Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently whizzed through Saudi Arabia. The visit was an unseemly grovel-fest aimed at convincing the kingdom’s rulers to list Saudi Aramco on Hong Kong’s stock exchange. She also took the opportunity to describe Saudi as an important country in China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.
In other recent exciting ‘Belt and Road’ developments, Nepal and Pakistan are getting nervous about Chinese-promoted infrastructure projects, Thailand is unsure about its China-led ‘train to nowhere’, and (last we heard) impoverished Laos is being turned into a vassal state in return for splurging on a gleaming Chinese-built high-speed rail line, plus free casino thrown in at no extra charge. And now, Sri Lanka is ceding a port to China – on a 99-year lease, to inject a bit of humour into the proceedings.
Observers cutting through the rhetoric and the hype concluded a while ago that ‘Belt and Road’ is essentially a label for infrastructure projects that were already happening or would have happened or will happen anyway. The fancy ‘friendship win-win’ blather is sugar-coating for offloading excess capacity, luring Third World backwaters into debt-bondage and grabbing natural resources or strategic outposts.
Rather than keep this scummy neocolonialism nameless and low-key, Xi Jinping chose to give it a high-profile branding – presumably out of vanity and/or naïve belief in his own vision and China’s irresistible charms. ‘Belt and Road’ thus became a mantra with which to shoe-shine Beijing.
Predictably, the glorification has overextended itself. Any Chinese-linked deal from Panama to Bulgaria is now ‘Belt and Road’. Hundreds of men in suits spend whole days attending conferences on ‘Belt and Road’. Aging Hong Kong billionaires excitedly tell the city’s youth about a ‘Belt and Road’ Eldorado. And Carrie tries to flatter someone (Xi or the Al-Sauds?) with a meaningless name-dropping of ‘Belt and Road’ in the palace in Riyadh.
Oh, and a beauty pageant. This measured article from the Carnegie fund brings everyone down to earth by examining what the flimflam slogan isn’t. Among other interesting points: Beijing itself does not officially endorse any of those maps showing ‘Belt and Road’ tentacles weaving and looping through Eurasia and the Indian Ocean, with a caption covering Japan. (And of course, the slogan now appears in the Communist Party constitution – a repository of such meaninglessness as the Three Represents.)
It will be interesting to see how ‘Belt and Road’ goes as a presentational branding exercise from here. It might be an idea to start toning it down.