China | Chaguan

The Belt and Road, as seen from China

A slowing economy saps public enthusiasm for big projects far from home

Illustration of a dragon, its body made up of twisting roads.
image: Chloe Cushman
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For years Xi Jinping has been inviting the world to hitch a ride on the “express train of China’s development”. The slogan is a Xi favourite, wheeled out when the Communist Party chief talks to foreign leaders about economic co-operation, especially via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure programme launched a decade ago this month.

To foreign critics, such swaggering talk is a blunder. Yes, they aver, local elites in poor countries may welcome Chinese envoys bearing loans to pay for new airports, dams and other infrastructure. But ordinary citizens have increasingly turned against such vast projects, and who can be surprised? An express train looks very different to those riding first-class, as opposed to those who must live hard by its tracks. With this in mind, some foreign politicians and analysts wonder whether China may shunt the BRI into the sidings, as a trillion-dollar, reputation-harming mistake.

In fact, China is redesigning the BRI—but to save it, not scrap it. Foreign unhappiness is one reason, for some of China’s most reliable friends in Africa, Asia and beyond are struggling with BRI debts. But critics in the West risk missing another big reason for a redesign. As China’s economy slows, Mr Xi’s own subjects are growing more sceptical of the scheme, notably in places where locals’ hopes of a BRI-fuelled boom have faded. China’s leaders are aware of this discontent. Later this month the State Council Information Office will publish a white paper to mark the BRI’s tenth anniversary. An adviser to that project describes his counsel to propaganda officials: emphasise the scheme’s benefits to ordinary Chinese back home, with concrete examples.

To gauge this mood Chaguan headed to the Dongchuan international rail centre, a logistics park in the north-western province of Gansu. It sits on the edge of Lanzhou, the provincial capital, in a valley between arid brown mountains. Once, Lanzhou hoped to cash in as a railhead for cargo trains to Central Asia and Europe. Local officials talked of hosting foreign consulates, in an echo of its past as an important stop for Silk Road camel caravans. The Dongchuan rail yard does see trains bound for Europe, and state media recently talked up a new rail-and-road cargo route to Afghanistan. But it is strikingly quiet on a weekday morning, with a few Chinese-made cars being driven around for loading onto transporters. More prosperous provincial capitals, such as Chengdu, Zhengzhou and Xi’an, have fared far better as BRI transport hubs. Indeed, total foreign trade each year to and from Gansu, a poor province, has actually fallen since 2013.

The party can take some comfort in public opinion. Locals strolling near the rail yard talk without prompting of China’s generosity. Ms Luo, a retired scientific technician, calls the BRI a sign of China’s strength. “It’s good that China is helping others,” she says, loyally noting that local youngsters have found work with logistics companies building warehouses nearby.

Just beyond the Dongchuan depot lies Hekou, an old Silk Road town restored as a tourist site. Its Qing-dynasty customs hall and street market are a bit forlorn, truth be told, and a nearby highway is loud. Still, a local driver, Mr Su, has brought a few out-of-town Chinese tourists there. Mr Su sees China as exceptionally benevolent, and grumbles about foreigners who accuse the BRI of advancing “aggressive goals”. China is different, he asserts: “Western people think about how things will affect them, but Chinese people have a spirit of sacrifice.” That said, Mr Su concedes that Lanzhou has not gained as he had expected from the BRI, and that state media sometimes exaggerate China’s good deeds. National leaders see the big picture, he says carefully. But he admits: “From the perspective of an ordinary person, I think it is not that necessary to spend a lot of money in faraway foreign places like Africa.”

In Lanzhou’s Baitashan Park, overlooking the Yellow River, a pensioner takes a break from dancing with friends to say that ordinary people struggle to understand the BRI. China saw inadequate returns on ten years of large investments in poorer countries, he suggests. His sense is that the scheme is now shrinking. That canny pensioner is right. Signs abound of a move away from new, large investments with only long-term returns.

Smaller projects, larger ambitions

China is shifting towards “small and beautiful” projects, says Zhu Yongbiao, head of Lanzhou University’s BRI research centre. Smaller projects generate benefits quickly and give local people a greater “sense of ownership”. Mr Zhu calls this shift a response to changing politics in recipient countries and to the demands of the Chinese people, some of whom think of the BRI as “free money” for foreigners. He sees infrastructure schemes proposed by America and the European Union as welcome competition, as long as “Europe and the United States are willing to put up real money”.

Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing, says that with less money of its own to lend, China is in search of global finance for the BRI, including from rich Muslim countries. That is one reason why Saudi Arabia joining the BRICs grouping and reconciling with Iran, with Chinese backing, is “very important”, he says. Beyond that, rather than funding and building megaprojects, China’s focus is increasingly on questions of governance, for Chinese leaders see norms, systems and standards as the key to sustainable development. The BRI was created to solve China’s economic problems, he argues. Now its mission is to save globalisation from populism and from those voices calling for division and decoupling.

Mr Xi will host foreign leaders at a BRI Forum in October. Delegates may expect much talk of China’s inclusive model, and of how it respects the political and legal traditions of different countries, unlike judgmental Western democracies. China may fund fewer foreign railways in coming years. When it comes to setting norms and standards, its ambitions are going global.

Read more from Chaguan, our columnist on China:
When China thought America might invade (Aug 31st)
The world should study China’s crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms (Aug 24th)
China’s slowing economy, seen from ground level (Aug 17th)

Also: How the Chaguan column got its name

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "The Belt and Road, seen from China"

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