Op-Ed by Neenah Payne
The New Silk Road is a vast undertaking which demonstrates the power and global vision of China and President Xi Jinping. It is a gigantic infrastructure project that Beijing says will benefit all the countries involved and has been forging ahead at a rapid pace. A team of reporters traveled by sea and land along the New Silk Road to learn how China, with the largest investment program in history, is expanding its influence worldwide as hundreds of billions of dollars flow into new infrastructure in 65 countries.
“The New Silk Road, Part 1: From China to Pakistan | DW Documentary” explains that the old Silk Road which operated for about 1,000 years until the 14th century was legendary. After Marco Polo extolled the wealth of the Indies, Christopher Columbus sailed west to find a short route to the east. The New Silk Road is a mammoth project intended to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe. It will link 65 nations through a network of roads, railways, ports, and airports.
This two-part documentary first journeys the new Maritime Silk Road and shows some of the major problems the Chinese are creating for other countries. Because China is an economic powerhouse that wields enormous financial clout, it is hard for poorer countries to protect themselves. So, China’s self-interest and geopolitical ambitions are running roughshod over one country after another.
The video concludes that China wants the free exchange of goods and capital for its own benefit, but not the exchange of cultures or ideas. China is being a bully in confiscating lands for its own benefit at the expense of one country after another. What is happening in the countries visited bodes poorly for what is happening along the rest of China’s New Silk Road. The documentary asks: “Is the New Silk Road part of a plan for conquest?” and concludes that China is building an empire.
This report contradicts what President Xi says about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aka “New Silk Road”. He calls it a “win-win” operation that benefits all countries involved. President Xi has promoted the BRI as a collaborative endeavor that promotes peace. The reality seems shockingly different now.
Return of the East
In the TEDx Talk “Rise of China: A Return to the Natural Order of Things”, Malcolm Turnbull says that the big geo-political story today is the rise of Asia – particularly China. Turnbull, Australia’s 29th Prime Minister, is the author of A Bigger Picture. Turnbull points out that the world has never seen so much economic growth occur so quickly. There’s a gigantic shift in the center of gravity of the world’s economy. The pace and scale of this shift is utterly unprecedented. There has never been a country as big as China that has grown so fast.
However, this is a return to the natural order of things because for most of the last 2,000 years, China and India were the two largest economies in the world until the middle of the 19th century when they became subject to colonization, conquest, and extraordinary violence. They went through 150 years of abuse which China calls a “Century of Humiliation”. The rise of China and India restores them to the place that both history and population say they should be.
Turnbull points out that many Americans are struggling now to come to grips with the rise of China which presents a unique challenge to the United States. Americans are not coping well with the reality that China is catching up fast. There is an anxiety in the US now because Americans have long had a very deep sense of their own exceptionalism. Since birth, Americans have been assured that they would always be the most powerful, richest, and cleverest nation on Earth. However, the US is no longer the sole, unchallenged superpower now. In addition, our economy is shrinking. When 42,000 factories closed in the US from 2001-2010, 5.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost.
In That Used To Be Us, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman discusses the growing sense of inadequacy Americans feel as they compare the US to China. Obama said in 2010, “It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us and for Singapore having better airports than us – and we just learned that China now has the fastest super computer on Earth. That used to be us.” Turnbull says there is a growing awareness that the West is falling increasingly and dramatically behind – and has already lost the lead in multiple critical areas. Yet, from the Chinese perspective, this dramatic shift is just a return to the natural order of things.
So, now there is a balance of power that is not just between the US and Russia, but between the West and the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) which China is leading. Turnbull says that the West should not be resentful about being overtaken by other countries. Instead, we should ask why we aren’t doing better. Turnbull says that, unlike Russia and the US, China does not want to export its ideology or political system. However, the Belt and Road Initiative calls that into question!
Major Complaints on Maritime Silk Road
The New Silk Road has made promises of prosperity and growth to many nations. However, China’s ambitions and the speed at which it is moving forward also pose risks that doubts will be ignored, traditions will be cast aside, cultures destroyed, people displaced, and that many will be left behind.
1. Sihanoukville, Cambodia: It has become popular with Chinese looking for a beach vacation. However, some locals feel the Chinese behave badly and have taken over their city in just one year. Chinese construction projects are transforming the city. Old Sihanoukville has practically vanished. The workers, materials, and projects are all imported from China.The Chinese are there in force and locals are being crowded out. Chinese are building hotels and the soaring rents are beyond the reach of locals. A former restaurant owner warns that soon there will be only Chinese restaurants for Chinese customers. The Cambodians feel they don’t stand a chance. Sihanoukville used to be a sleepy place, but that has all changed – especially at night. There are now drugs and violence on the street. There is a lot gambling and drinking now. Gambling is illegal for Cambodians and also for Chinese – but only in China. So, about 80 casinos have sprung up in Sihanoukville. The Cambodians charge that the Chinese don’t integrate into local cultures now – as they did in the 18th and 19th
A joke is making the rounds that you can now travel to China without a passport and without leaving your own country. Sihanoukville is now almost part of China! The Chinese have financed almost everything built recently: the extension of the port, new roads, bridges, and factories. Many Cambodians are unhappy and feel like losers in the boom. Rising prices and rents are making the poor poorer. However, it’s a bonanza for land and home owners.
2. Kashgar, China: This is a city in the Uighur region of China where most people are Muslims who are distrusted by Beijing. It is a city where mass surveillance is the norm now. China has shut down mosques. The old city is being demolished. For Uighur culture, it is a terrible loss. A sixth-generation potter who worked in a 400-year-old house said that the Chinese plan to demolish all the old buildings in the name of “progress”. However, he told the Chinese that he can’t make his pottery in a modern building. The old Uighur city is being torn down to make way for a new Chinese one. Up to one million Uighurs are reportedly being held in “Re-education Camps”.
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3. Bagan, Myanmar: In Myanmar, resistance is already growing. Locals in Kachin have blocked a new dam project, asking how the Chinese could produce energy for their own country while leaving locals without electricity and flooding them out of their homes. When the Myanmar government stopped the Chinese dam project, it did not get beyond the first concrete piers in the river. However, the locals have not been allowed back into their homes and fear that the Chinese will not stop until they get their dam.
4. Hambantota, Sri Lanka: The video interviews a farmer who was forced off his land to make way for a harbor. He says the land he was given is not as good as his old farm. His life and that of many others who used to live in Hambantota has been turned upside down. A harbor expansion project swallowed their farms. Their protests were of no avail and the promises to compensate them came to nothing. When their lands were taken, they were told they would get jobs in the port, but only Chinese were hired. The Chinese are in control now.The former president of Sri Lanka promoted deals with China. Massive infrastructure projects have been built that are barely used or not at all – including a huge modern airport where there are no flights, an unused convention center, highways that have almost no vehicles, and a hospital with no doctors or patients – all built by Chinese and paid for by loans from China on which Sri Lanka must pay 12% interest. The situation is a theater of the absurd. The debt is a millstone around Sri Lanka’s neck. It is looking for foreign investors, but no one is interested.
The video shows that China is throwing its weight around all along the New Silk Road, enriching itself in multiple ways at the expense of the people in one country after another. Many people feel powerless and victimized by the Chinese takeover and power grab – often in collusion with their own corrupt governments that are given bribes to facilitate the growing Chinese domination.
So, while China promotes the New Silk Road as a means to enhance commerce, collaboration, and the exchange of goods in win-win situations, the reality is that it looks like an imposition of a Chinese empire – replete with abusive attitudes and contempt for others’ rights and cultures.
Major Complaints on Land Silk Road
- Kyrgyzstan: To improve infrastructure, the country has gone deeply into debt to China. However, the people interviewed say they haven’t seen any good come of the investments. In 2018, after weeks of violent protests over a gold mine, a crowd of about 1,000 people burned the building to the ground. The old Soviet-era mine was believed to contain 40 tons of gold. The Chinese wanted to take it over, but the locals said it was their land.
- Belgrade, Serbia: The Chinese are building an unnecessarily expensive high-speed railroad between Belgrade and Budapest, Hungary as China’s gateway to the heart of Europe. Chinese banks are making the loans and Chinese companies are doing the building. Although the Chinese repeat that this is a “win-win” situation, all the benefits are on the Chinese side and all the risks are on the Hungarian side. So, China wins twice.
- Marseilles, France: The video interviews a man who works in a clothing shop who says nothing is made in France anymore. Everything is made in China – from big companies to the luxury labels.
- Bordeaux, France: The video visits a Chinese wine maker from Hong Kong who owns the vineyard. His family has been buying vineyards in southwestern France for years. Their latest acquisition includes almost 14 hectares of vines. Since 2015, his family has bought almost one vineyard a year. China is a key importer of sweet, white wines. The Chinese market is the driving force behind the soaring prices for wines. When people at a market were interviewed, one man said it is terrible that the Chinese are everywhere – in the French chateaux and wines.
- Duisburg, Germany: Duisburg is the home of Europe’s largest inland port. Thanks to China, it is becoming Europe’s main logistic hub. China is acquiring stakes in Germany companies. The harbor’s CEO sees opportunities and risks. He feels that it is not right that German companies cannot acquire more than a 50% right in Chinese companies while the Chinese can purchase 100% of European companies. He’s worried and feels that, in the end, it’s a political question.
“Made in China” is starting to take on a whole new meaning with the New Silk Road – a concept made in China that seems to spell domination of the rest of the world that didn’t see this threat coming in time to stop it. Now, there seems to be no turning back. The West will have to learn to cope with this new bully on the block. China’s plan seems to be to own and control almost everything and everyone – and to profit massively from that experience. So, its power will continue to grow exponentially and rapidly.
BRI: Trillion-Dollar Blunder?
“The Belt & Road Initiative Is a Trillion-Dollar Blunder || Debate #2” shows a five-person panel on which three panelists answered “No” and two panelists answered “Yes” to the proposition “The Belt and Road Initiative is a Trillion-Dollar Blunder”.
NO: Panelists on the “No” side said that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (aka The New Silk Road) is marketing genius and a way for the Chinese to develop political leverage around the world. BRI meetings attract about as many heads of states as the UN General Assembly and they are all there because they want Beijing to write more checks. They want to align economically with the Chinese.
The main reasons China is undertaking this initiative are not economic, but strategic and political. The BRI gives China access to minerals and markets as well as political influence to gain support for its positions. It establishes China as an alternative for countries to rely on for investments. This is part of the ideological competition. It is not about economic ROI, but political and strategic ROI. China is offering win-win solutions. However, some countries are backing away from the BRI or are trying to refinance their loans. The problem for the US and its allies is that they don’t have a counter offer.
YES: Panelists on the “Yes” side said China’s BRI is based on a false premise because it ignores the fact that building infrastructure does not produce growth, but is the result of growth. China is building bridges to nowhere. Since no one is going to be on the high-speed train from Beijing to Moscow, it won’t make money. Economic growth provides savings and tax revenues that allow the government to finance development of infrastructure. The sea route may be more viable than the land route.
China is failing to provide education for 60 million children in rural areas. The government has neglected investing in rural areas, public health, and basic education. Yet, they are spending this largesse on other countries. The BRI is not sustainable because it is happening at the expense of domestic investment in public health and education.
The panelists who think the BRI is a political and marketing advantage for China are ignoring the oppressive way that China is implementing the BRI in many countries. China is leaving a trail of bitterness, resentment, and anger as countries feel disenfranchised and cheated out of their lands, homes, and money. Along the BRI route, China is acting more like an insensitive invading force than a partner. Those abuses could cause a global backlash against China.
Rise of China: Three Things To Know
Kerry Brown, author of The World According to Xi: Everything You Need to Know About the New China, authored several other books including CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, and China’s World: What Does China Want?. He is Professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College London.
Brown says China is now the most powerful country on Earth. Its manufacturing underpins the world’s economy, its military is growing at the fastest rate of any nation, and its president – Xi Jinping – will set the pace and tone of world affairs for decades. In 2017, Xi became part of the Chinese Constitution – an honor not seen since Chairman Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
In the TED Talk “China’s rise: The three key things everyone needs to know”, Brown points out that we know China matters because the US is having a trade war with China. It is the world’s biggest economy, the world’s largest exporter, and the world’s second largest importer. Many of the products we buy now say “Made in China”. From 1949-1976, there were only 740,000 movements in and out of China. However, in 2018, 140 million Chinese tourists traveled the world. The story of China is the rise of a nation after a tough modern history for the fifth of humanity.
The US and Europe must update their thinking about China now in the following three ways:
- Restored Image: A thousand years ago, China invented the three great propellers of modernity: the printing press, the magnetic compass, and gun powder. However, because China failed to industrialize, it got left behind during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th China went through what it calls its “Century of Humiliation” during the Opium Wars of the 19th century. So, the West is used to seeing China as weaker and marginal. However, China has emerged and is now economically and politically powerful – and is on center stage.
- Naval Power: Until the 1980s, China was only a land power. However, although China is still technologically behind the US, it has built the world’s largest navy. So, China is now a naval power for the first time in modern history.
- Chinese World View Order: No one really knows what the world will look like as China becomes the dominant power in the world because the world does not know what China’s values are now. China is built on a profoundly different intellectual tradition from that of the West.
We are now at a crossroads in which we must make a choice. We can commit to a Western or Chinese view or we can maintain a balance between the two world views. In 1968, Richard Nixon warned that the West cannot ignore the ideas and aspirations of a fifth of humanity. For that reason, President Nixon went to China in 1972 to “open” China and initiate a dialogue. The West must now recognize that this is a period of great transformation. For the first time in modern history, the West must pay close attention to China which thinks in a very different way. That shift in thinking is already reshaping the world.
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