China's Belt and Road dilemma: It's brute efficiency contrasted with ethical legitimacy

Aayush Mohanty
Aayush MohantyJan 23, 2019 | 15:44

China's Belt and Road dilemma: It's brute efficiency contrasted with ethical legitimacy

Five years have passed since the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched by President Xi Jinping. Since then, various infrastructure projects have been underway in various developing countries spanning Asia, Europe and Africa, claiming to benefit the world and bridge the gap through infrastructure projects which, from a skeptical point of view, can be seen as a way of expanding the market base for Chinese products along with increasing its political clout. 


Five years down the line, liberal democracies have cancelled the project, citing various reasons, which leads one to ask whether China’s mega-infrastructure project has had any legitimacy since its launch.

China, at one point of time under Mao’s rule, had what is known as the “Red and Expert. The rationale behind this thought was for politics and economy, and politics and technology to go hand in hand in order to ensure China’s technological and economic advancements and not be apolitical.

Since the days of Mao, China has had a policy that has seen politics, economy and technology go hand in hand. (Photo: Reuters)

Then came the “Cultural Revolution” where political ideology took precedence over technical or economic expertise. To simplify, the red was prioritised over the expert part, leading to the disastrous “revolution.”

The genesis of the Belt and Road Initiative lies in this thought of Red and Expert, with equal priority to both now – or at least, seems like that.

Right after Mao’s death, to undo the damage incurred by the 'revolution', Deng made sure that intellectuals, workers and peasants were seen in the same light and every effort was made to regain intellectual ability in China.


As China’s wealth has grown in recent times, so has the country's political clout, along with technological breakthroughs which has got the communist state at the forefront of debates of what the next century would look like with China as a leading superpower, who could also contribute to the liberalised world order as globalisation helped its growth.

The expectation would have continued, if they had not asserted their control over the South China Sea through military means, rejecting international rulings and on the domestic front, changing the constitution by removing the term limit, an amendment which undid Deng’s work after the Cultural Revolution. All of this has occurred in the last decade. One can say it puts a big question mark on the political system, which was intended to be placed in China to select leaders through a meritocratic process.

The internal changes and the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative have got a new debate going in the context of China, as to whether the system, which in recent times has provided path-breaking economic growth for sure, has any real legitimacy?

If one says that the Chinese way of governance is slowly materialising to a meritocratic and an effective one, then it is not the right assessment.


Has the BRI, or the leadership behind it, had much legitimacy since its launch? (Photo: Reuters)

One cannot deny the effectiveness of the system, but it comes at various costs, especially environmental issues in lieu of climate change and blatant overlooking of international law. A meritocratic political system intends to look for a leader who is virtuous, but how does one define virtue?

A virtuous leader will not remove the term limit on their own tenure, announce an initiative for the entire world which intends to “reinforces the value of building a shared future for global communities” , but at the same time, start projects compromising on pre-existing environmental issues, building highways through disputed territories without consulting all concerning parties and willingly creating what the Americans now call “debt trap” under the garb of this massive infrastructure project.

China seems to have made a trade-off between efficiency and legitimacy, a trade-off which it is not willing to let go of.

BRI might have made the Chinese believe that their way of operating is beneficial for developing countries according to the report submitted by President Xi Jinping to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017; maybe, some Chinese do see the grand infrastructure projects as a part of the package for countries considering adopting to the Chinese system.

But the Chinese leadership meanwhile did not anticipate that 2018 would be a tumultuous year for China. Various allegations and storms to hit it include the trade tariffs imposed by the United States, more scrutiny from host governments which are a part of the initiative and the cancellation of projects, China’s top tech companies banned in various countries due to security concerns and the recent investigative report by Bloomberg on China reportedly inserting microchips inside servers used by global tech companies for various purposes, one being storing private data of their customers.

China’s top tech companies have been banned in various countries due to security concerns. (Photo: Reuters)

The aforementioned are some of the accusations and actions against the Chinese initiative and businesses.

One vital thing which the BRI and, by extension, the Chinese system thus lacks is legitimacy, which makes this massive infrastructure undertaking set for imploding not just from a financial perspective but also politically.

China’s Communist party and the leaders at the helm should take stock of the fact that while their political business model expansion through BRI and massive Foreign Direct Investments in Europe, Africa, and Asia might be beneficial, they will always be viewed with suspicion.

BRI cannot sustain in its current form, until the projects under the initiative start emphasising on sustainability and accountability which guarantees legitimacy in a liberal world order. Chinese FDI, BRI, economic growth, the recent anti-corruption drive by President Xi, amongst other foreign and domestic initiatives and advancements seems to show that the Chinese political business model heavily depends on efficiency as the sole factor for its 'legitimacy'.

Meanwhile, 2019 will be a crucial year for China as the suspicions against their tech companies, initiatives, and domestic policies, if proven true, will only put the economy of the dragon under greater pressure.

Last updated: January 23, 2019 | 15:44
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