Inspiring webinar marks ten years of the Belt and Road Initiative

On Saturday 4 November, Friends of Socialist China and International Manifesto Group organised an online event on the theme Building a multipolar world – Ten years of the Belt and Road Initiative, in order to learn more about the implementation, impact and trajectory of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The webinar assessed the role the BRI is playing in a global green transition towards renewal energy systems and biodiversity protection; the situating of the BRI within an overall geopolitical shift towards multipolarity; and the various accusations levelled against the BRI – that it constitutes a “debt trap”, or that it is part of a hegemonic geopolitical strategy being carried out by China.

The webinar was inspiring and hugely informative. The full event and individual speeches can be viewed on our YouTube channel. A brief write-up was published in China Daily.

Professor Zhang Weiwei (Director of the China Institute at Fudan University, and author of several important books about China) was the first speaker. Professor Zhang outlined the founding principles and broad historic significance of the BRI, observing that the foundations for it were laid during the two stages of China’s rise – the first three decades of socialist construction from 1949 to 1978, followed by the accelerated industrialisation and modernisation of the Reform and Opening Up period – and that both these stages were indispensable in allowing China to break from the US-dominated peripheral-central world order and emerge as an economic leader in its own right. The text of Professor Zhang’s speech has been published in full here.

Professor Radhika Desai (convenor of the International Manifesto Group) described the BRI as the flagship program of socialist China’s international engagement, and noted that it is a fundamentally inclusive project that seeks to cooperate on a win-win basis with the countries on the world. Radhika contrasted this with the US’s foreign policy – built on an exclusionary coalition of so-called democracies (in reality the imperialist powers) taking a stance of hostility and aggression towards the so-called authoritarian states (in reality the group of countries that refuse to go along with US hegemony). Radhika spoke powerfully of the horrific war being waged by Israel against the people of Gaza, and pointed out that this fits all too comfortably within the US’s vision of a “rules-based international order”.

Li Jingjing (a reporter for CGTN, and a well-known figure to those that follow Chinese media) discussed her recent trips to Pakistan, Greece and Tanzania – all countries actively pursuing BRI infrastructure projects – where she talked with locals about their attitudes to China and their response to the West’s slanders about the BRI being a “colonialist” project. People replied that they know all too well what colonialism looks like, having experienced it in countries like Pakistan and Tanzania for hundreds of years, and that China’s approach is profoundly different. Speaking about the importance of infrastructure to China’s development model, Li Jingjing made an interesting point connecting China’s role in infrastructure construction in Africa today to its work in the early 1970s building the Tazara railway between Tanzania and Zambia – that project enabled landlocked Zambia to break the isolation and blockade imposed on it by countries to its south then still under white racist and colonial rule. The Tazara railway remains a powerful symbol of China-Africa friendship.

Erik Solheim (former Norwegian Minister for Environment and International Development, and current President of the Green Belt and Road Institute) stated that the BRI has become the most important global project in terms of green development. Indeed China has become “the world leader in everything green” – a fact not widely understood in the West, due to Western arrogance and to obfuscation by the media. Solheim counselled the Western powers to drop their slanders against the BRI, to stop attempting to out-compete China on infrastructure construction and such areas where it has become an undisputed world leader, and instead to focus on complementarity: leveraging its own expertise in various areas to contribute to global development, alongside China’s contributions.

Professor Seyed Mohammad Marandi (an Iranian academic and widely-respected political and social commentator) situated the discussion around BRI within the overall geopolitical transition that’s taking place. The imperialist world order is becoming untenable. The genocide currently taking place in Gaza could not occur were it not for the support of the US and the other major imperialist powers. This is the ugly reality of the West’s hegemonic strategy. Meanwhile the BRI – alongside BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and other forums, bodies and projects – represents a space where the countries of the Global South, or the non-Western world, can develop without interference and in a spirit of friendship and cooperation. The more the Global South is able to integrate and cooperate, the better it is for the people, and the closer we get to the end of the Age of Empire.

Senator Mushahid Hussain (founding Chairman of Pakistan-China Institute and Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor) commented that in Gaza right now we’re seeing a clear case of genocide, of ethnic cleansing, with the full concurrence and backing of the self-styled champions of human rights and democracy in the US and Europe. The international response to this crisis demonstrates the fundamental difference between the Global South and the Global North. Turning specifically to the BRI, Senator Mushahid stated that it is the most important global developmental initiative of the 21st century, and has already had a significant material impact in Pakistan, with 26 billion dollars’ of investment, generating 250,000 jobs and 8,000 megawatts of electricity so far under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. These projects are contributing not only to economic development but also social development, including women’s empowerment.

Dr Fred M’membe (leader of the Socialist Party Zambia, and former editor of the Zambia Post) observed that there’s been a huge volume of propaganda in the West against the BRI – that it’s a debt trap, and so on. In reality, the BRI is allowing Africa to industrialise, to modernise and to escape the actual debt trap imposed on it by the West. Of course there are problems with the implementation of individual BRI projects, but in its totality, the BRI gives Africa a better opportunity than it has ever had. “Today, wherever you go in Africa, the main infrastructure is the product of the BRI.” Dr M’membe noted that the BRI is a component of a growing multipolar world, which is welcomed and indeed desperately needed by the peoples of the Global South. However, the US and its allies are not willing to give up the privileges they have come to enjoy over hundreds of years, and this is the fundamental cause for the New Cold War, rising militarisation and instability.

Camila Escalante (co-founder of Kawsachun News) described the continuing underdevelopment, poverty and dependency in Latin America, entrenched as a result of centuries of domination by Europe and North America. The BRI, and in general the positive role played by China and a few other countries in recent decades, is the silver lining and the major source of optimism in relation to the region’s potential. Camila pointed out that a number of transformational projects have been launched in Nicaragua since the re-establishment of bilateral relations with China in December 2021: an international airport, a railway, two hydroelectric power stations, a thermal energy project, amongst others. Camila quotes Michael Campbell, formerly a minister in the Nicaraguan government and currently the country’s ambassador in Beijing, as saying that China’s engagement with Nicaragua is based on solidarity and mutual respect – the opposite of the US’s engagement with Nicaragua over the years.

Martin Jacques (author of the global best-seller ‘When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order’) reflected that the BRI is a product of the Chinese leadership asking: what lessons can be taken from China’s development process and applied elsewhere in the developing world? Most of the Global South suffered from a disabling shortage of infrastructure, and the BRI would seek to change that. Martin described four key ways in which the BRI is part of a far-reaching transformation: 1) It is shifting the centre of gravity of China’s own economic development, away from the southeastern coast and towards the western and inland areas. This in turn is transforming China from a regional to a global economic power. 2) The BRI is reviving and reasserting the centrality of the Eurasian continent, after centuries of colonialism led by Western Europe and the US. 3) Connected with this, there is an accelerating shift of power away from the developed world towards the developing world. 4) China’s modernisation is proving for the first time that there is more than one form of modernisation, and this sets a precedent that other countries will surely follow: learning from China, establishing their own models based on their history, traditions and circumstances, rather than simply attempting to replicate the Western model.

Keith Bennett (co-editor of Friends of Socialist China, and convenor of the International Manifesto Group’s editorial committee) noted that the BRI is concerned with development, modernisation and globalisation, and there are two fundamentally different approaches to these questions in today’s world. It is not a coincidence that the approach to these questions that represents and embodies the interests of the overwhelming majority of countries, and the overwhelming majority of the people in every country, should be put forward by the world’s leading socialist country. Keith argues that, grounded as it is in the stand, viewpoint, and method of Marxism, the BRI is based on and inherits not only the Silk Roads of antiquity, but also the diplomatic history of socialist China as well as the standpoint and practice of the international working-class movement more generally, particularly since the establishment of workers states. The text of Keith’s speech is published in full here.

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