China’s infrastructure and energy-driven US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) involves risky bets across a swath of land populated by often illiberal or autocratic governments exercising power without independent checks and balances.
Seeking to reduce risk, China is bumping up against the limits of its own long-standing foreign and defence policy principles, foremost among which its insistence on non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, the equivalent of the United States’ preference for stability rather than political change.
If popular revolts in Algeria and Sudan as well as smaller, issues-oriented protests elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa are anything to go by, China appears to be betting against the odds.
Anti-corruption sentiment fuelled the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and are at the root of current anti-government protests across the globe in countries as far-flung as Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Russia, Zambia, the Czech Republic, Albania and Romania
China’s risks were evident in the wake of the fall in 2011 of Col. Moammar Gaddafi when the post-revolt Libyan authorities advised China that it would be low on the totem pole as a result of its support of the ancien regime.
The risks are also evident with Baloch militants targeting Chinese assets and personnel in Pakistan.
To minimize the risk and expand its aggressive domestic anti-graft campaign, China’s top anti-corruption body, the Communist party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), is embedding inspectors in Belt and Road projects, who will be based in recipient countries.
The move helps China counter allegations that it exploits corruption in recipient Belt and Road countries to further its objectives.
Anti-corruption is a signature policy of President Xi Jinping and has allowed him to purge senior Chinese leaders as well as tens of thousands of low-level bureaucrats.
The CCDI is building on the success of a pilot project in Laos where it embedded in late 2017 inspectors in a US$6 billion railway project being built by state-owned China Railway Group. The anti-graft officials, working with the Chinese company, established a joint inspection team with their Laotian counterpart.
The question is whether the anti-corruption effort in countries like Laos or Central Asian nations that consistently rank in the bottom half of Transparency International’s corruption index will bump up against China’s non-interference principle.
Or in other words, can China successfully guard against corruption in Belt and Road projects without pressuring recipient countries to adopt broader transparency and anti-corruption measures?
“How can you strike hard on corruption here at home and give a free hand to Chinese people and business groups [that are] reckless abroad?” CCDI’s director-general for international co-operation La Yifan asked in a Financial Times interview.
Mr. La said China had organized seminars with more than 30 countries to link up anti-corruption regulators. “That is my dream, that we create a network of law enforcement of all these Belt and Road countries,” he said.
Imposing transparency and anti-corruption in Belt and Road partners would be the equivalent of all kinds of environmental, safety and human rights criteria that the United States haphazardly and opportunistically maintains in dealings with foreign countries that have been severely criticized by China.
China has long prided itself on what it terms win-win economic situations in which it imposes commercial terms that often primarily benefit the People’s Republic.
The terms, coupled with the clampdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s province of Xinjiang, has fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Turkey and Central Asia with their close ethnic and cultural ties to the troubled Chinese region.
Turkish officials highlighted these sensitivities by denying Chinese media reports that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had praised the success of Beijing’s brutal approach in Xinjiang during a recent visit to China.
Muslim nations have largely remained silent about the clampdown that amounts to the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history or in some instances even tacitly endorsed it.
In the absence of democracy, “governments can manage their pro-Beijing stance without informing their public, but a pro-Beijing policy over the Uyghur issue can barely be sustained in Turkey. Turkey is still a functioning democracy and total control of the public is not possible. Besides, there is a very strong Uyghur lobby and public sentiment towards the Uyghurs in Turkey,” said Turkish Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies director Selcuk Colakoglu.
Taking its anti-corruption campaign global, raises the broader question of whether it would threaten a pillar of autocracy that China’s non-interference principle has de facto sought to perpetuate.
Political scientists Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw argue that what they call the instruments of global authoritarianism — an army of largely Western bankers, lawyers, brokers and intermediaries that park illicitly gained monies in off-shore accounts and manage the investment of those funds – help keep autocrats in power.
The success of the globalization of China’s anti-corruption effort as well as its campaign to significantly reduce graft at home, would establish autocrats’ ability to satisfactorily deliver public goods and services alongside brute power as the cornerstone of their sustainability.
In doing so, it would give greater meaning to China’s assertion that it does not want to fundamentally alter the established multi-lateral world order but rather make it more equitable and more a reflection of a world that is multi- not unipolar.
It would also cement China’s model of economic reform and state capitalism without political liberalization as the example autocratic and authoritarian regimes want to emulate even if the jury is out on whether autocrats can remain relatively clean without a system of independent checks and balances.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.