In an address at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel sounded warning bells over China’s global rollout of its so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a drive that involves more than $1 trillion of spending on infrastructure across more than 60 countries. Gabriel cautioned that the initiative was “not just about business and industry.” China, he said, was “developing a comprehensive system that is not like ours, not based on freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
China’s new assertiveness, aided by flagging leadership from the United States, has given rise to the notion that it offers a real alternative to the global architecture created in the aftermath of the World War II. At a congress of the Chinese Communist Party last fall, President Xi Jinping spoke of a new world order, built around the concept of a “community of shared future.” BRI is at the heart of this supposed order, and some have taken the bait and swallowed the hook. Joe Kaeser, chief executive of the German engineering group Siemens, suggested recently that the initiative is already the future: “The China One Belt, One Road is going to be the new W.T.O. — like it or not,” Kaiser said in reference to the World Trade Organization.
But the words of Germany’s outgoing foreign minister are a much-needed reminder that communities are not just about business but about shared values. It is crucial that we are absolutely clear about exactly what those values are.
What, then, are the foundational values of this “comprehensive system” China is offering the world? The answer to that question lies not in the eye-popping numbers of the Belt and Road Initiative, or in the foreign policy talk about ”win-win cooperation,” but in the mechanics of China’s political system. If we want to know how China proposes governing the world, we need only look at how it governs itself.
Here, however, we immediately run up against the opaqueness of the Chinese system itself. Even now, 40 years after China began its policy of opening and reform, the politics of the Chinese Communist Party are a mystery for professional tea-leaf readers, for experts like myself who must scrutinize its stiff, Leninist discourse for whatever meaningful clues we can find. The problem is compounded by the most comprehensive and sophisticated controls on public opinion the world has ever known. Even on the question of economic performance, our picture of China is dogged with statistical falsehoods. Recent research by Bloomberg found that local GDP figures in China had been “consistently overstated between 2011 and 2015.”
China’s is a system built on the manipulation of facts and narratives. Right at the very heart of its governance model is a deep conviction that the truth and the facts must faithfully serve political objectives. Its policies are not open to debate or deliberation, but emerge instead fully formed, their legitimacy assumed and defended by the Party’s information monopoly. Last Friday, as the Munich Security Conference was just getting underway, Chinese media loudly commemorated the two-year anniversary of a speech in which Xi doubled down on press controls, saying the media must “love, protect, and serve the Party.”
The murkiness over China’s values and intentions is being mirrored on the global stage as it advances its latest political objective, the Belt and Road Initiative. There are longstanding concerns about the lack of transparency in tendering for infrastructure projects, about the overwhelming dominance of Chinese contractors, and about unconsidered environmental impacts. There are also growing concerns about the implications for regional security. This month, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, a string of islands in the Indian Ocean, said Chinese loans for three projects under the Belt and Road Initiative had left his country dangerously indebted, and that China’s actions amounted to a “land grab.” The accusations followed a report from the International Monetary Fund that projected that external debt in the Maldives would surpass half of its GDP by 2021 as a result of the Chinese loans. China’s deep involvement in the Maldives, which is now in the midst of a political crisis, has provoked concern from India.
Meanwhile, China continues to push the idea that the BRI is the way forward for the world. Yesterday, China’s state-run Global Times newspaper quoted President Nursultan Nazarbayev of neighboring Kazakhstan as saying in an “exclusive interview” with China’s state-run television network that the Belt and Road Initiative is a “great idea.” Not even providing a direct quote, the article also suggested Nazarbayev had praised the Chinese president’s new governing concept, “Xi Jinping Thought,” saying it “reflects the thinking of Eastern countries.”
China’s professed confidence in its governance system may seem alluring in the midst of our current global malaise, of Trump and of Brexit. But we mustn’t forget that the primary goal of this system, like all authoritarian systems, is to project confidence and disguise its weaknesses, making the case for its own legitimacy. Until China can be truly open, including to its own public, about the costs of its approach to governance and development, we should refuse even to entertain the notion that its system maps the way to our own future.
David Bandurski is co-director of the China Media Project and a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.