given its tendency to distinguish between “good” and “bad” jihadists — even though the Corridor seems to be under siege by both.
Although the UNODC stresses that socioeconomic integration must be accompanied by matching security “cooperation,” it concedes that the law enforcement and intelligence apparatuses of most BRI countries “are not keeping pace with the speed of change.” This is because these agencies “are reflective of a time when crime was more of a local phenomenon,” as opposed to a transnational — let alone an online — one. “Organized groups proliferate and perpetrate crimes faster than [said agencies] develop the skills and relationships to fight them,” the UNODC laments.
In order to ensure both the immediate and long-term security of their BRI projects, I recommend that Chinese enterprises embed substantive corporate social responsibility into their operations, based on actionable intelligence derived from criminal risk assessments — which could be jointly devised by Chinese banks and host country universities.
I believe that if Chinese firms demonstrate their sincere appreciation of and tangible commitment to the communities in which they are present, locals will become more inclined to contribute to the safety and success of the BRI rather than to its obstruction, exploitation, or destruction.
Unfortunately, China’s shortsighted human resource practices in developing nations (which include exporting Chinese laborers en masse, mistreating local staff, and being indifferent to host countries’ cultures) are its own worst enemy. Xi Jinping and the business class of China may question if they can afford to be socially responsible as they build the Belt and Road. In my view, they can’t afford not to be.
When Xi enters the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting and the East Asia Summit, the world will turn its eyes to him. However, if the Belt and Road Initiative continues to cause and exacerbate conditions that promote global crime and terrorism with impunity, then, perhaps at next year’s events, the world (and maybe even elements within Chinese society) will look to someone else for solutions.
Philip Dubow is a graduate of the United Nations Interregional Crime & Justice Research Institute in Turin, Italy. Previously, he was an educational consultant in Shenzhen, China.