Jonathan Hillman

The Project of Chinese Hegemony

Air Date: November 9, 2020

Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow Jon Hillman discusses his new book “The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind, I’m delighted to welcome a fellow Andover alum to our broadcast today. I just learned that fact. He is author of “The Emperor’s New Road” and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much for joining me, Jon. Jon Hillman I appreciate your insight today.


HILLMAN: Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: Jon you’ve written a book, which is really an authoritative account of this most essential initiative out of China. For our viewers who are not familiar with the origin of that initiative can you just give us a brief summary from the outset?


HILLMAN Sure. So this is the Belt and Road Initiative. This is Xi Jinping the leader of China’s signature foreign policy vision, announced in 2013, initially in two major components, an Overland Belt and somewhat confusingly a Maritime Road. And since being announced, it has really expanded you know, almost every week, every month more and more countries have joined. So now, you know, the list is over 130 countries have signed up. It’s expanded well beyond its original geography to include Latin America the Arctic cyberspace and even outer space. And so this thing is just totally unconstrained by geography or even gravity you could say.


HEFFNER: What do you mean by signed up though, right?


HILLMAN: Yeah. So this is an important question. You know, there’s been a whole wide range of experiences among countries who have been participating in this in one way or another. On the really, you know, heavy participation end you’ve got countries like Pakistan who have really reoriented their whole development strategies around the Belt and Road Initiative and who are doing billions and billions of dollars worth of Chinese finance projects, infrastructure projects, primarily, primarily transport and energy infrastructure, although it does extend to other things as well. And then you’ve got countries like South Korea that might’ve signed an MOU or sort of expressed support for this, but have seen the little to no benefit and then everywhere in between countries who have sort of modest experiences as well as you know, there are still some holdouts, you know, 130 countries is a lot, but it’s not the entire world. And some countries like India have formally objected to certain parts of the Belt Road.


HEFFNER: So those countries that are participating in this now, each have their own motivations internally, but maybe before we embellish on that, can you tell us to the best of your knowledge based on your chronicling of it, what is China’s ultimate aspiration?


HILLMAN: So at its most basic level, I think this is a vision for putting China, moving China closer to the center of everything. This is a vision for connectivity. One that’s really taken form mainly with large infrastructure projects built by what tend to be Chinese state owned enterprises. And so there’s a real commercial incentive on China’s end for doing this. But Belt and Road, you know, even according to Chinese officials extends beyond infrastructure. It includes people to people exchanges. It includes policy coordination across many different issue areas. And so this is really trying to try to have something that a lot of developing economies especially want, which is financing and infrastructure. And it’s going to provide that and in doing so it’s going to advance its own interests.


HEFFNER: Is there internally within China the acceptance or embrace of this One-World, One-China idea that, you know, this is the Chinese manifest destiny. I mean this is the Chinese imperialism. It is rationalized in the experiences of the countries to better their economies, to better their trade. But how has the country’s participation in this initiative, how has their perception evolved of what China’s goal is here?


HILLMAN: Yeah, I think there’s a whole host of experiences and different, I think, perceptions have evolved. I think initially a lot of countries, United States included were trying to figure out what is this thing? You know, we see you’re talking about a Maritime Road, what is that? And so it’s taken some time, I think, for this to actually play out and for countries to have, to reach more informed judgments, you know, I think there’s also been some pretty strong resistance in some countries where there have been large amounts of activity and domestic political parties have used this to further their own agendas, you know, as opposition candidates sometimes, to campaign against what our recipient country is doing in terms of the deals it’s making. But we’ve also seen a very interesting trend to where that’s happened strongly in places like Malaysia, Pakistan, to some extent, Sri Lanka. There’s also been a tendency for the new ruling party to still do business with China. And I think, you know, so that’s a reminder that there’s something important here that’s being provided that others are not providing even in situations where those projects have been poorly conceived and mismanaged, there’s an enduring demand for that foreign investment.


HEFFNER: You know, Africa is a major hotspot and has been for these past years of Chinese investment. What would you say based on your book’s findings is the status of that investment? Is it more perceived as Joy Boulamwini about, the theft of sort of the southern hemisphere, the intellectual and moral and human theft of underserved communities, or is there an evidence-based assessment that China’s work in Africa has enhanced the quality of life in the places where it has resided?


HILLMAN: Again, it’s been a very mixed set of experiences. I think if we were to generalize though, I think some of the indicators that suggests that countries end up with better outcomes tend to be, you know, whether they’re, they have stronger institutions to begin with, whether they have the technical capacity that they need to evaluate these proposals that are often given to them by Chinese state owned enterprises or Chinese officials and whether they have the, they forced the transparency around these projects is another really critical distinguishing factor in some cases, countries like Kenya, for example there’s been, I think, some healthy pushback. Earlier this year, a Kenyan court ruled that a contract for very large rail project connecting the cities of Mombasa and Nairobi was illegal that, you know, the procurement wasn’t handled correctly. Also last year Kenyan environmental activists pushed back against a Chinese financed coal power plant. And so in places where civil society is stronger, where we’re a rule of law is stronger I think you do you see an ability to guard against some of the worst outcomes and in those places too, you do have this history that I think you alluded to in some cases quite striking of, you know, Imperial powers past having done some of this activity and in some respects, China is following in their footsteps quite literally. So that, that rail project between Mombasa and Nairobi runs literally parallel to a railway that the British built over a century ago.


HEFFNER: And when internationalism has been on the retreat and many of the strong men, there has really yet to be a strong woman, a strong man want to be despots, aspiring authoritarians or autocrats, they are exploiting a nativism and isolationism whose politics is in contrast to an Imperial takeover of other countries of other regions. Now some of that might just be for show and as a way to satisfy the local electorate and employ and apply demagoguery, but China, and I want you to weigh on how the pandemic has impacted the relationship with these countries and this initiative, but China, you could argue is the one country that has been on the authoritarian track that has expanded its foothold in numerous ways. And isn’t authoritarian because it has to exploit nativism; isn’t authoritarian because it, it has to look internally. The pandemic made trying to have to reevaluate a lot of things. So how has the pandemic impacted this initiative from the best that you can tell?


HILLMAN: So I think it’s had a few important impacts. I mean, I think the first one is that this really is a wake up call for a lot of countries about the risk that connectivity brings with it. You know, literally the connections that China is trying to strengthen through the Belt and Road Initiative were vectors for spreading the pandemic for making it, you know, go from an outbreak into a really a global pandemic. And in the early days of the pandemic, China was also pressuring some countries that participate in the Belt and Road to keep their borders open, for example. And so I think this experience has just, it’s been a real reminder that with these deeper connections do come great risks. And then the impact that the pandemic is having on the Belt and Road itself. I think there’s been a really significant slowdown in levels of activity, Chinese projects in foreign countries. Some of that’s a logistical challenge just because you know, workers who are, were back in China for the holidays, weren’t able to then get back to the projects that they had been working on. Some of it’s financial. Over a hundred countries now are going to the IMF for debt relief and among the low-income group of countries, for the majority of them that are going to need relief, China is their largest bilateral lender. And so this is, you know, they’re now dealing with something that could, could even be in the longer run for them even more traumatic than the immediate health impact of the pandemic is this financial aftershock. And that’s something that China has to play a much more responsible role in helping to address.

HEFFNER: Well what about the question of Chinese infrastructure and what appeared out of Wuhan to be very clear evidence that there was not enough of a support system in that city to deal with the emerging health threat and, you know, not only has the world suffered gravely as a result of that application of responsibility, there still has been zero accountability.


HILLMAN: Yeah. And I think that the sort of common theme here in how that response was mismanaged and sort of the longer-term risks along the Belt and Road is really the lack of transparency. And so, you know, we, from the little bit that we know publicly, we know that Chinese officials were aware that this was a pandemic before they were publicly honest about that. And so there was a, there was an incentive on their end or sort of a judgment that they wanted to keep that information secret. And they were in doing that they were putting their, their own sort of personal political interests ahead of the, you know, the greater public interest. And that’s something that I think unfortunately thrives in the opaque nature of the Belt and Road. You know, China does not release many details about the deals that it makes and in doing so it’s really, it makes the Belt and Road a conduit for corruption. It makes it you know, more likely to leave some of these participating countries weaker, weaken their institutions. And so if there was one thing that I really would like to see more of, that I do think is in a way related to how the pandemic was mismanaged, it’s this need for more transparency. And I think with that would, that would protect against some of the riskier outcomes.


HEFFNER: And those truth tellers on the ground were, were largely ejected from China in the aftermath of the pandemic. So any hope that a semblance of free press was going to continue to shine light on happenings in Wuhan or elsewhere in China, that was a false start from the get go. What was most revealing in writing your book that you think is relevant to the way the United States and the world ought to analyze the pandemic and now deal with the pandemic and the geopolitical repercussions?


HILLMAN: So I think that one of the, one of the themes that comes out of this book you know, this is for me, this is the result of four years of studying projects in different areas and, you know, going to Central Asia and Eastern Europe and Africa. And you know, I do think that it’s, it’s risky to make generalizations about this massive endeavor, because, you know, you need to look at individual projects and the, the local contours of this really do differ depending on where you’re looking. But I think that something the U.S. can do more of, it’s already doing some of this, but it can do more of this, is to help some of these recipient countries, especially developing emerging markets, be their own best advocates, you know, help provide the technical assistance that’s needed to really do due diligence on these projects before they’re committed to before, you know, billions of dollars are committed to.


HEFFNER: You said words that, you know, that really have made a difference in terms of life and death due diligence. So, you know, you clearly are saying that you can’t generalize about the efficacy or integrity of projects. You know, you have to really look at it on a case by case basis, but my question was really aiming at this is idea of Chinese practices and looking at the U.S. and China relationship at this juncture going forward. And, you know, the way in which that due diligence is omitted in some countries, in some initiatives and ensured in other places that must tell you something about the psyche and the psychology and calculus of China, and that’s a rather inscrutable subject. But you probably have so much insight into it.


HILLMAN: Well, I think what they’re doing is, it’s both very practical in one sense, they’re going places. You know, most, most countries that are doing large deals Belt and Road related projects, China, isn’t their first choice, but it’s often the only choice that they have.


HEFFNER: You mean for a loan?


HILLMAN: Exactly. Yeah. And so many of the worst outcomes that I’ve seen in projects I’ve looked into and looked into the histories of them, the project was passed over by other, by other potential financiers, by their potential lenders, by the World Bank and others, and China will be willing to take the risk that others are not. And it’s able to do that in some, in some respects because of access to state financing. But this is also a very risky thing that it’s undertaken. And I think it’s often assumed that somehow China even wins when these projects fail. And I think that China has taken on quite a significant amount of risk. And in some of these places, rather than just being, you know, uber strategic, I think China is actually overreaching.


HEFFNER: What can you tell us about the accuracy of reporting from China? And we alluded to it briefly, but the fact that the numbers from China were not believable once the virus exploded in Europe and the U.S. and, you know, both, both Americas. You know, it must be hard to do an analysis of these projects and, and, you know, ensure that they are fact, you know, you’re studying fact-based data when both China and some of the countries in which they’re operating are suspect. How is, how were you able to kind of deal with the lack of rigor, and you said due diligence in forming an analysis about it?

HILLMAN: It’s incredibly challenging. And I mean this is the purpose of an effort that we have at CSIS. It’s called the Reconnecting Asia Project. And over the last five years, we’ve built a database of infrastructure projects, primarily Chinese projects, but others as well. And we try to make the information available that we find that we’re able to cobble together from different sources, but it’s basically investigative work. You can sort of, you get little pieces here and there from official statements from, from local reporting you know, you need to do translation. You need to talk to people, you know, who’ve been involved in the projects, people who were maybe involved and then passed on the projects. And in some cases we use satellite imagery to look at, to look at places that we couldn’t otherwise get to, or just to confirm whether or not a project is going ahead, you know, for all the projects that are announced only a small, you know, a much smaller fraction of them are actually moving ahead. And, but you wouldn’t know that if you just read the headline about the project being announced, you got to do the follow up, you know, a few months later, Hey, have they broken ground? Okay, the project’s done. Is it actually, you know, if it’s a port, is it actually getting any traffic? So all of those things, it takes time and sort of, you know, it’s an investigative work and I want to be modest about it too. You know, the information is always, you know, it’s the best that we’ve been able to find. And we love it too when people will write and provide better information to help improve that effort.


HEFFNER: Compared to SARS in the COVID pandemic, there, there was much more under a microscope through social media that you could see this was not normal. It was abnormal even by China’s standard you know, of lacking transparency or denying reality. So, you know, from that perspective, with respect to the pandemic, how should the United States strategically proceed in its relationships with other Asian countries to try to win back credibility after a morbid pandemic response in this country, and, and you know, this was fashioned originally as the Transpacific Partnership and that alliance as a potentially a winning back credibility and also being competitive and with China in a way that was not in a warlike posture, but in a commercial posture. Is there, is there a way that even before there’s a vaccine, there a new Administration could snap back elements of normalcy and reconnection, you use the word connection with respect to the Center’s initiative, but what concrete steps would you advocate the U.S. take in, in a new posture towards Asia?


HILLMAN: So you mentioned the Transpacific Partnership, and I think that that’s important effort to keep in mind, because I think that the reason why the United States, you know, back in 2013, when Belt and Road was announced, United States didn’t need to say that it was for, or against the Belt and Road, because it had its own positive oriented economic initiative that it was supporting. And so I think the U.S. has, in moving away from that, we can’t just criticize what China is doing. We have to be able to offer an alternative that’s positive that’s based in economics. That’s what Asia wants, and it’s, frankly, that’s what the world wants, especially, you know, developing and emerging markets. So I think we need to both put forward that positive vision, say what we support, and then we need to do the hard work of trying to make better higher quality alternatives available, whether that’s in infrastructure, whether that’s in trade, whether that’s an investment. And the tools that the United States has to do that are different than the tools that China has to do it. But we bring, you know, many different strengths to the table, and, you know, including, you know, transparency and rule of law companies that, you know, will uphold higher standards. And so I do really think that we have, if we put it together, we could have a very competitive attractive offering. But we need to do that. We can’t just say what we’re against.


HEFFNER: Yeah. And let’s be honest. The second term of Donald Trump is not going to rekindle that, but it’s not going to allow for our higher values to be viewed as such when it comes to democratic or commercial practices. Do you see any way of basically having a peaceful, mutually economic, economically mutual relationship between the United States and China in a second Trump term? Or do you think that’s just a, that proposition alone would, would not enable the kind of steps that you’re describing?


HILLMAN: So I think the, I think the first step is, and this isn’t easy because of some of the damage that has been done, but I think the first step is to really try to get you know, partners and allies on the same page. And I think the really un-strategic thing that, that has been done over the last several years is to, you know, is to ratchet up you know a trade war and other types of economic pressure with China at the same time that we’re doing that with countries that should be on our side and presenting a more unified front. So I would, I would think that that would be the first step. And that would give us more leverage when we, you know, are dealing with China, it would help I think get us to a better equilibrium.


HEFFNER: And one question that I have to ask you as someone who’s studied China, you know, we anticipated the possibility of the regime transferring more power to representative government, you know, a regime that was possibly going to undergo some democratization. And do you think that we’ll know if it’s going to happen or if it will be an event that is out of the media and the United States control, and specifically with respect to China’s evolution, if, you know, there will be a day in our lifetimes, or even in the next decade when senior leadership or the people are empowered to challenge the state control totalitarianism. We seem to be getting farther and farther away from that ever being a practical reality.


HILLMAN: And I think, unfortunately I think we have to prepare ourselves for that being a long-term challenge. I, you know, I think that the trends that I see, you know, suggest that, you know, certainly not a country becoming more like the United States, but a country pursuing its own its own path. And then even beyond that, a country increasingly interested in trying to get other countries, especially, you know, developing are emerging markets, interested in its approach to governance trying to get their support, their endorsement of, you know, how it operates. It’s remarkable, even after China mishandled the pandemic so badly, you know, it was able to get these endorsements from countries who are major participants in the Belt and Road.


HEFFNER: In the seconds we have left Jon, was there any truth to the idea that China was susceptible to a popular uprising or mutiny or revolt because of the poor COVID response there was that, or was that just a fantasy notion?


HILLMAN: We should be really modest about the amount of influence that we have to shape China from within; I think, you know, events in China,


HEFFNER: But not so much our shaping it, but the prospect, the plausibility that there was actually a revolt underway and that it was, you know, crossed. It was, you know, there was something brewing because of the pandemic and it was squashed, but was that plausible or was that likely untrue?


HILLMAN: I think there was definitely I think there were definitely more and more citizens questioning the information that they were getting from their governments, especially how some of the, some of the scientists and doctors were treated. But whether it goes much beyond that I think you’d have to ask someone, you know, who who’s, you know, paying more attention to the internal politics of China and always a challenge to get, to get accurate public polling from that.

Jon Hillman author of “The Emperor’s New Road” and fellow at CSIS, thank you so much for your time today.


HILLMAN: Thanks for having me.

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