Despite a history of tumultuous relations, China and Russia remain allies, but the strategic partnership between the two world powers has shown signs of strain since the July summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki.
Russian media, which are tightly controlled by the state, publicly criticized China’s social problems in a series of articles published in July, including discussing corruption in China’s state-run railway system. Now, China’s national infrastructure-building initiative “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road) has come under fire.
In a July 29 opinion article, the Russian daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta stated that as China has provided more and more loans and investment to Central Asian countries under the OBOR initiative, there have been more local protests, with clear anti-Chinese slogans.
The article—which cited statistics by Kazakhstani sociologists—pointed out that in 2007, when large numbers of Chinese entrepreneurs moved to countries in Central Asia, 18 percent of locals surveyed in the region said they had negative feelings toward Chinese immigrants. The percentage increased to 33 percent in 2012, and then topped 46 percent in 2017, the article said.
Even with OBOR investments, China’s construction projects in Africa and Central Asia failed to create jobs for the local populations, with 90 percent of the workforce at some projects being exclusively Chinese, according to the article.
Additionally, the projects often don’t factor in any potential ecological effects.
For example, in Indonesia, a dam built by Chinese state-run hydropower company Sinohydro in Sumatra has been criticized for threatening the only known habitat for Tapanuli orangutans, the world’s rarest great ape, according to a July 13 article by Mongabay, an environmental news website based in the United States.
Chinese projects have also bred corruption in local governments, the article claimed. For example, it explained, Chinese would pay off local officials to help them clear any tax and accounting-related issues. Furthermore, the local officials have realized that anti-Chinese sentiment itself is a profitable business—the louder the dissent against the Chinese, the more cash Chinese officials would pay them to quiet the dissent.
Malaysia has a pending corruption case related to an OBOR project. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has halted a $20 billion railway project after a state investigation has revealed that funds for the project were used to repay dues to the Malaysian state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), according to an Aug. 1 report by Malaysian newspaper Malaymail. Chinese companies may be involved in siphoning off the funds, the country’s finance minister, Lim Guan Eng, told the Wall Street Journal.
Russian media’s criticism of OBOR, which is considered by the Chinese regime to be the country’s most ambitious foreign policy, is a slap in the face for Beijing, considering that China has invested heavily in the Eurasian region under OBOR. According to state-run newspaper China Daily, Chinese companies invested more than $60 billion in the region from 2013 to 2016.
Chinese political commentator Tian Yuan, in an interview with New York-based broadcaster NTD, questioned how much of a benefit from OBOR projects that local citizens in Central Asia would see, when China has a history of colluding with and bribing local government officials.
“These projects are done through Chinese-funded companies. As for locals, they would not benefit financially at all,” Tian said.
A July article by The Economist warned that because the terms of OBOR projects are often shrouded in secrecy, politicians—rather than ordinary citizens—are more likely to benefit.
In Kazakhstan, locals protested proposed land reforms in April 2016, fearing that the changes would pave the way for Chinese investors to buy up land.
Kazakhstan signed cooperation projects worth $27 billion with China in June 2017, according to China Daily.
In September 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on abusive actions by the Kazakhstan government and oil companies against local oil workers. One of the companies named by HRW was China’s state-owned CITIC investment group.
Aside from investing in countries teeming with corruption, China is overloading poor nations with debt, warned Ray Washburne, head of the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a government agency that assists U.S. businesses with investing abroad.
That happened in Sri Lanka, when in December, the country formally handed over control of its main southern port, Hambantota, to China after the latter helped build the OBOR project. China signed a 99-year lease on the port as part of a deal to convert $6 billion of loans that Sri Lanka owed to China into equity.
Political commentator Lan Shu, also speaking to NTD, said the Chinese regime has a political motive in working with countries that become indebted to China.
“These countries would then be under the control and manipulation of the Chinese regime. And then they would have to stand on the same side as China on many international political issues,” Lan said. “This jeopardizes the stability and security of the world.”