For two days ending on April 27, Beijing rolled out the red carpet for world leaders and representatives attending the Belt and Road Forum.
But there were some noticeable absences amid the fanfare: countries that didn’t send their top leaders, and protesting citizens who tried to gather at the Chinese capital but were turned away.
Beijing launched the One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road) in 2013, its flagship foreign-policy agenda to build up geopolitical influence via investments across Southeast Asia, African, Europe, and Latin America. This year marked the second time that Beijing has hosted such a forum to facilitate the signing of deals, with the first one held in 2017.
Leaders from 37 countries attended the forum, according to China’s official Belt and Road online portal. The number represents a small group, considering that Beijing has signed cooperation agreements with 125 countries and 29 international organizations, as of the end of March.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced on April 27 that more than $64 billion worth of deals were signed at the forum. He also sought to address the growing global criticism of OBOR by promising to deliver sustainable growth through the projects.
Some partner nations have complained about the high cost of OBOR projects, while some Western governments, such as the United States, view it as a means to spread Chinese influence abroad, leaving poor countries with unsustainable debt.
In a separate statement, China said it signed memorandums of understanding with various countries, including Italy, Peru, Barbados, Luxembourg, Peru, and Jamaica.
Top leaders from EU economic powerhouses such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom didn’t attend. Prime ministers from Asian economic powerhouses such as Japan, South Korea, and India also didn’t attend. Neither did Canadian or U.S. high-level officials.
David Malpass, the newly named president of the World Bank, and formerly the undersecretary for international affairs at the U.S. Treasury, also skipped the forum. His predecessor, Jim Yong Kim, attended the forum two years ago.
Meanwhile, many local Chinese tried to make it to the Chinese capital in hopes that the central government would listen to and resolve their grievances—but they were arrested before they got there.
Gu Guoping, a resident of Shanghai and a former university instructor, has been trying to petition the Chinese authorities since 2001 to seek compensation for his private property that was forcibly demolished by the local government.
In an April 25 phone interview with the Chinese-language Epoch Times, Gu explained that he and a group of about 80 petitioners from Shanghai had traveled to the capital. But they were all arrested by police when they arrived via high-speed rail on April 21.
Gu estimated that more than several hundred petitioners from Shanghai had come to Beijing and were shortly after arrested. After their arrests, petitioners were sent to the Shanghai administrative office in Beijing and ordered to return to Shanghai.
“The Chinese authorities treat petitioners like us as enemy forces, as unstable factors [in society]. They throw us into black jails, put us in detention, or sentence us to prison terms,” Gu said.
In the days leading up to the Belt and Road forum, authorities in the Chinese capital also took measures to silence local activists and independent journalists. Radio Free Asia (RFA) recently reported that activist Li Wei has been placed “under police surveillance” since April 22 and he would be monitored until the end of the month.
Meanwhile, economic experts note that while the Chinese regime has continued to campaign for OBOR, Beijing could be running out of capital to sustain the projects.
Frank Tian Xie, a business professor at the University of South Carolina–Aiken, explained in a recent interview with Voice of America that China’s recent economic downturn, coupled with reduced Chinese exports to the United States due to the ongoing trade war, has drained China’s foreign exchange surpluses.
But owing to the trade war, now China won’t be able to build up its foreign reserves at the same pace as before—which could take another hit if there are trade disputes with Europe in the future, Xie predicted.
As a result, Beijing is going to find it difficult to financially push forward OBOR, Xie said.
Chinese citizens also feel OBOR is not a financially sustainable project. Pan Lu, a former high school teacher at Suzhou, a city in coastal Jiangsu Province, told RFA in a recent interview that he believed OBOR would not bring Chinese people any real benefits. On the contrary, Pan said that it would exacerbate China’s current economic troubles.
Reuters contributed to this report.