On China's New Silk Road

ep01The China Dream

The China Dream

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Chengdu is one of China’s fastest-growing cities, thanks to major investments in infrastructure. Now China’s taking its success at home on the road, promising that infrastructure done well can transform people’s lives around the world. Starting in Chengdu, a stop on both the ancient Silk Road and the new one, this episode looks at how China’s effort to create what it’s calling a “community of shared destiny” is building on its recent—and extraordinary—economic transformation within its own border.

Episode Transcript

You are living through something epic.

If you’re thinking climate change — certainly. COVID-19 — sure. But also – China’s efforts to reshape the world, with one of the biggest infrastructure initiatives the world has ever seen. 

It’s called the New Silk Road. And since it launched in 2013, most of the world’s countries have signed on to be part of it. The New Silk Road’s translation from Chinese is the Belt & Road – a belt of land routes, and a Maritime Silk Road of sea routes. It’s roads, railways, ports, industrial parks, fiber-optic networks and more – a new architecture of global trade and global power, built with Chinese loans, and usually by Chinese construction teams. It’s President Xi Jinping’s signature plan – enshrined in China’s constitution. It’s part of what he calls the China Dream. 

(Sound from military parade)

And at a huge military parade in 2019, celebrating 70 years of Chinese Communist Party rule, President Xi called out:

Xi Jinping: (With translation in English): Long live the great People’s Republic of China! Long live the great Communist Party of China! And long live the great Chinese people!

The literal saying in Chinese for “long live” is “wan sui” – 10,000 years. It’s what subjects used to say to an emperor, wishing that he’d stay on the throne forever. President Xi has gotten rid of term limits in China, so he just might.

And he’s working toward a goal, of China leading what he calls a global community of common destiny – one world, one dream, on China’s terms. The New Silk Road is part of that plan. And Chinese PR has used an old Coca-Cola jingle to sell it as a win-win, that’ll bring peace, goodwill, and a better future:

(Coca-cola jingle with new words: “I’d like to build the world a road, and furnish it with love.” )

I’m Mary Kay Magistad. I was a correspondent in China for 15 years, first for NPR, then for PRX’s The World. I’ve reported in every Chinese province, and in almost every country in Asia and some in Africa, on how China’s rise is affecting individual lives, and global trends. And for this nine-part podcast, “On China’s New Silk Road,” I’ve teamed up with the Global Reporting Centre, and with local journalists on almost every continent, to look at how China’s global ambition is seen around the world, and at the impact Chinese investment is having on the ground – starting, in China.

(Music under)

The old Silk Road brought caravans of traders to China – Indians, Arabs, Persians. And it brought Chinese goods to the world. The old Silk Road was actually many routes – by land and by sea. And Chengdu, in Western China, was a stop on one of the land routes. It was known for its convivial teahouses, and for its exquisite silk brocades – so prized, that they were sometimes used as currency on the Silk Road. 

(Sound of downtown Chengdu)

Chengdu today has 16 million people, and one of the fastest-growing economies of any city in China, thanks in part to many of China’s factories moving west in recent decades. But schoolchildren here, and elsewhere in China, still learn how to make silk.

Chengdu East high-speed railway station. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Shuang Li: One day, someone hands you a very small piece of paper with some dots on it. And those are the eggs. And then you just put it in a shoebox.

And put in mulberry leaves.

Shuang Li: And then they just hatched. At first they looked like black thread. Tiny, tiny black thread. And then they start to grow. And they turn white and fat. And gross.

And then they weave cocoons. 

Shuang Li: But after a while, I felt —  okay, there’s a dead worm inside. So I think my mom cut it open, and got rid of the body, and just kept the silk.

Shuang Li is a native of Chengdu, and she did all this as a schoolkid here. She’s now a journalist. She worked for a decade for Reuters news agency in Shanghai and these days, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, as do I. When she was on a visit home to Chengdu, the summer before COVID hit, I visited too, so we could look together at the role Chengdu is playing on China’s New Silk Road. For starters, it’s one of the many examples in China of how new infrastructure, done well, can transform people’s lives.

Journalist Shuang Li is a native of Chengdu. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Shuang Li: I think it’s quite amazing, just to think about it, how fast everything is going.

(Sound at high-speed train station)

We’re at the Chengdu East high-speed rail station, watching travelers roll their suitcases, set to travel around the country in a fraction the time it used to take. It’s part of a whole high-speed rail network that’s sprung up in China over the past decade.

Shuang Li: I remember the early years when China was building the high-speed rail, and a lot of people were very skeptical – ‘this is a huge investment. How can you get it back?’ But then, just within a few years, it completely changed the way that people travel. 

And the progress has been dramatic, since Shuang was a kid in the 1980s and ‘90s, when China’s economy was just taking off, and most Chinese still lived in the countryside. Now, most live in cities, and most have moved out of poverty:

Shuang Li: Every time we go around outside the city a little bit, and we see all these buildings, my mom always worries about the farmland. She says, ‘where did the farmers go? What happens to our food?’ Because Chengdu traditionally used to be one of the bread baskets here. Because we have the great irrigation system, that it never gets flooded, really. So there’s always a good harvest. But now, all this good farmland are buildings.

Lots of buildings – miles of office and apartment high-rises, connected with new highways, and a new subway system. And this is a story that’s happening all over China. Tens of millions of Chinese villagers and farmers have had to move — not always happily, and sometimes violently — to make way for this new urban life. And as Shuang shows me around a well-heeled shopping street where she used to go as a kid, when it was more chaotic, with people getting around on bicycles and few having much money – Shuang says, life has gotten better in a few ways: 

Shuang Li: I’d say the air now is much better than when I was growing up. Because I remember when I was growing up, if you looked around, you don’t see any green leaves. The only green leaves you see are in the spring, when the new ones are coming out.

MKM: And in the summer?

Shuang Li: In the summer, they’re dark. They’re black. 

Because back then, China was getting much more of its energy from coal. 

(Sound of coal coming down chute)

Coal still makes up most of China’s energy mix. But it’s using more wind, solar, and hydropower than it used to. Still, the state-owned companies behind the coal industry remain powerful. And for all the talk of a clean, green New Silk Road, even now, its projects include a couple hundred coal-fired power plants. 

One was for a $2 billion project for a coal power station in Kenya, with a 700-foot smokestack. 

Protests broke out – and stopped it:

Natalie Bridgeman Fields: The poorest of the poor don’t just want to have the same model of development where, yeah, they can turn the lights on, but then they’re going to choke and die an early death because of air pollution. We don’t need to be making those decisions anymore.

Natalie Bridgeman Fields is the founder and executive director of Accountability Counsel in San Francisco. It’s a non-profit legal advocacy group. And it’s helped local communities around the world protect their environment and civil rights on the New Silk Road and beyond.

Natalie Bridgeman Fields: All around the world, communities are being impacted by Belt and Road projects in a variety of ways: social impacts, forced displacement, environmental impacts. And communities are coming to us, and a number of our civil society colleagues, with grievances that they need redressed and are seeking solutions related to the Chinese investment, in particular, in those projects.

And Natalie says the Chinese government is, at least sometimes, listening – including to push-back at home. She’s attended meetings in China with officials from Chinese state banks that make the New Silk Road loans. And she recalls what she sees as an emblematic exchange:

Natalie Bridgeman Fields: The China Development Bank representative there, a deputy director, made a statement that China is investing in projects in places where survival is an issue, very poor countries, where those countries don’t have the luxury, just like China didn’t have the luxury, of making decisions about doing clean finance, or green finance, because survival was an issue in the Chinese provinces. And that basic infrastructure, and the coal-fired power plants of the world, are needed for that survival. And a Chinese lawyer in the audience, at a prominent Chinese law firm, stood up, and really challenged that, saying that that’s antiquated thinking, that we don’t anymore have to make these false decisions, between sustainable investment and survival, that you can have sustainable investment *to* promote survival of the poorest of the poor. 

And not recognizing that, she says, carries both financial risks, and reputational risks, that are already costing China. In Kenya, for instance, there’s been pushback not only to the coal-fired power plants, but also to China’s presence overall, because of what Kenyans have complained is racist behavior by some Chinese working in Kenya: 

Liu Jiaqi: This is all the Kenyans. Like a monkey. Even Uhuru Kenyatta. All of them. 

Kenyan employee: It’s like a monkey?

Liu Jiaqi: Yeah, sure.

The guy who’s calling Kenyans “monkey people” here is Liu Jiaqi, a young Chinese manager of a motorcycle shop in Kenya when his employee secretly recorded this conversation in 2018.

Liu Jiaqi: I don’t like here, like monkey people. I don’t like. Smell is bad. And poor. And foolish. And black.

The employee took it to Kenyan authorities, who deported Liu Jiaqi for racism. The story got picked up by several Kenyan news organizations, including K24, its reporter here is quoting a statement by the Chinese embassy in Nairobi:

K24 Reporter: The statement went further to state that the remarks expressed in the racist video did not represent the views of the vast majority of Chinese nationals, who are required to abide by the host country’s law, and make positive contribution to the friendship and cooperation between the two countries. Kenyans on social media, though, expressed dissatisfaction over the arrest and deportation, demanding that Liu be tried in Kenya, so as to have a better experience of the very Kenyans he detests, in jail. 

It’s not the image China’s been trying to project on the New Silk Road. And Natalie says losing trust and goodwill can affect the bottom line.

Natalie Bridgeman Fields: Reputational risks are business risks. So it’s two things. It’s both having to repair reputations as is a cost. And then the actual infrastructure and investment projects that are being stranded, stopped, prevented from going forward and creating financial returns, that are a secondary type of business risk, financial risk. So as we engage with the Chinese government, we make the argument that there is really a business case for having accountability offices, just as communities have a real need for them to defend their rights, and protect their environment.

But give China’s leaders credit for this. They have a record of being pragmatic. Former leader Deng Xiaoping used to call it “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” Figure it out as you go along, and course correct when you need to.

Because – neither China’s economic boom over the past four decades, nor the New Silk Road now, started out with a fully formed, detailed plan. Each had a goal in mind, but it was flexible about how to get there. The New Silk Road is about securing China’s place as a global leader – and helping China’s slowing economy continue to grow. And on the New Silk Road, Chengdu is a dry port for one of trains going all the way to Europe. Its facilities are about 20 miles north of the city center.

Chengdu is a dry port on the New Silk Road. (Mary Kay Magistad)

(Sound of driving around Chengdu Dry Port)

MKM: We’re on Xiangdao Avenue.

Shuang: Fragrance Island.

MKM: And we just passed a logistics company. I guess this is pretty much a purpose-built area. It used to be farmland. More containers now, as we drive along. Wu Jin Global Logistics. China Logistics Company. China Railway Freight. 

We turn a corner, to find the train tracks in front of us, and a New Silk Road train passing through, headed west, to Central Asia, and possibly all the way to Europe.

(Sound of train going by)

As we watch it roll past, Shuang notices a sign on the railway bridge:

Shuang Li: “You’re forbidden to walk, lie down on the track. And you can’t go under the train, or climb the train, or jump off the train.” All useful knowledge.

To pick up other useful knowledge, Shuang visited representative offices here for European cities and regions. The representatives declined to talk on the record, but some did chat with her on background:

Shuang Li: What they were telling me is they don’t use the train a lot. They were saying the Customs here is not as good, so people still want to use the sea, and go through the ports of Shanghai or Tianjin. Because people here, they don’t know how to deal with all sorts of various goods. So it can take them a long time to clear the Customs.

Eli Sweet: Overland cargo transport from China through central Asia to Europe – doesn’t have a really strong strategic advantage on cost or speed together.

Eli Sweet is vice-chair of the American Chamber Commerce of Southwestern China. He used to work for Chevron PetroChina:

Eli Sweet: We were shipping tens, twenties of shipping containers every month, thousands of tons of cargo every month, every week. And it wasn’t going by rail through the Silk Road to Europe, even though that rail line was already open at the time. Mostly that was used by Volvo for shipping car parts. 

If you want something fast, air cargo shipment is still a lot more effective. And if you want something that’s going to be the cheapest, sea freight is definitely the most cost effective. I mean, I understand the symbolic importance of opening that trade route. And I do think there are certain industries for whom it is useful. But because it’s neither the fastest nor the cheapest, so it’s a weird middle ground in terms of the benefits that it offers.

But some *Chinese* entrepreneurs are finding ways to make the New Silk Road train work for them. 

(Sound in car showroom)

At a luxury car showroom in a scruffy Chengdu neighborhood, we walk past Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Land Rovers, high-end Toyotas, and sit down with Zhang Yang, a co-owner of this business that imports these cars for affluent Chinese buyers.

Zhang Yang speaks in Chinese. 

Zhang Yang, a co-owner of a business in Chengdu that imports luxury cars for affluent Chinese buyers. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Zhang Yang says he started out importing from the United States and Canada. But when the trade war started, he switched to using the New Silk Road train, to import luxury cars from Central Asia, where they’re cheaper. 

Zhang Yang speaks in Chinese. 

He says he’s also been experimenting with importing fruit and meat from Uzbekistan, since his trade in American cherries and meats dried up in the trade war. Between the trade war and the economic hit from COVID-19, he says his luxury car business hasn’t been doing as well as it used to, either.

Zhang says he worries about how the United States and China have been getting along. He’s done a lot of business in the United States. He goes by the name Michael when he’s Stateside. 

Zhang Yang speaks in Chinese.

He’s bought a house in the US. His son was born in the US. So he figures he knows America pretty well. 

Zhang Yang speaks in Chinese. 

But he says, “I don’t think President Trump knows China very well. Even with the trade war, Chinese people thought positively of the United States. We’re alike. We’re big countries, huge markets, and we’re actually a very welcoming people.

But Shuang says, it seems like Chinese attitudes toward the United States have been shifting more lately, both because of what many Chinese see as the Trump Administration’s aggression toward China, and because of how the United States has dealt with COVID-19. She says, many Chinese expected better:

Shuang Li: If they look at the world, China has dealt with this very quickly. We’re the first to reopen. Also, if you look at the US, and if you only look at messages from WeChat and Chinese media of how the US is dealing with this, it’s a very big failure. 

WeChat is a social mobile app used by 1.2 billion people – almost all of them Chinese. 

Shuang Li: And it’s a combination of like WhatsApp or Facebook, Twitter. It’s everything combined.

It can be used for digital payment. And it’s been subsidized by the Chinese government since it was created in 2012. All this concentration of data is handy for the Chinese government, as it develops a social credit system that rates not just how quickly you pay your bills, but how politically reliable you are. 

And that collection of data, including data of Americans is why, President Trump has said, he signed executive orders banning WeChat and the Chinese viral video app TikTok from operating in the United States, unless they’re sold to US companies.

That’s a huge deal, and quite inconvenient for Chinese expats trying to stay in touch with family and friends back home. But Shuang acknowledges – a steady diet of WeChat can distort reality. 

Shuang Li: The WeChat chat platform is heavily censored. And then a lot of articles trying to talk about issues sensibly, reasonably, get censored. So that only leaves one side of the message on the platform. 

So, when President Trump kept calling COVID-19 Kung-Flu, or the Chinese virus, Shuang noticed that fear spread on WeChat, and Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area started to form self-defense units.

Shuang Li: So the idea is, if the Americans turn on us, and if the police don’t show up fast enough, you call, in the WeChat group, call for help, and your neighbor will show up. So each WeChat group can take 500 people. But in some cases, there were so many people in one zip code, they have to set up several chat groups for one zip code. And I was curious, because I lived here at the same time, and I did not have that kind of fear. So I wonder, where does that fear come from? 

MKM: So where do you think it comes from?

Shuang: My theory is that if they only read messages from WeChat, if that’s their main source of information, that’s where their fear is coming from.

That’s a problem anywhere, if you listen to just one news source, that spreads disinformation, and censors dissenting views. In truth, in China for decades, certainly over the years that I was there, Americans and Chinese got along pretty well. And over the years, Chinese have absorbed a lot of American culture. 

(Sound of music and cheering from dance-off)

These urban dancers in Chengdu are just one slice of that. And in this video of a dance-off, they’re really good. They’re students at Sinostage. It’s a dance school the American Chamber of Commerce vice-chair Eli Sweet set up with his wife:

Eli Sweet: China has been an incredibly welcoming and incredibly safe place for foreigners and Americans to live during the whole period that I’ve been here – 13 years now. And so even at times when diplomatic tensions between the US and China have been higher, on a personal level, I’ve never felt anything other than wholeheartedly welcomed, and totally safe and happy.

MKM: So when you go home and you talk to family and friends and acquaintances, and just people, you strike up a conversation with, what are the things that strike you most in terms of misunderstandings you hear about China?

Eli: People imagine China to be much more politically oppressive or authoritarian, than the experience for the day-to-day civilian actually seems to be.

In fact, Eli says, living in China has made him look at American politics differently:

Eli Sweet: The amount of angst and political conflict that I see in the US is much higher than what I see in China. And it’s something that has been a little bit alarming to me in recent years, because I’ve always felt myself to be a huge believer in the value of democracy, to see how poorly served the American polity has been by the democratic system in America. It’s led me to sort of question some of the assumptions that I had about how necessary fully democratically engaged populations are, for having a peaceful and prosperous free market society.

The million or so Uighurs who have been detained in Western China might push back on that, as might Chinese who have experienced tighter controls under Xi Jinping, and stiffer penalties for criticizing the government. It used to be that the Chinese government used online gripes as a way of staying current on public opinion, even as the government managed hundreds of thousands of protests over the past couple of decades – sometimes peacefully, often by force. Now, surveillance is everywhere, online, and in person through surveillance cameras. The tighter controls mean many people have learned to be more careful about what they say, and where. But there are still gripes – including about all the money the government is spending on the New Silk Road, when there’s still plenty of need at home: 

Dai speaks in Chinese.

This woman works with a property development company in Chengdu. She only wanted to give her family name, Dai. She told Shuang, “I know we’ve done a lot for Africa. Maybe we’ve given them too much. Maybe it’s good for us in the long-run, but it seems like we’re getting too little in return right now. Mostly, we’re just giving them aid.”

China has invested a lot in Africa over the past 15 years, and that’s helped Africa become, economically, the second-fastest growing region in the world, after Asia.

But most of China’s New Silk Road funding in Africa is loans, not aid. And when the COVID pandemic hit, many developing countries, in Africa and beyond, asked for debt relief. Many remembered too well how Sri Lanka got overstretched with debt to China. And to pay some of it back, it had to give China a 99-year lease to a port and an area around it the size of Manhattan. Still, China was slow to agree to debt relief until the G20 made it a policy – and China went along. Even then, Shuang remembers how China’s state-run media played it:

Shuang Li: I was looking at one article on the Chinese media, talking about the forgiveness of debts. That article in Chinese was positioning ourselves as, “Oh, we’re doing such a great thing. It’s not because you called for it. But, we’re so generous. So we’re doing it.

China’s taken heat for being less than generous with some New Silk Road countries – for charging relatively high interest rates, with short repayment schedules, compared to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, to countries that may not have the capacity to pay them back that quickly – or, in the face of COVID-19, maybe not at all. 

Larry Greenwood: If China has come in and they’ve lent irresponsibly, that is inconsistent with the debt sustainability profile of that country, then why should they get paid back?

This is Larry Greenwood. He’s a former vice president of the Asian Development Bank, and before that, a US diplomat for 30 years. In the midst of COVID, we had a socially distanced chat over Zoom.

Larry Greenwood: It just reinforces the point that we need to be out there offering – we, meaning the West, not just the United States – offering an alternative to Chinese financing. And that predatory financing isn’t on its own the perfect weapon, because it could easily backfire. 

China’s government has protested that it’s not intentionally laying debt traps for vulnerable countries. And Larry gives China credit for doing many things right when it comes to building infrastructure, at home and abroad. 

Larry Greenwood: China’s very good at infrastructure. They build it fast. They build it pretty good. And they also, when there is the appropriate framework surrounding a project, they can build it clean – you know, no corruption, environmentally sound, with good resettlement compensation. And they were, for myself, they were by far the best borrower in terms of implementation of projects that I had in the Asian Development Bank. There wasn’t anybody that came even close.

And, he says, the China-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank runs on standards similar to the World Bank. But Larry says China’s state bank lenders sometimes go in more aggressively, without doing what the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank do – make sure that recipient governments have policies in place, so their new infrastructure will make money, and they can pay back the loan. China’s stance is that it doesn’t impose conditions. It doesn’t interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. But Larry says, without needed policy changes, some projects don’t have much of a chance:

Larry Greenwood: The problem is if politics becomes too much an element of what they’re doing, if they’re only doing projects to appeal to the leaders, or only doing projects that are important for their kind of geostrategic interests, because they need connections to particular places, the country is not going to get the same kind of developmental effectiveness out of the project that they would otherwise. And that’s not good. So it’s going to be how they do it, really, that matters. 

How they’ve done it up until now has been a mixed bag. Some local populations complain that government elites made the deals, without considering what local people need and want. There have been complaints about unsustainable debt – and jokes about how some of these projects feel more like a double win for China than a genuine win-win for each country.

(Sound of clapping and music at 2019 Belt & Road Summit)

That led President Xi to shift tones from a somewhat triumphalist one in the first Belt & Road Summit in 2017 – to this, at the second Belt & Road Summit, two years later: 

Xi Jinping with official English translation: We must implement the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, to see that all have their voices heard, all reach their full potential, and all stand to benefit. The BRI must be open, green and clean, and follows a high standard, people-centered and sustainable approach. 

The same message gets carried to Belt & Road gatherings further afield, like this one, in Hong Kong:

Announcer: A very warm welcome to the second edition of the Belt & Road International Food Expo 2019 Hong Kong.

On stage at the Belt & Road International Food Expo 2019 Hong Kong. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Diplomats lined up on stage to clink champagne glasses with Chinese officials:

Announcer: If everyone’s ready, let’s count down to 1 and say cheers together. Ready: 3, 2, 1. (Music comes up) Cheers! Congratulations and a great success to Belt & Road International Food Expo Hong Kong 2019!

The Europeans onstage looked a bit bemused as gold confetti rained down.

Announcer: After the toasting ceremony, we’ll now be proceeding to the signing of several Memorandums of Understanding, by the representatives of our country pavilions, and witnessed by their government trade departments.

(Sound in Expo Hall)

Once all that wrapped up, everyone spilled into the exhibition hall, where hundreds of vendors from dozens of Belt & Road countries were promoting goods like rice from Vietnam, chocolate spread from Indonesia, wine from Slovenia, frozen food from Pakistan, and produce from Peru. Peru’s Consul General to Hong Kong, Sergio Avila Traverso, was measured in his thoughts about the Belt & Road: 

Sergio Avila Traverso: The One Belt, One Road, let’s say in the future could be a good system. Now, I think it’s a very young organization, scheme.

MKM: In the United States, and certainly in the current administration, there’s some anxiety, I think, about the Belt & Road, and the political aspirations, perhaps behind the economic build-out. What do you think Americans need to understand about the Belt & Road, from your perspective?

Sergio Avila Traverso: I think also the United States was one of the open market leaders historically, no? And I think the world is changing with our globalization. And I think, the world is for all, and the market is big. And we all can survive, and we can all have good advantages. 

Over at the Philippines booth, the Philippines Consul General to Hong Kong, Antonio Morales, said much the same. That’s interesting, given how friendly Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has been to China, despite the two countries’ conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

Antonio Morales: Well, as they say, in the past, all roads led to Rome. We don’t think that now it will be all roads leading to Beijing, but that there will be complementarities among the players in the region. It will be a more complicated, complex world, with many centers of powers, of economic, political and military powers. And sometimes one is preeminent over the others in certain areas and at certain points. But it’s not as simple as seeing one dominating the others. 

Which – might just be a blind spot for China’s leaders. President Xi Jinping has worked hard to strengthen his own power within China, and China’s power in the world – including, here in Hong Kong, where a new National Security Law has led to a clampdown on criticism of the Chinese government – with arrests ranging from teenage pro-democracy protesters, to the head of one of Hong Kong’s biggest media companies, Jimmy Lai. 

(Sound of Hong Kong protests, June 11, 2019)

A year before that law was passed, I talked with pro-democracy protesters, who were then out in the streets. A pastor in his 60s who asked that his name not be used, predicted what would happen if a National Security Law came into force :

Pastor: So people would be living in fear. They would probably begin to have self-censorship on their freedom, of their speech and everything. Probably, freedom of the press would be gone too.

(Sound from Hong Kong protests)

As we talked, the crowd of protesters swelled, with some protesters helping others over concrete barriers, and handing out masks – so surveillance cameras wouldn’t as easily be able to identify who was protesting. About an hour after our conversation, Hong Kong police used tear gas and rubber bullets on this crowd. It was the first time they’d used rubber bullets. But here, in this moment, in June 2019, the pastor tells me – he’s surprised the Chinese government is doing all this now, since it had promised that from the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, Hong Kong would be able to keep its own system of governance, its own way of life, for 50 years.

Pastor: But it seems like the Chinese government can’t wait, already. 

MKM: And when it all started, a lot of people thought — I was here for the handover, covering it. A lot of people were saying, maybe Hong Kong will help change China.

Pastor: Yeah. I had the same dream, too. I was a little bit younger then, but um…

MKM: Weren’t we all?

Pastor: Yeah. But 22 years later, I don’t think that’s the case. It’s getting worse. 

Protests in Hong Kong, June 2019. (Mary Kay Magistad)

MKM: So it’s a little ironic that this is happening at a moment when China is really trying to make a case to the world that China should build out the Belt & Road, that the center of global trade should be China, that it will build out all this infrastructure in all these different countries, and that everyone should trust China, and believe it’s going to be a win-win. What, if anything, do you think Hong Kong’s experience should tell people who are considering getting into that kind of a relationship with China?

Pastor: This will be sensitive. Well, I think you need to realize they can say one thing and do another. So you’d better watch out.

Around the world, people are weighing the costs and benefits of partnering with China on the New Silk Road. In some cases, it’s going well, and you’ll hear about that in this podcast series. In other cases, initial enthusiasm has been tempered by doubts, borne of experience dealing with China. 

There are also concerns about recent Chinese aggression – in the South China Sea, on China’s border with India, in making new territorial claims in Bhutan – and even in rhetoric called “Wolf Warrior diplomacy.”

(Sound from Wolf Warrior II film trailer)

This was named after Chinese action films in which those who criticize China, pay. And China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has defended this approach:

Wang Yi, with official English translation over: We never pick a fight or bully others. But we have principles, and guts. We will push back against any deliberate insult, to resolutely defend our national honor and dignity.

So, Chinese diplomats have taken to Twitter, slamming those who suggest that China didn’t do enough to stop COVID-19 from becoming a pandemic. Nonsense, some have said. Maybe the US military brought the virus here. Or maybe it came from Italy. Maybe we’ll boycott your products until you stop saying that. Shuang is not a fan of the Wolf Warrior approach:

Shuang Li: Very aggressive. Pointing fingers at everybody. And targeting the US, targeting Australia. It makes me feel like after this, we really don’t have friends left. Like, what are we showing the world who we are? 

Big powers bullying others rarely plays well. Americans have learned that over time. They’ve also learned that once you’re a big enough power to affect the lives of people beyond your borders, those people are going to have opinions about you, and not always positive ones. Chinese are still learning how to take criticism about their country’s actions in the world.

Larry Greenwood: This thin skin thing. They’re going to have to come to terms with this. This is a major problem. (Laughs)

This is Larry Greenwood again, the former US diplomat, and former Asia Development bank vice president.

Larry Greenwood: I have so many friends in China that I even privately, they just explode with rage at some of the things that are said about them. I mean, ok, many of them are not true. But If you want to be a world leader, live with it. Because that’s what world leadership is all about. People are going to hate your guts. World leaders are not popular.

Within China, it’s taken as a given – that China has earned the right to lead – through its long history in old Silk Road days as a powerful economy and innovator, through enduring what Chinese schoolchildren learn was humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, from Britain’s Opium Wars to Japanese occupation, and through China’s own extraordinary economic transformation over the past four decades – which many Chinese genuinely celebrate. 

(Crowds cheering, music at 2019 Chinese military parade marking the People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary)

At the military parade celebrating 70 years of Communist Party rule, crowds cheered, tanks rolled, and Xi Jinping smiled. It’s taken effort to consolidate his power and silence his rivals and critics, and it’s not over. A new political purge is under way. 

Xi Jinping, with official English voiceover: We must continue to consolidate and develop this People’s Republic, and continue our struggle to achieve the two seminary goals, and to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. 

(Sound of soldiers marching)

To achieve those goals, President Xi has called for military-civilian fusion, merging China’s military and civilian efforts and technologies, and having state enterprises and private companies work more closely together, to help China rise in the world, and to achieve President Xi’s version of the China Dream.

But individual Chinese have long had their own dreams – some, not so different from the American dream. As the saying goes in China, people can sleep in the same bed, but they’ll have different dreams. And outside of China, on the New Silk Road, China’s leaders are discovering what a challenge it is to make people dream your dream, much less accept it as their reality.

(Sound of the Coke jingle, with the words: “It’s the Belt & Road, what the world wants today. Fades under credits.)

Over the next eight episodes, we’ll look at how all this is playing out in a few representative countries in Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Arctic and on China’s Digital Silk Road. 

For this episode, many thanks to partner reporter Shuang Li, who is also our Chinese language researcher for this series. Our editor is Dave Rummel. Our sound designer is Tina Tobey. Our executive producer is Christine Brandt. 

On China’s New Silk Road is a production of the Global Reporting Centre, a nonprofit group that teaches, practices and promotes innovation in global journalism. Peter Klein is the GRC’s founder. Philippe Le Billon, a GRC partner and geography professor at the University of British Columbia, provided valuable input to this series.

On China’s New Silk Road was made possible by generous funding from Humanity United, and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. You can find photos, transcripts and more at globalreportingcentre.org. While you’re there, check out other great journalism from the Global Reporting Centre. 

Next up: the new Silk Road train that comes from Chengdu heads on to neighboring Kazakhstan, and so will we. There, some people are bullish about what Chinese investment can do for the local economy – while others are concerned about how China’s treating its Uighur and Kazakh Muslim population across the border.

Gene Bunin: Their approach, it’s extremely misguided, and it’s just extremely destructive. Because they’re creating this horrible node for just decades to come, where you’re just going to have a lot of broken people who don’t know what to do with their frustrations.

Paving the Old Silk Road, next, On China’s New Silk Road.

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