Fragmentation and Mobilization: Domestic Politics of the Belt and Road in China

Beijing, China. Photo by Henry Chen via Unsplash.

Rarely has a non-US policy program generated as much controversy as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Five years later, the BRI is by far the most watched foreign policy initiative that China has projected on the world stage, yet its roots and effects have been and will be continuously shaped by China’s internal political dynamics. 

In a new journal article published by the Journal of Contemporary China, Min Ye investigates the political dynamics inside the Chinese state, which have driven and shaped the BRI and will continue to do so in the future, departing from the standard focus on BRI’s external ambition. Examining the BRI’s origin, Ye demonstrates how state fragmentation, in which China is an all-purpose government without well-delineated power, and economic crises have propelled the birth of the strategy. 

Main findings: 
  • The BRI is a mobilization campaign by China’s leadership to deal with domestic and diplomatic challenges. 
  • The BRI’s origin reveals pre-existing practices and proposals for diplomacy, development and security in key state agencies, which attracted Chinese elites to the BRI and influenced its early popularity, not only the leadership’s power.
  • When announced, the BRI rapidly galvanized support from major agencies and influential stakeholders in China, but it also intensified state fragmentation, confusing which office is truly in charge of the initiative and what the main priorities are.
    • Lower-level governments and major business groups leverage the BRI and devise projects and programs to serve their economic interests. 
  • The early implementation demonstrates wide gaps between the strategy’s political rhetoric and reality on the ground in China.
  • The state capital, national and subnational levels, accounts for the main activities, with many of the activities having strong business motivations.
    • Outside China, Chinese commercial actors are likely to implement the BRI with strong business leaning. 
    • Target governments, however, are likely to see it as a foreign policy that is concerned less with profits and returns. Gaps in contrasting perceptions can give rise to diplomatic friction between the target nations and China. 
  • In terms of infrastructure and financing, the BRI has taken place actively inside China and many of the activities are aimed at saving the sliding local economy.
    • Inside China, the BRI has enabled lower governments and their affiliated state-owned enterprises to find new financing and invest in new projects. 
    • Some of the endeavors have been beneficial and may invigorate globalization and growth in the localities. Others can serve to save dying sectors and failing companies, thus delaying structural reforms necessary for long-term health of the Chinese economy. 

Joint efforts in the last decade by Chinese economic technocrats and multilateral institutions to restructure and rebalance the Chinese economy have more or less stalled. Ye posits that in the near term, the financial risk may be worsened and a debt crisis remains possible. 

Read the Journal Article