Sep 29, 2020

Axios China

Welcome back to Axios China. Many readers have told me they are interested in China's Belt and Road, so today we're looking at Xi's big imperial project and his vision for the global system.

  • Tune in today at 3pm ET to hear me chat with CSIS senior fellow Jonathan Hillman about his new book 'The Emperor's New Road: China and the Project of the Century."

This newsletter is 1,663 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Xi's imperial dreams bring both benefits and risks

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

By undertaking massive infrastructure projects around the world, China under President Xi Jinping is following in the footsteps of previous empires.

Why it matters: Like previous imperial projects in history, Xi's Belt and Road Initiative presents both benefits and risks for China.

In his new book, "The Emperor's New Road: China and the Project of the Century," Jonathan Hillman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that China's BRI isn't reviving the trade routes of the ancient Silk Road, as official Chinese propaganda often claims.

  • Rather, the BRI is retracing the steps of previous infrastructure-building empires, such as the European colonial powers' construction of the Suez Canal, Britain's ocean-spanning telegraph network, or America's transcontinental railroad.
  • Such enormous projects can benefit the country that builds them, but they can also result in a range of unforeseen consequences.

"China, having played the role of the weaker state, is now grappling with the challenges that accompany its rising power and expanding global footprint. ... Despite these imperial echoes, this is not a story about China's domination but its education as a rising power," Hillman writes.

Behind the scenes: Hillman told me he traveled to 16 countries as he researched the book, including Serbia, Russia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti.

The basics: China's BRI was launched in 2013 and is Xi's signature foreign policy initiative.

  • The BRI has grown into a sweeping global program involving trillions of dollars' worth of deals and promised infrastructure projects — built by Chinese state-owned enterprises and with Chinese laborers — across Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

Such an ambitious project may seem intimidating to the Western countries whose place China seems to be aiming to take, writes Hillman, but it comes with potential risks for China, as well as benefits.

The benefits:

  • Developing countries could come to prefer China as a partner over Western countries and institutions.
  • The BRI can help spread China's political influence and aid it in setting global standards in technology and other fields.
  • It can enrich Chinese companies and help the Chinese government guarantee jobs for its large labor force.

The risks:

  • Infrastructure has a tendency to cost more, take longer to build and be more difficult to maintain than expected.
  • Failed infrastructure projects can actually destroy more value than they create.
  • "China's BRI has become a gravy train without a conductor," writes Hillman. "Its fevered pace has already exceeded China's ability to accurately measure, let alone manage, those activities. Corruption and rent-seeking are thriving in the chaos."

BRI investment in Malaysia is a cautionary tale. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak sought to secure as much Chinese infrastructure investment as he could.

  • But Razak secretly transferred hundreds of millions of dollars from a Malaysian state-owned investment fund to his own private accounts, while using several Chinese-funded projects to try to conceal what was happening — entangling the BRI and the Chinese government in one of the biggest corruption scandals so far this century.

The big picture: Because China's rise to power has occurred decades after the creation of international institutions designed to establish and enforce a set of international behavioral norms, China's behavior on the international stage has been constrained in ways that European powers at the height of their colonial conquests were not, says Hillman.

  • That means Beijing's moves to reshape the world have been incremental and largely confined to its "economic toolkit," rather than a military-led endeavor.

Go deeper: A China-centric 21st century

2. What China wants from the global system

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

At the United Nations General Assembly last week, Xi sought to portray China as the responsible global stakeholder, in contrast to the U.S.

The big picture: China is happy to work within existing multilateral structures, as long as they don't stop Beijing from doing what it wants.

In his Sept. 23 speech, Xi extolled the World Health Organization, expressed "abiding commitment" to the UN charter, and warned against attempts to roll back globalization.

  • But China has also undermined the UN commitment to human rights, violated principles shared by World Trade Organization members, and ignored a major ruling from an international court at The Hague.

What he's saying: "Let us join hands to uphold the values of peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom shared by all of us and build a new type of international relations."

Between the lines:

  • By "democracy," Xi means that a small number of countries — namely, Western democracies — shouldn't be able to dictate what less powerful but more numerous non-Western countries can do, especially within their own borders.
  • By "development," Xi is referring in part to China's emphasis on the "right to development," a euphemism meaning that governments with human rights or corruption problems should not be sanctioned or denied loans.

When it comes to the United Nations, the Chinese Communist Party has worked particularly hard to undermine the organization's ability to call out or take action on human rights violations.

The bottom line: Xi envisions a world in which governments face no international scrutiny for how they treat their own people — and preferably, to quote a previous speech of his, one with China "closer to the center of the world stage."

Go deeper: A hinge moment for America's role in the world

Bonus map: U.S. and China sit out global coronavirus vaccine initiative
Data: Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance; Map: Naema Ahmed/Axios

A global initiative to ensure equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines now includes most of the world — but not the U.S., China or Russia, writes Axios' Dave Lawler.

Why it matters: The COVAX initiative is an attempt to ensure doses go where they're most needed, rather than simply to countries that can produce or buy them at scale.

How it works: COVAX — led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the Gavi vaccine alliance — is investing in the production of nine vaccines, including candidates from the U.S., Europe and China. It plans to distribute any that are approved to all participating countries.

  • The funding will come from wealthier countries and other donors, with poorer countries receiving subsidized access.

Where things stand: The U.S. is independently buying up doses of six vaccine candidates and has said it won't participate in COVAX, citing the influence of "the corrupt World Health Organization and China."

  • China isn't currently part of COVAX. It may still join, but it plans to give its citizens and some friendly countries priority access to any vaccine it produces.
  • Russia hasn't joined either. Like China, it says it will make its vaccine available to other countries, but it wants to control that process.
  • President Trump, meanwhile, has said the U.S. will vaccinate Americans first and then share any remaining doses.
3. Catch up quick

1. The Trump administration has placed restrictions on U.S. technology exports to China's biggest chipmaker SMIC, the latest in a series of limits intended to limit China's efforts to compete in advanced technology. Go deeper.

2. A federal court judge granted TikTok's request for a temporary restraining order against a ban by the Trump administration. Go deeper.

3. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit the Vatican today to protest the pending renewal of a controversial deal with China. Go deeper.

4. China's influence agents lawyer up

Abbe Lowell arrives for the funeral of the late Sen. John McCain, Sept. 1, 2018. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Here's a bit of China influence trivia that underscores the web of lobbying, money and court cases that have resulted from the Chinese government's efforts to influence U.S. decision-making. Follow along while I connect the dots.

Driving the news: Hawaii-based consultant Nickie Mali Lum Davis recently pleaded guilty to illegally lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of the Chinese government.

Background: There's a bit of family history here. Lum Davis' parents, Gene and Nora Lum, pleaded guilty in 1997 to an illegal campaign fundraising scheme that benefited Democrats.

  • A 1998 Senate report identified a Macao billionaire named Ng Lap Seng as the source of hundreds of thousands of dollars that were illegally channeled to the Democratic National Convention as part of the same scandal. U.S. officials suspected at the time that Ng had "high-level" Chinese government connections and was "protected."
  • In 2017, Ng was convicted in connection with a bribery and influence case at the United Nations. U.S. officials suspected that Ng's main contact with Chinese intelligence was through a Chinese national named Qin Fei.

And now for that bit of trivia I promised. Abbe Lowell, a high-powered lawyer known for representing Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump during the Russia inquiry, represented Lum Davis in her recent case and also Qin Fei amid the UN bribery investigation.

  • Ng himself also hoped to tap Lowell. According to a September 2017 court filing, a U.S. court granted Ng's request for permission to meet with Lowell while Ng was under house arrest, "with a view to possibly formally retaining him."
  • Lowell did not respond to a request for comment.

The bottom line: The Chinese government seems intent on using intermediaries to try to influence U.S. decision-making. When they get caught, though, somebody's got to represent these folks.

5. What I'm reading

Deep dive: Were they lost students or inept spies for China? (Foreign Policy)

  • Two Chinese students are currently being held in a U.S. federal penitentiary, awaiting deportation after seemingly wandering onto a military facility and snapping some photos. But they claim it was an accident, escalated by a heightened sense of suspicion in the U.S.-China relationship.

Documenting cultural destruction: The Xinjiang Data Project (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

  • The Australian think tank ASPI just launched this new project, which aims to put together in one place all the publicly available data and documents relating to the Chinese government's campaign of cultural and demographic genocide in Xinjiang.
  • They've also made a pretty incredible interactive map marking the locations of mass internment camps and destroyed cultural sites around Xinjiang.

Academic unfreedom: Oxford moves to protect students from China's Hong Kong security law (The Guardian)

  • "Students at Oxford University specialising in the study of China are being asked to submit some papers anonymously to protect them from the possibility of retribution under the sweeping new security law introduced three months ago in Hong Kong."
6. 1 feline thing: Cats abound in Shanghai

Photo: VCG via Getty Images

One of my favorite headlines of all time is this 2015 Wall Street Journal article titled "Why Istanbul Should Be Called Catstantinople." When it published, I had recently returned from a trip to Istanbul where I, like many tourists, had been astonished by the sheer number of street cats lolling in the shade of cars and mewing at people's doors.

Shanghai may not have reached that level of feline infestation, but apparently the cat population there has really taken off, according to a September article from China-based news website Sixth Tone.

  • What they're saying: "Cats are everywhere in Shanghai. Nearly every public park and apartment complex has its own resident pack of strays, lovingly pampered by local residents. ... Local authorities estimate there could be as many as 3 million stray cats in Shanghai — around 20 for each residential community in the city."