In 2013, China launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to improve infrastructure and interconnectivity among countries spread across Asia, Europe and Africa. By late 2017, Latin America and the Caribbean were formally incorporated in the initiative. To date, 131 countries have signed BRI agreements, with more than $575 billion worth of projects associated with the BRI. While in theory this effort to improve the economies of developing countries and increase their level of trade and foreign investment has great merit, the reality is that China has used its economic influence to take advantage of and undermine the sovereignty of many of these nations for its own gain. This negative influence is evident in numerous spheres: economic, informational, and institutional.
In the economic sphere, China’s propensity to conduct negotiations behind closed doors has resulted in financing terms that often line the pockets of local elites, ensure that the work goes to Chinese state-owned companies, and become a debt trap for the partner country. As the International Republican Institute notes in its recent report Chinese Malign Influence and the Corrosion of Democracy, “The opaque nature of BRI projects presents regular opportunities for massive corruption, best described as a ‘feature’ of the BRI rather than a ‘bug.’” In the well-documented Sri Lanka case, the country’s inability to pay its debts resulted in it giving China a 99-year lease on the strategic Hambantota Port and surrounding territory. The lack of transparency in conducting BRI deals often allows China to benefit in ways that would likely never be accepted by citizens and local businesses who are concerned about their country’s long-term economic prospects.
Part of the reason for the lack of transparency in these countries is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) makes influencing the local media a priority. China goes through great lengths to control the narrative about its activities in a country, including suppressing criticism of any financial deals that shine an unfavorable light on itself. China conducts outreach to local media to provide training and even financial support, which gives it the opportunity to “educate” the media on the Chinese economic and political system and paint a positive picture of the work that the Chinese are doing. For example, according to the recent Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order, 22 journalists from Zambia were invited to a lavish, all-expense-paid event in China called the “2018 Zambia Media Think Tank Seminar.” Often, this engagement with the media neuters those entities that would normally provide oversight of local government officials and their activities, ensuring that any stories about China’s involvement in a country are benign. In another example from the RSF report, a writer’s column in South Africa’s Independent Online was canceled hours after the outlet published a story on China’s persecution of ethnic minorities; Chinese investors held a 20 percent stake in the publication.
In addition to eroding the role of the media, the CCP seeks to cultivate thought leaders throughout democratic societies, using seemingly innocuous “soft power”-type cultural and educational institutions to shape debate about China and advance its strategic interests. China’s outreach in many countries also includes training on its governance and development model. Coupled with pro-Chinese propaganda, such training helps bolster illiberal leaders’ authoritarian leanings, while in more democratic countries it undermines democratic norms and institutions. Further, China’s willingness to provide high tech surveillance systems makes it easier for those who want to restrict free speech and increase censorship on the internet. China also provides illiberal leaders financing and investment without the sort of regulatory, governance, and human rights requirements demanded by established multilateral development banks and Western lenders, reducing such leaders’ need to undertake democratic reforms and bolstering their political fortunes among citizens unaware of the long-term costs of deals with Chinese entities. China has named its governing vision a “community of common destiny,” and it is being promoted in individual countries as well as in international fora such as the United Nations.
Research by advisory firm Pointe Bello tracks China’s economic activity globally, including in Latin America. Venezuela provides a telling example of how China is able to enmesh itself in multiple sectors of a country’s economy with alarming implications for its democratic development, including exporting elements of Beijing’s governance system, such as its surveillance and social credit systems. In addition to its investments in the oil sector, China is deeply engaged in the telecommunications sector. Its leading telecommunications equipment manufacturer, ZTE Corporation, was hired to work with Cantv, Venezuela’s state telecommunications company, to develop a national ID card called the “fatherland card.” This smart card can track voting behavior, spending habits, and medical information, among other data. Increasingly, it is feared that it is being used in Venezuela as a means to reward or punish citizens in the allocation of scarce government resources based on their loyalty to the regime. The Chinese communications company Huawei – blacklisted by the U.S. government as a threat to national security – has made hundreds of millions in investments for systems that Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Kim Breier says “facilitates [the Maduro regime’s] control and repression” of its citizens. Both ZTE and Huawei have joint venture companies with Maduro regime entities. Further, the China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC) has sold public security technology to Venezuela, as well as Ecuador, that has been used to intimidate political opponents, and at least in Venezuela’s case has also been linked to armed groups, specifically the Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo (OLP), that have committed extrajudicial killings.
Some countries are beginning to realize that making deals with China does not always bring about the hoped for results. And in certain cases, when critical stories have come out in the press, China has been forced to react. However, too many countries are mired in harmful agreements that they cannot get out of without great difficulty, and some are looking for ways to resist. It is not realistic to simply tell countries not to engage with China since that would be both hypocritical and economically unfeasible, but there has to be a healthy medium to working with the world’s second largest economy and most populous nation. Recommendations for the U.S. administration, Congress, and the 2020 presidential candidates on how to help countries that want to change the terms of their engagement with China include:
- Taking a renewed and greater global leadership role by the United States to confront China’s negative human rights, economic and governance campaigns.
- Providing bipartisan support to new and innovative global economic initiatives such as the BUILD Act and the new U.S. Development Finance Corporation in order to help counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative’s global influence.
- Providing alternatives to Chinese financial investment, whether from the U.S. government, multinational development banks, or the private sector.
- Strengthening support for civil society, independent media, and democratic governance programs in countries that are particularly vulnerable to Chinese influence.
- Building awareness of China’s role and efforts to influence the narrative in the countries it is working in, especially in situations where an election might replace a China-friendly government, so that the new leadership will not fall into the same trap.
- Increasing global awareness of China’s negative influence beyond the governments, such as in the corporate and academic sectors.
* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.