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China’s Belt and Road Initiative Under Scrutiny Ahead of 10 Year Anniversary

Published: October 16, 2023
Sri Lankan construction laborers work along a road in Colombo on August 5, 2018. Sri Lanka's central bank announced on August 3, 2018 that it had secured a $1 billion loan through Beijing's Belt and Road initiative. (Image: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AfP via Getty Images)

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), known on the mainland as the “One Belt One Road,” is currently celebrating its 10 year anniversary. The global infrastructure development strategy was adopted by China’s communist government in 2013 and aimed to invest in more than 150 countries and international organizations, by funding, primarily through debt, major infrastructure projects, like ports, roads, railways, and power plants.

As of August 2023, more than 150 countries and 32 international organizations are listed as participating in the BRI, a central component of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “Major Country Diplomacy” strategy, which aims to place China in a global leadership role and spread its influence around the globe. 

Currently, China is hosting representatives from 130 countries to mark the initiative’s 10th anniversary and Chinese mainland media are busy touting the successes of the program.

However, over the years the BRI has come under scrutiny, with many arguing that China is saddling developing nations with unmanageable debt while turning a blind eye to human rights abuses associated with the scheme.  

Alleged human rights abuses

In August 2021, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) revealed in a report that at least 679 incidents of alleged human rights abuses occurred between 2013 and 2020 linked with the BRI.

The long list of alleged abuses primarily took place in developing countries in Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia as well as in countries in Africa. Latin American countries were also cited in the report, including Peru and Ecuador. 

Many of the alleged abuses were associated with Chinese business activities in the metal and mining, fossil fuel energy and construction industries. 

For example, in northeastern Cambodia, the construction of the Lower Sesan 2 hydroelectric dam, under the BRI, led to the displacement of nearly 5,000 indigenous people and the permanent flooding of their homes; a scenario that Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as a “human rights disaster.”. 

John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of HRW, wrote in the report, “The Lower Sesan 2 dam washed away the livelihoods of Indigenous and ethnic minority communities who previously lived communally and mostly self-sufficiently from fishing, forest-gathering, and agriculture.”

When the dam was finished construction in 2018 it resulted in the flooding of large areas upstream of the Sesan and Srepok Rivers, displacing thousands. 

“Today, what used to be communities populated by Indigenous people, including the Bunong and Kachok, are permanently submerged with only rooftops of former private homes and houses of worship, as well as dead trees visible,” Al Jazeera reported at the time.

According to HRW, authorities involved in the construction of the dam “improperly consulted” with impacted communities and “largely ignored” their concerns. 

“Many were coerced into accepting inadequate compensation for lost property and income, provided with poor housing and services at resettlement sites, and given no training or assistance to secure new livelihoods,” the report said.

The report further argues that the authorities responsible for the project’s construction made no attempt to obtain the “free, prior, and informed consent” of the Indigenous peoples, as specified in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, during its construction from 2011 to 2018.


BRI ‘fueling atrocities’ in Myanmar

More recently, according to an Oct. 10 report by The Irrawaddy, the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) “is demanding that China halt its plan to accelerate its infrastructure investment in Myanmar through its Belt and Road Initiative saying Beijing ‘will find itself complicit in the mounting atrocities associated with the planned projects.’”

The association recently published a report entitled, “Bloodstained Gateways: escalating SAC abuses in northern Burma pave the way for BRI expansion” that argues that China’s BRI projects in Myanmar are “fueling conflict and abuses” and that communist authorities in Beijing are “taking huge risk to push ahead with [the] BRI in partnership with [the] Myanmar regime.” 

The SAC, or the State Administration Council, is the name Myanmar’s junta gave itself following its successful coup in 2021. 

The association says that the SAC is committing a number of atrocities in order to “pave the way for BRI expansion,” including air and artillery attacks on civilians, mass torching of villages, using civilians as human sheilds and gang rape.

Ja Ing, a spokesperson for KWAT said, “While Myanmar is engulfed by civil war, increased investment in an area with poor human rights records can further escalate the fighting. It facilitates human rights violations, and we are demanding that China stops its BRI investment while these [human rights violations] are happening,” adding that, “There are no guarantees of security, and China will find itself complicit in the mounting atrocities associated with the planned projects.”

Myanmar has 15 BRI projects either proposed or currently under way. 


BRI is a ‘debt trap’

According to an Oct. 2018 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “BRI spending in developing countries has raised serious concerns about debt sustainability.”

CSIS, citing a Global Development report, found that at least eight BRI recipient countries, including Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, and Tajikistan “are at high risk of debt distress due to BRI loans.”

“These countries will all face rising debt-to-GDP ratios beyond 50 percent, with at least 40 percent of external debt owed to China once BRI lending is complete,” CSIS wrote.

Many of the BRI projects are required to use Chinese labor for construction, Chinese debt to fuel the projects and Chinese businesses to manage the process, leaving recipient countries drowning in debt without the means to recover. 

Chinese communist authorities are accused of engaging in predatory lending, saddling developing nations with unsustainable levels of debt for projects with dubious investment outcomes.  

Some argue that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) needs to step in to relieve financial stress on countries hosting BRI projects, which it has in the past.

David Sacks, writing for the Internationalist, wrote in April 2021, “China’s massive global infrastructure program has increased debt levels to a worrying extent in many developing countries, threatening to hinder their economic recovery,” following the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sacks argued that China’s BRI contributes to economic instability and that China’s lending practices “have increased indebtedness to alarming levels in some BRI partner nations.”

“In Pakistan, the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor helped precipitate a balance of payments crisis, necessitating a $6 billion IMF bailout. Sri Lanka, unable to make debt payments to its Chinese creditors, handed over control of a port for 99 years. Kenya offers another cautionary tale, as fears grow that the country will be unable to repay China for its disastrously unprofitable $4.7 billion railway,” Sacks wrote.

Many argue that the IMF should not be stepping in to pay predatory Chinese loans, and that China is responsible to manage the situation. They should either take a hit on their failed investments or restructure BRI loans so that recipient countries can manage the debt.  


Chinese media praises BRI scheme

Despite current and growing concerns with China’s BRI, Chinese media outlets are lauding the initiative as a success on the initiative’s 10 year anniversary. 

This week, representatives from more than 140 countries, including Russia, are in Beijing attending a high-level forum celebrating the initiative.

Communist Party mouthpiece, the Global Times, quoted Sanda Ojiambo, assistant secretary-general and CEO of the United Nations Global Compact as saying, “We’re here today in the week that marks the 10th year of the Belt and Road Initiative. It’s been a decade of growing collaboration, sharing lessons learned and advancing our shared aspirations,” adding that, “The BRI, as we know, has created the opportunity and certainly has more potential to create a tapestry in interconnecting nations, growing economies, and higher aspirations for a brighter and more sustainable future.”

Communist party leader, Xi Jinping is quoted as saying, “All countries and nations are equally entitled to development opportunities and rights to development,” and reported that the BRI addresses “a major challenge exacerbated by Western-style economic globalization — inequality.”

“The imbalanced distribution of benefits had widened the wealth gap between the rich and poor, between developed and developing countries, and within developed countries,” wrote. 

The outlet quoted Zheng Yongnian, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen) as saying that the BRI is “An international public good, to put it more plainly, is something that can be enjoyed by both the rich countries and the poor ones.”