Last April, President Xi Jinping hailed the governments, companies, and organizations participating in China’s second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum, which was held April 25-27, 2019. What he did not mention, but perhaps was pleased to know, was how political governance in most of those countries was edging toward the China model.
China’s export of the BRI is reshaping the current perceptions of development around the world. It is also reshaping political processes. The BRI has a lure to many millions of people in Asia as the mighty arm of their economic hero pushing the United States out of the way. It also mesmerises people in Asia and Africa because they see the initiative as a mighty blow by their underdog hero against their former colonialists.
China’s BRI has provided more job opportunities in its target countries, with the promises of better roads, hospitals, schools, and other income-generating infrastructure.
It has also generated more authoritarianism — further weakening of judicial systems, more repression of dissent, more curbs on freedom of expression under China-inspired cyber security laws — all paving the way for government leaders to show allegiance to the Chinese governance model.
The BRI has been a double success for China. It has shifted the global power balance in its favor. It has also given currency to China’s long held and self-serving argument that for development you need a strong authoritarian system undeterred by expectations of civil liberties and political pluralism.
Addressing the side impact of China’s BRI on civil liberties outside China’s borders can be misinterpreted as siding with the United States in its trade war with China. This is a false assumption and must not deter genuine studies of the BRI’s impact on human rights. There is no dearth of studies on the United States’ negative impact on human rights around the world. More needs to be said about China’s record, too.
For a study on China’s impact, the period 2014-2018 is important as it helped shape the political environment in which the BRI could flourish.
This was the case in Pakistan. Even knowing that the BRI was informed by China’s pursuit of access to global markets, job opportunities for its own workforce with reported tax breaks from Pakistan, and closer global control over cyber activity, the BRI’s development benefits for Pakistan — the pledge of $60 billion in loans, some with a reported low interest rate of 2 percent — are immense.
Yet, BRI operations during 2014-2018 coincided with further curbs on civil liberties evident, among other measures, by the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016 — which Amnesty International has called “draconian” — that curbs peaceful internet use especially when critical of the authorities.
Such curbs usually lead to the deepening of the inequality gap and harsher labor conditions. The 60,000 or so BRI-employed Pakistanis are not likely to have fared better than what Human Rights Watch calls unfair and abusive labor practices in Pakistan.
This was the case in other BRI linked countries. Since 2014, the government of Bangladesh has used every opportunity to remove human rights safeguards in law and practice, as I underlined in an Al Jazeera Head to Head program earlier this year.
The Maldives government’s defiance of human rights between 2014 and 2018 strikingly coincided with its growing closeness to China. The government’s attack on human rights included the politicization of independent state institutions, including the judiciary, leading to sham trials of opposition leaders, curbs on freedom of the media, and an unexplained reluctance to stop attacks against journalists investigating corruption. This paved the way for an amendment to the Maldives Constitution that allowed the then-government to sell islands to China without a bidding process.
Ominously, nearly all the governments signing onto the BRI are headed by administrations perceived to be seriously corrupt.
China’s poor human rights record, including its suppression of labor activism, has been widely documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; yet a critique of China’s impact on human rights in other countries has been in short supply.
The need to develop an independent scrutiny of China’s global expansion is more urgent now that the geopolitical tectonics are shifting. If it is right (and to me it is) to hold the United States and the United Kingdom to account for the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, it should also be right to criticize China for the sale of arms to Bangladesh to which China is said to be the biggest supplier.
Civil society activists have frequently expressed their distrust about China’s creeping influence in their countries. Aspirations for democracy and human rights and distrust of China were at the heart of movements that have influenced the outcome of elections in several South Asian countries in recent years. These include Sri Lanka (2015), Pakistan (2018), and the Maldives (2018 ) where calls to distance the country from China have been unmistakably loud.
These newly elected governments have consequently tried to rewrite the open invitation that their predecessors had extended to China only to find it is more airtight than they had expected. This was Sri Lanka’s experience. The government closed China’s operations after the 2015 elections. China demanded the return of its loans. The government could not repay, and allowed China to return.
China has already locked itself firmly into the development processes in South Asia during the BRI’s formative years and is not likely to go away. Deeper scrutiny of its impact on civil liberties can undermine the wishes of any South Asian government to import and legitimize China’s style of governance in their country.
Abbas Faiz lectures on human rights at Essex University’s School of Law in the UK. He was formerly Amnesty International’s Researcher on South Asia.