In the seven years since China’s President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative, the project has expanded to nearly every corner of the world. From its inception as a northbound land “belt” through Central Asia and a southbound maritime “road” to Europe, South Africa, and Southeast Asia, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) now comprises a broad suite of proposals that touch on tangible infrastructure projects, international trade deals, and even space activities to enhance China’s satellite navigation system. It is less concrete policy and more ambition that appears the BRI’s lifeblood: currently, the initiative is projected to require over $1 trillion in infrastructure, power, and telecommunication investments. The networks it promises will affect over seventy countries and 65 percent of the global population, staggering metrics expected still to rise.
As its scope balloons to sweeping proportions, the BRI has laid China open to international criticism, mostly propelled by fears that the BRI encourages unsustainable lending. This criticism comes at a pivotal moment in China’s global standing, as the US and EU simultaneously call attention to the ongoing human rights crisis in China’s Xinjiang province. These two narratives have largely run parallel to one another, with the BRI debate focused on the global economy and dialogue on the Xinjiang Crisis centered on human rights violations. Along the way, the intertwined stories of Xinjiang province and the BRI have been lost, and with them, a rare window into more robust sanctions and scrutiny on Xi’s administration going forward.
Global Pushback: Belt and Road as Debt-Trap Diplomacy
China has been accused of predatory lending before, most notably to Sri Lanka and Djibouti, and the BRI has reanimated these narratives with vigor. The African Union has denounced China’s approach to financing BRI projects in Africa as “debt-trap diplomacy” tactics, where an investor country knowingly establishes doomed borrower-creditor relationships to exert control over the indebted country after it inevitably defaults, sometimes seizing its valuable resources along the way, e.g. ports and vital minerals. The African Union Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy described debt-trapping as “a burden for our countries,” while the Malaysian prime minister has said he is wary of the slippery slope the BRI poses toward “a new version of colonialism.”
Against these rogue donor narratives, the reality of the BRI crediting policy seems benign, even generous. China forgave $9.8 billion in foreign debt between 2000-2018, including on keystone BRI projects like the Addis-Djibouti railway in Ethiopia. This year, China joined its fellow G20 nations in extending a moratorium on debt servicing—periodic repayments of loan interest and principal—as developing economies buckled under the weight of the pandemic. And some laud China for funding infrastructure projects in African countries at all. After all, democratic countries tend to prefer exporting their ideologies through social services and democracy-promotion to building bridges—World Bank financing for foreign infrastructure has shrunk by more than half since its founding in 1944—and no Western country has proposed building “hard” infrastructure in Africa at the continental scale, though such an undertaking would almost certainly benefit the host country.
Likewise, others have stressed that the risks of debt-trapping are just that: risks. Given its massive scope and budget, it is no wonder that the BRI has raised the alarms of predatory lending on the world stage, yet there is no record of asset seizure on any BRI project to date. Indeed, whether China was a predatory lender to even Sri Lanka or Djibouti—typically regarded as poster children of the Chinese debt-trap—remains up for debate.
As it stands, the BRI’s beneficiary states are no more beholden to China than to other creditors, and few would argue that European donors, international banks, or private bond holders are strictly motivated by their own geopolitical interests when they support, say, hydropower in Ethiopia. How, then, has the BRI all but become a shorthand for debt-trap diplomacy?
The Specter of Belt and Road Lending
China is an anomaly among high-capital international creditors. It does not send a delegation to the Paris Club, a global development financing group of investor countries who meet to coordinate debt treatments and reduce conflicts among lenders when global debt crises arise. Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Korea are among the Club’s twenty-two permanent members. Untethered to the Club’s lending conditions, China has stirred unease in many member states. Like a one-way mirror, the Paris Club framework gives China a clear view of member states’ lending activity even as China’s remains concealed. “A common suspicion is that China uses this opacity to strike bilateral deals with debtor governments that are at its mercy,” writes Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. While debt-trap concerns may well be warranted, also looming large is the fear that China could strike sudden, two-way agreements with developing countries, as member states, bound by multilateral procedures, look on.
To member states, China’s unchecked lending also bodes trouble further down the line. In their recommendations for President Joe Biden’s China policy, the Brookings Institute and Yale Law School caution that unless global bankers push China to join the Paris Club, China will be free to pursue self-sustaining investments at the expense of member states. These so-called “beggar-thy-neighbor” strategies typically go hand-in-hand with efforts to bolster domestic prosperity, a BRI aim Xi has made no effort to conceal. China’s recent move to offer subsidized loans and other benefits to “high quality” BRI projects halted by COVID-19 has only added urgency to these fears, hastening precisely the sort of opaque and bilateral lending agreements thought to “conflict with US interests.”
Belt Meets Road Meets Human Rights Debate
For all the criticism that the BRI has shouldered as a recipe for predatory lending, covert dealmaking, or long-term economic turmoil, the debt-trap narrative is a remarkably cautious critique. It problematizes what Belt and Road imagines—limitless globalization arrived at through a quixotic revival of the Silk Road, all couched in a defiantly nebulous agenda—but it does so narrowly, adhering to strictly economic terms of analysis.
This is not for lack of other viable criticisms. There are pressing ideological and rights-based grounds to mount a more robust and compelling attack against the BRI, chief among them its troubling connection to the ongoing human rights crisis in Xinjiang. Home to the Uyghurs and other of China’s ethnic minorities, Xinjiang has long been a site of violent separatist conflict between government authorities and the region’s minority populations. The conflict has escalated since 2014, when the central government launched a “people’s war on terror”, setting in motion an ongoing mass surveillance and forced detention campaign against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Experts estimate that at least one million people have been incarcerated in more than 380 “re-education through labor” detention camps, sixty-one of which have been renovated in the last year and fourteen of which are still under construction.
As Xinjiang’s detention network swiftly fans out, the region is gaining attention as a critical vertex in the BRI’s lattice of trade routes. The province contains Khorgos, a keystone international shipping hub and free trade zone officials have dubbed “the new Dubai”, and China will likely rely on forced labor out of Xinjiang to keep pace with the BRI’s domestic manufacturing demands. Xinjiang’s centrality to the BRI has led experts to reevaluate Xi’s incentives for carrying out the repressive campaign: it is clear that, alongside his administration’s established desire for ethnic and cultural homogeneity, his government anticipates an economic windfall from sustaining social control in Xinjiang.
Although the BRI’s EU and US critics have largely sidestepped its ties to the Xinjiang Crisis, it would be wrong to say that China’s international critics are silent on its human rights violations. Both the European Union and the United States have expressed alarm about repression and violence in China. Earlier this month, for instance, UN independent experts released a joint statement that “call[s] for decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China”; the Brookings Institute recommends the Biden administration “work closely [with Europe] to develop a common approach and collaborative actions that seek to impose costs on China for its human rights violations and wrongs.” The US passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act this summer, which included sanctions from the State Department and Treasury against Chinese officials implicated in the Act.
But both the European Union and the United States were slow to speak up, and—although certainly a triumph for advocacy groups—The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act is more a call for congressional accountability in reporting the crisis than an international rallying cry. Likewise, while it is likely that Biden will sustain existing pressure on China in response to bipartisan concern, it remains uncertain whether his administration will deliver the substance that many experts, activists, and policymakers are demanding, like countering China at the United Nations or funding Uyghur support groups directly.
Bringing to Light the Belt and Road-Xinjiang Axis
The more international attention the Xinjiang conflict garners, the clearer Xi's agenda becomes to stamp out the possibility of Uyghur dissent to the cultural erasure and environmental destruction that the BRI will bring. But the United States and European Union seldom connect the two. Censure of state violence in Xinjiang remains vague, entrenched in a rhetoric of human rights that avows a commitment to “fundamental freedoms” and “liberties” ill-supported by nominal sanctions. Meanwhile, debate over the BRI still fixates on the economic risks it poses globally.
At best, narrowly regarding the BRI as a framework for unsustainable financing puts a one-dimensional spin on a project that traverses land, sea, and space. But, at worst, having tunnel vision for the predatory economics of the BRI is to overlook the bleak future it augurs for the ethnic minorities already at China’s margins.
Were legislators to foreground the intertwined fates of Xinjiang’s oppressed minorities and the BRI, however, efforts to restrain each could gain momentum. Issue framing studies suggest that individuals are equally likely to take action when presented with motivational frames alone—such as personal narratives of human suffering—or in combination with informational frames, like economic or statistical analysis. Presented as a domestic human rights issue, then, the BRI could capture not just the attention of economists, but of humanitarian relief organizations, EU member states, and the broad public. In turn, the economic case against the BRI provides ample opportunities to impose targeted sanctions — rather than symbolic gestures—and the specific focus needed to replace the ambiguity of rights-based language.
The United Nations demands “decisive measures”; Biden is advised to impose tangible costs on China for its human rights violations. Both, so far, have floundered. The Belt and Road Initiative is their chance to deliver on those promises.
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