China’s Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the BRI, is an ambitious infrastructure and investment plan that is estimated to be worth anywhere from $1 to $8 trillion dollars over the next decade. Under the BRI, China finances and sends Chinese workers to build massive infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, railroads, pipelines, ports, and energy projects. Advocates of the BRI cite the economic potential of the ambitious plan with many studies showing that building infrastructure, especially in remote or underdeveloped areas, would significantly encourage increased trade, lower cost of goods, and increased corridor GDP, thus alleviating millions from poverty. However, the problem arises when countries that are eager to accelerate development and boost economic growth potential are trapped into predatory loan processes, compromise the environment, and turn a blind eye towards China’s blatant human rights violations, specifically against the Uyghurs.
While the BRI is advertised to deliver an economic “win-win” for both China and its participants, President Xi’s motives extend far beyond uplifting developing countries. In reality, China’s debt traps its partners, often leading to a monopolization of that country’s trading infrastructure. In fact, in 2019 Sri Lanka was forced to sign a 99-year lease with China allowing them to operate their strategic Hambantota port when they couldn’t service debts of over $8 billion dollars. Similarly, Djibouti is set to lose control of a container terminal built through the BRI after it was saddled with debt equivalent to 88% of its GDP, thus revealing China’s true motives. The BRI is part of Xi’s vision to boost China’s GDP, increase its geopolitical influence, and extend its soft power by strengthening its status as a champion of free trade in the global community.
This push for economic prosperity and control becomes even more apparent when considering China’s blatant exploitation of underdeveloped countries that often lack significant energy resources. While China advertises the BRI as a clean innovative project, Isabel Hilton from the Yale School of the Environment finds that over 80% of China’s overseas energy investments went to fossil fuels. Additionally, Jonathan Elkind from Columbia University reported that in the past five years of the BRI, coal plant expenditure has hit an average of $4.68 billion per year with a significant share of these investments in subcritical coal plants, the least efficient and most polluting class of power plants.
Ironically, days before the Belt and Road Forum with its “clean and green” theme, the latest Chinese-built coal plant opened in Pakistan. No matter how much China insists that the BRI promotes green tech innovation, an analysis of their resources details the truth: China has an overcapacity of coal of 1.82 billion tons, meaning further incentivization to continue exploiting energy from desperate countries. Evidently, the BRI is a play for power, and China prioritizes managing their own resources and furthering their own geopolitical influence above all else.
This forceful play for power becomes all the more frightening as dozens of countries, including U.S. allies and EU member states, sign on. When countries establish multi-billion dollar arrangements with China, corruption ultimately trumps morality. For instance, when Greece joined the BRI, it blocked an EU statement at the UN criticizing China’s human rights record. Hungary, another BRI partner, also repeatedly blocked EU statements criticizing China’s human rights record. The result is an exacerbation of human rights violations against the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in China.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, around 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017. In addition, according to experts and government officials outside of the camps, the eleven million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang continue to suffer from a decades-long crackdown by Chinese authorities. In fact, CFR reports that most people in the camps have never been charged with crimes and have no legal avenues to challenge their detentions.
The Chinese government has been keeping the Uyghurs in “re-education camps.” People in these internment camps are psychologically abused, kept awake for days, and forced to give up all religious beliefs. Furthermore, there have been reports that China harvests the live organs of Uyghur Muslims in these camps. These atrocities continue to go unchecked due to the economic influence through the BRI that directly translates into political leverage and power. Even Pakistan, a previously critical country with a 98% Muslim population, now supports China, a turn in which experts have explicitly linked to Pakistan’s reliance on China.
Countries must take responsibility and refuse to submit to an authoritarian regime simply for economic benefit; a failure to do so only reflects corruption, the undermining of freedom, and disregard for universal human rights