It’s easy to laugh at the sheer cheesiness of the promotional campaign for the “Belt and Road Forum” in Beijing.
In one video released in the run-up to the meeting, a father reads his rapt daughter a bedtime story about President Xi Jinping’s infrastructure plan. In another, a group of children express “gratitude” for the $900 billion initiative: “The future’s coming now/the Belt and Road is how,” they sing.
The videos are so cringe-inducing, so ridiculously saccharine, that they are almost funny. But you know who is also chuckling? Xi Jinping.
The Belt and Road Forum is a projection of Chinese power, yes, but it is also a vivid display of the power of Chinese propaganda — a lesson in what happens when truths, half-truths and state-sanctioned talking points, mixed and repeated, begin to pass as fact.
The “Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road” (a.k.a. “One Belt, One Road,” a.k.a. “The Belt and Road Initiative”) is an infrastructure and development plan pitched more than three years ago by Xi. (Strangely, the “road” is a sea route and the “belt” is on land.)
The plan was initially modeled on the ancient Silk Road, the network of trading routes spanning from China to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. China has now pledged to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building ports, railways, airports and power plants not just across the Eurasian landmass, but in nearly every corner of the world.
Reaction has been mixed. The United States, India and others have voiced concern about the Belt and Road's geostrategic implications. Others have wondered about the social and environmental impact of Beijing’s vision.
The Chinese government has been trying hard to head off these questions. For years now the Chinese Communist Party’s propagandists have been running “New Silk Road” advertorials in foreign media outlets. The sustained sales pitch, combined with the promise of cash, also has legions of foreign think tanks, institutes, banks, magazines and newspapers issuing reports.
It's not that the initiative isn't big — it is. McKinsey noted that if all the “Belt and Road"-pledged money is spent it would dwarf the U.S.-led Marshall Plan that helped western Europe rebuild after World War II.
Quantifying “how big” is difficult because the scope is always changing, said Michael Kovrig, the International Crisis Group's senior adviser for Northeast Asia. The Belt and Road initiative has become “an umbrella for many of the projects and investments under the latest phase of China’s “going out” policy of encouraging Chinese enterprises to pursue opportunities abroad, and an extension of the Western Development, or “Open up the West” (Xibu dakaifa) strategy.”
“China is putting a lot of capital and institutional effort behind the Belt and Road. But it’s not going to reshape Asia in a few years. It will take a couple of decades to assess the impact, if China sticks with it,” he said.
The focus on the big-ness of it all often obscures questions about if, when and how all of this building will take place, as well as questions about the impact of the plan. Meanwhile, state-approved talking points about the “Belt and Road” are seeping into coverage, particularly as the international press seeks to turn Xi Jinping into President Donald Trump's foil.
With Trump promoting an “America First” foreign policy, China wants to be seen as the global player. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year, Xi, the authoritarian leader of a one-party state, positioned himself as a champion of free trade. Despite compelling evidence that his government protects Chinese companies from foreign competition, he was praised for a “robust defense of globalisation.”
In a speech to dignitaries assembled in Beijing on Sunday, Xi hailed the plan as a “project of the century" — and so did the headlines, albeit in quotes. On Monday, a Google News search yielded headlines that would surely make Xi smile: “Xi Jinping positions China at centre of new economic order;” “Xi basks in 'Belt and Road' spotlight, urges rejection of protectionism;” “China's Xi says Belt and Road summit reaches consensus, achieves positive outcomes."—to name a few.
On Monday evening, Xi held a news conference to close the event. He announced that the next summit will be held in 2019 and talked about the “open and inclusive” nature of the Belt and Road. Then, with the media waiting, he left the stage without taking questions.
Congcong Zhang and Luna Lin contributed to this report.