China puts gentler face on Belt and Road, hits back at critics

China puts gentler face on Belt and Road, hits back at critics
Chinese President Xi Jinping

China sought to puta gentler face on its massive plan to recreate the old Silk Road at a summitthat ended on Saturday, saying it must do more to explain the programme andboost sustainability even as state media hit back at critics.

President Xi Jinpinghas made the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as it is formally called, one ofthe cornerstones of his administration. But it has run into opposition in somecountries over fears that opaque financing arrangements lead to unsustainabledebt and that it is more about promoting Chinese influence than bringingdevelopment.

China has at timesreacted angrily to such doubts, tending to characterise critics as harbouringanti-Chinese prejudice and wishing to contain the country's rise, whileoverlooking what Beijing says are genuine good intentions.

The Belt and Roadscheme seeks to build a modern version of the Silk Road to link China withAsia, Europe and beyond through large-scale infrastructure projects.

On Friday, Xi toldforeign leaders – including close allies such as Russian President VladimirPutin and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan – that the initiative must begreen and sustainable, adding that the plan would deliver"high-quality" growth for all.

Meeting Greek PrimeMinister Alexis Tsipras, Xi said Belt and Road was about promoting mutuallybeneficial, win-win international cooperation, not a "you lose, Iwin" scheme, according to a read-out from China's Foreign Ministry.

"We mustexplain this point to the world, to win even greater understanding andsupport," the ministry paraphrased Xi as saying.

China has been keento show that Belt and Road is even winning acceptance in Western nations,especially after Italy became the first G7 country to sign on last month.Britain's finance minister, France's foreign minister and Germany's economyminister all made the trek to Beijing for the event.

Those countriesreminded China of the need for high standards and transparency.

French ForeignMinister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the summit that the success of Belt and Roadprojects "will depend on our determination to keep our commitments".

"Commitment toopenness, commitment to transparency, commitment to fair competition and, ofcourse, commitment to environmental sustainability as well," he said.

British ChancellorPhilip Hammond said that for Belt and Road to be successful it had to deliver"the highest international standards of transparency, of governance, butalso of environmental integrity".

"President Ximade a speech this morning in which he committed China to all of those thingsand set out his vision for the next stage of Belt and Road and we will belooking very carefully at how that is operationalised," he said on Friday.

Even Aung San SuuKyi, the leader of another good Chinese friend, Myanmar, said Belt and Road hadto take into account realities on the ground.

"The projectsmust not only be economically feasible but also socially and environmentallyresponsible and, most importantly, they must win the confidence and support oflocal communities," she told the summit.

This year's summitwas more low-key than the first one two years ago.

Xi did not offerdetails of any new funding for the initiative, though he did announce dealsworth more than $64 billion signed during the meeting.

State media alsoreined back a propaganda offensive that in 2017 featured songs inawkward-sounding English on their social media feeds praising Belt and Road.

TalkingDurian

China's fearsomepropaganda machine was never going to be entirely absent, however.

For example, China'sembassy in Thailand put out a video with a Chinese-speaking, animated durianshowing how Belt and Road was good for the pungent-smelling fruit, regarded asa delicacy in Southeast Asia and increasingly popular in China, as better roadsmeant it could be exported faster and cheaper.

"Thanks to theBelt and Road initiative, our journey has become smoother," the durianexplains.

Beijing has beenunable to win over Washington though, with no senior U.S. government officialsappearing at the summit.

The U.S. embassy in Beijing reiterated "serious concerns that China's infrastructure diplomacy activities ignore or weaken international standards and best practices related to development, labour protections, and environmental protection".

The Global Times, awidely-read tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party's official People'sDaily, said in a Friday editorial that the United States and other critics"have lost their abilities to use logic and common sense, and evenrational thinking" when it comes to Belt and Road.

"Lying, beingfar-fetched, and holding such opinions will not have any real influence,"it said. "BRI is a groundbreaking international endeavour for the 21stcentury."

While China hassought to sketch a clearer vision for Belt and Road, it has increasingly takena defensive tone in saying what it isn't.

On the eve of thesummit, on Wednesday, the People's Daily WeChat account ran aquestion-and-answer piece to "verbally fight backwith the facts"against critics.

"Is the Beltand Road China creating a debt trap?" reads one of the questions.

"The causes ofa country's debt are complex. Some have problems with the fundamentals of theireconomy, some are old accounts left over from history," part of the answerreads.

"The Belt andRoad Initiative is only six years old. It's utterly unjustifiable to simplyblame the long-standing debt problems of these countries on China!"

China put its bestfoot forward as host for the summit, offering foreign journalists uncensoredinternet access at the venues, and at least some senior officials happilychatted with the media on its sidelines, though Xi himself took no questions ata closing news conference on Saturday.

In another softerside to Belt and Road, a list of 283 deliverables reached at the summit listedmore than just traditional areas like railways and ports.

China will set upboth Silk Road museum and library alliances, the lengthy document reveals.

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