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Neocolonialism or Responsible Developer: The Nature of China’s Identity in the Modern Era

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

500 years of European imperialism and a persistent Eurocentric streak within Western

scholarship has tended to downplay one of the most significant facts of history: That Western dominance is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. China, arguably the most powerful civilization of the 15th century, possessed the world's most advanced technology of the time. Under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), China launched a number of long-range trading voyages in ships that were five times as large as later Portuguese ships. This technologic superiority would begin to wane as China turned inward and Europeans made their own strides towards technological development. Analyzing China's historical global dominance is important when considering China's place on the world stage today.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, the Chinese government has sought to reclaim its place at the top through one of the most ambitious foreign policy efforts of the 21st century: the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Since the plan's announcement in 2013, China has invested billions of dollars into mega-infrastructure projects across Eurasia and Africa. At the forefront of this initiative is the goal of opening a new trans-Eurasia trading pathway that China hopes will challenge the American dominated trans-Atlantic trade to the west. The way in which China is attempting to see this plan to fruition is by handing out loans to countries that occupy advantageous positions along the historic “Silk Road.”

While in theory the plan affords China greater control in the shipment of its goods, the benefits of the plan are by no means one-sided. Many of the host nations are third-world countries that are grappling with increased population growth combined with abysmal infrastructure development. The arrival of Chinese financing, funds, and capital provides a chance for the Global South to attain infrastructure levels on par with those in the North.

What is most interesting about this event are the geographical flows resulting from the interaction between Beijing and debtor nations. By analyzing these flows carefully, it becomes clear that the eventual success or failure of this vision has become inextricably tied to the countries it has deepened economic ties with. The ultimate goal of the Belt and Road Initiative is to streamline the shipment of Chinese goods across Eurasia to decrease shipping costs. It is worth emphasizing that the plan hinges on the cooperation of a large number of states. As of 2016, a total of 64 countries spanning from Southeast Asia all the way to Europe had signed on to the plan.

A general trend present in the signatories is a lack of infrastructure development. In the early days of the Belt and Road Initiative, these assurances fell on receptive ears, as cash-strapped countries clamored for low-interest loans from wealthy Chinese banks. On the flipside, many in the West have questioned both the feasibility and motives of the plan itself, with some seeing the Belt and Road Initiative as a thinly-veiled attempt by the Chinese government to spread its roots among economically vulnerable countries. In seeking to analyze such grand project, at least three “flows” of contact between China and these countries is important to keep in mind.

1) The Flow of Money

Breaking down the relationships of large states engaged in various geopolitical issues can be a complicated task. However, as with most things, the identities of China and its debtor nations becomes clearer once we “follow the money.” Many countries who sign on to be a part of the Belt and Road Initiative often have insufficient funds to undertake the mega-projects that they desire. When this occurs, they turn to Chinese banks flushed with cash and request loans.

These loans differ from other development loans offered from other institutions, like the World Bank, in that they do not come with as many strings attached. Chinese banks, as opposed to the World Bank, are a lot more flexible when it comes to the political make-up of the country that they're lending to. These loans also tend to have low-to-zero interest rates meaning that the risk of defaulting on those loans is not as high as they would be if they were borrowed from other institutions.

That is not to say that loans are without drawbacks. Often times, the state-owned banks require that the host country hand over construction rights to Chinese contractors to build the mega-projects. In other cases, host countries lack the technical skills necessary to assess the viability of a project, leading some states to enter into loan agreements in which they have no hope of repaying. A case in point is the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. The Hambantota port opened in 2010 with a hefty price tag of over $1 billion in Chinese-borrowed funds. After failing to generate enough revenue — the port drew only 34 ships in 2012 — the Sri Lankan government was in danger of defaulting on its loan. After multiple rounds of negotiations between the two governments, it was eventually agreed that China would be granted “the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years.”

When taken together, the complex flows of money reveal intriguing insights into both China and Sri Lanka as places. Sri Lanka's willingness to plunge itself into a mountain of debt shows that many developing countries are recklessly eager to correct the infrastructure deficiencies within their own countries. The Sri Lankan government's incompetence in predicting the eventual failure of the port also suggests that developing countries might not yet have the tools that are necessary to address some of the most complex challenges of the modern era.

China's willingness to hand out risky loans to economically vulnerable countries is a more complicated matter. Whether China is knowingly plunging countries into debt crises to further their Belt and Road Initiative or simply offering an alternative approach to traditional Western-backed development is still up for debate. The ethics of Chinese investment come about in the next flow that will be examined: the flow of corruption.

2) The Flow of Corruption

After Xi Jinping was swept into power in China in 2013, he began to deliver on one of his promises and initiated a sweeping campaign against corruption and graft within the Chinese government. Close to 300,000 Chinese officials were said to have been convicted in connection to various corruption charges in 2015 alone. While Beijing has taken a strong stance against corruption within its own borders, the same cannot be said of its dealings abroad. In order to secure greater support for its Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese state-owned companies have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the private bank accounts of a number of host country officials.

Returning to the case study of Sri Lanka, at least $7.6 million was dispensed from the account of China Harbor, the Chinese construction company in charge of constructing the Hambantota port, to various affiliates of then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Another attempt by this same company of trying to bribe an official of ministry of roads in Bangladesh resulted in China Harbor being banned from future contracts within the country. These two instances indicate that the flow of corruption from China to other countries is not an isolated occurrence but rather an integral part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

In other instances, host country officials take it upon themselves to initiate corruption practices using Chinese funds for graft rather than for the planned mega-projects. One place where this occurred is in Malaysia and the infamous 1MDB scandal. 1MDB, or 1Malaysia Development Berhad, is a state-controlled investment fund that was managed by former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Razak and his associates have been accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of pilfering billions of dollars from the 1MDB fund. The tremors resulting from the 1MDB scandal rocked financial institutions around the world and was partly responsible for sweeping changes in the Malaysian government.

In this instance, the flow of corruption within Malaysia has implications for the Chinese government in that the flow resulted in a Malaysian government unfavorable to China's Belt and Road Initiative. This particular example shows that the flow of corruption can be two-way, affecting both the Chinese and Malaysian governments.

The last flow departs from the previous two flows in that it takes on a more abstract quality. This is the flow of ideas.

3) The Flow of Ideas

While the Belt and Road Initiative focuses primarily on infrastructure projects, the Chinese government has sought to export some of its information technology to countries across Eurasia. Some observers have postulated that this flow of information technology has led to the formation of a “New Digital Silk Road,” and that this digital road “will serve to export elements of Beijing's surveillance regime.” Surveillance of citizens is a cornerstone of Communist rule in China, and the flow of this ideology to countries along the Silk Road — particularly African countries — has serious ramifications for the development of human rights and democracy in states that are already fragile.

One of the darker aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative is the flow of racist ideology from China to construction sites in host countries. In Kenya, large numbers of Chinese workers have been brought in to help construct the major infrastructure projects that have been planned there. In many instances across that state, the increased contact between Kenyan and Chinese workers has caused racial tensions to flair. Kenyan workers are often subjected to segregated working conditions and are dealt harsh punishments for violating company rules.

There have also been reports of widespread discrimination against Kenyan workers by their Chinese bosses. In one widely circulated video, a Chinese employer was captured on video comparing Kenya's president to a monkey. Many Kenyans are far removed from British colonial rule and up until this point have had little experience with racism. This has led many in Kenya to question both their identity and future, showing how the flow of racist ideology has been a deeply destabilizing force.

While only three flows have been highlighted in this essay, there are countless flows occurring between China and host nations as they navigate their way through the Belt and Road Initiative. Evaluating changes in the physical landscape is the most visual way of deconstructing China and host countries as places. However, ignoring more obscure flows runs the risk of missing the more fundamental changes going on. After considering the multiple flows present in the Belt and Road initiative, several observations of China bubble to the surface.

First, China sees itself as having the potential to reinstate its dominance in global affairs and is actively pursuing that vision. Second, China's success in seeing this vision through relies on land and cooperation from other countries. Third, China is using non-traditional methods in pursuit of their goal, which at times has created negative consequences for other countries involved. Taking these points into consideration, we are confronted with two fundamental questions about China's identity in the modern era: Is China a benevolent state whose chief concern is to assist other countries by engaging in an ethical development strategy? Or rather, is China using its economic might to step into the role of a neocolonialist power, whose goal of progress leave others in ruin? Only time and the eventual success or failure of the Belt and Road Initiative will answer these questions.

Jacob Wagner is a 2020 international relations and global studies graduate from the University of Texas at Austin. He currently works on site at Google via Vaco.


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