China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an enormous international investment project touted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, was supposed to establish Chinese soft power. Since late 2013, Beijing has poured nearly $700 billion worth of Chinese money into more than sixty countries (according to research by RWR Advisory), much of it in the form of large-scale infrastructure projects and loans to governments that would otherwise struggle to pay for them. The idea was to draw these countries closer to Beijing while boosting Chinese soft power abroad.
Today, however, China faces a backlash to BRI at home and abroad. Many Chinese complain of the initiative’s wasteful spending. Internationally, some of the backlash is geopolitical, as countries grow wary of Beijing’s growing influence. But much of it is simply political. Unlike Western lenders, China does not require its partners to meet stringent conditions related to corruption, human rights, or financial sustainability. This no-strings approach to investment has fueled corruption while allowing governments to burden their countries with unpayable debts. And citizens of many BRI countries have reacted with anger toward China—an anger that is now making itself felt in elections. Far from expanding Chinese soft power, the BRI appears to be achieving the opposite.
THE BACKLASH TO BRI
Malaysia’s election in May 2018 crystallized the sorts of concerns about Chinese power that have been building within BRI client countries. Mahathir Mohamad defeated the incumbent Prime Minister,Najib Razak by openly campaigning against Chinese influence. He criticized Razak for approving expensive BRI infrastructure projects that required considerable borrowing from China, which Razak used to create an illusion of development while he and his associates plundered state coffers. Since taking office in May, Mohamad has cancelled two of the largest Chinese projects in Malaysia—a $20 billion railroad and a $2.3 billion natural gas pipeline—citing his country’s inability to pay.
The backlash has not been limited to Malaysia. Pakistan has received an estimated $62 billion in Chinese lending order to finance projects, including highway and rail infrastructure and
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