By Luciano Hoxhaj
In 2013, President Xi Jinping of China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a project that has seen the development of Chinese physical and technological infrastructure around the globe. Among energy pipelines and highways, this project has created new train routes and maritime transport routes around the world, spanning from China to Western Europe and beyond. Last week, nearly 150 representatives from countries part of the BRI gathered at a summit hosted in Beijing. The BRI has been praised for the potential economic boost for participating countries. The BRI also promotes open trade among participants and supports the development of infrastructure. However, many political analysts are concerned that the BRI is in fact a cover for spreading China’s influence and authoritarianism to the developing world.
A simple comparison of two maps (Freedom House Global Freedom Status and BRI membership) shows that, with a few exceptions (Italy, Mongolia, South Korea, New Zealand, Portugal, Greece, plus a handful of other democratic countries in South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe), a majority of the 147 members of the BRI are either hybrid regimes or authoritarian regimes. It is hard to believe this is just a coincidence. A majority of the members of this initiative are autocratic or semi-autocratic countries that are actively aligning with the Chinese to resist the Western world order.
The West has condemned many of the BRI countries for their ongoing human rights violations and suppression of their citizens’ rights. According to the New York Times, “China has aligned the initiative with autocratic countries like Syria and Myanmar that the West has condemned for human rights abuses” (Bradsher, 2023). In Syria, dictator Bashar Al-Assad targets civilians in a civil war that has seen hundreds of thousands of casualties. In Myanmar, the Rohingya, a minority Muslim population, have seen ethnic cleaning campaigns conducted by the country’s military dictatorship. However, if we take into account violations of civil rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and more violations, then we can see that the BRI has a hand in helping countries commit those violations as well. Last year, the United Nations National Assembly issued a collective statement condemning the Chinese for mistreating the Uyghurs and other minority Muslim groups in Western China. However, many members stayed silent because they feared angering China if they aired their opinions or because they were actively committing the same human rights violations in their countries.
Additionally, through the BRI, China is investing heavily in physical and technological infrastructure, including AI. Increasingly, AI technology is used to limit political freedoms. As argued by Hall (cited in the Washington Post, 2023), authoritarian countries learn from each other, by copying legislation, technology, and other ideas to spread their ideologies around the globe. In China specifically, “tech companies have invented an electronic surveillance system that can automatically recognize a protest banner and demonstrators’ faces – and alert the police” (Washington Post, 2023). This kind of technology has been distributed to countries like Russia and Belarus. Still, other technological advancements such as the building of 5G telecommunication networks have been developed by China throughout BRI participating countries, which could also be used to authoritarian advantage.
Although China has not openly stated that they are trying to spread authoritarian practices, where and how it is investing reveals clear patterns. A majority of the countries in the BRI are authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes, and these countries are aligning with the authoritarian order to reinforce their domestic political systems. Physical and technological infrastructure development is being used to spread authoritarian ideology across the globe. By taking advantage of participating countries’ economic situations, China is successfully spreading its model of authoritarianism.
Bradsher, K. (2023, October 17). China Invested $1 Trillion to Gain Global Influence. Can That Go On? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/16/business/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-bri.html
Chatzky, A., McBride, J., & Berman, N. (2023, February 2). China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative
Editorial Board (2023, June 22). Opinion| Dictators’ dark secret: They’re learning from each other. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/06/22/dictators-trade-toolkits-cling-pow er/
Freedom House. (2023). Explore the Map. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/explore-the-map?type=fiw&year=2023
Nations, U. S. M. to the U. (2022, October 31). Joint Statement on Behalf of 50 countries in the UN General Assembly Third Committee on the Human Rights Situation in Xinjiang, China. United States Mission to the United Nations. https://usun.usmission.gov/joint-statement-on-behalf-of-50-countries-in-the-un-general-assembly-third-committee-on-the-human-rights-situation-in-xinjiang-china/#:~:text=The%20following%20is%20a%20joint