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Why some in South-east Asia still have reservations about China’s Belt and Road Initiative

A greater challenge in the Belt and Road Initiative implementation lies in the not-so-good reputation of Chinese investments in the infrastructure and resources extraction sectors such as in Myanmar, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum pose for a group photo at the Yanqi Lake venue on the outskirt of Beijing on May 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum pose for a group photo at the Yanqi Lake venue on the outskirt of Beijing on May 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters

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Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious one that can significantly transform the economic and geopolitical landscape of Eurasia in the coming decades.

China is expected to fund a significant proportion of the infrastructure and industrial investments in the countries involved. South-east Asia is a key region for the implementation of BRI, and almost all the countries in the region have welcomed the proposal.

But a recent three-month field research trip in which I spoke with government officials, scholars, activists and media professionals in the region suggests that some countries remain wary of co-operating with China under the scheme.

Their reservations are partly due to concerns that have emerged in the socio-cultural interactions between China and regional countries over past decades.

For example, while South-east Asian countries generally welcome more Chinese tourists, complaints have been made about their behaviour. This issue was even raised at a recent public forum on BRI in Cambodia, a country that has been very receptive to Chinese economic presence.

Although the Chinese State Tourism Administration has issued guidelines on “civilised travelling” and the Chinese government has also introduced measures to blacklist misbehaving tourists, a very small proportion are still not aware of the need to adapt to international cultural and social norms.

A greater challenge in the BRI implementation lies in the not-so-good reputation of Chinese investments in the infrastructure and resources extraction sectors such as in Myanmar, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Some Chinese investors seem to have difficulties understanding and adapting to local employees’ work ethics. Their Chinese managers value efficiency and thus can be quick in dismissing local workers as inefficient and falling short of their expectations. Chinese investors feel frustrated when they realise that local employees are not even motivated by financial incentives to increase productivity. Therefore, they prefer to bring in workers from China, a move often harshly criticised by the local community for depriving its people of employment opportunities.

Many Chinese companies investing overseas lack knowledge of how labour unions work and often do not respond adequately to demands of employees.

Worse, some Chinese firms bypass the laws and regulations without offering contracts or insurance. Such Chinese companies are simply accustomed to their domestic approach of relying on a variety of connections and resources to settle various problems.

In China, due to the fierce competition for jobs and insufficient legal protection, employees are generally accepting of the demands of the employers. Some Chinese investors mistakenly believe this is also the case overseas, resulting in an increasing number of workers’ strikes by labour unions in countries such as Indonesia.

In one case in 2017, Chinese managers of one company threatened to dismiss the local workers and even intimidated the leaders of the union that demanded for better working conditions.

This led to massive demonstrations in front of the Chinese embassy by unions such as the SEBUMI-NANBU (Serikat Buruh Bumi Manusia-Nanbu) and the KASBI (Kongres Aliansi Serikat Buruh Indonesia, one of the largest unions in Indonesia). The issue dominated headlines in the Bahasa-language media in Indonesia, leading to an outcry against the company in question.

Realising the power of Indonesian unions, the Chinese company eventually softened its stance and agreed to meet all the demands made by employees, including offering permanent positions, medical welfare, staff training and improving safety.

Such negative publicity has little to no chance of appearing in the heavily-controlled media in China. State censors ensure that only positive stories of BRI make the news, at the expense of misleading the domestic audience. Also, Chinese companies investing overseas tend to cover up such negative publicity. Accordingly, there is little awareness in China of such issues and how they should be tackled.

Chinese investors may also need to reflect on their interactions with the local ethnic Chinese business community as the complicated history of Chinese in Southeast Asia may feed anti-Chinese sentiments.

Over the last decade, the Chinese government has offered many scholarships to students in South-east Asian countries. But according to many regional interlocutors, the reality is that these scholarships have been disproportionately given to ethnic Chinese youths in these countries, deepening anxiety and misunderstanding among other ethnic and social groups.

Chinese academics and government officials like to highlight the positive role that the Chinese diaspora can play in BRI, without realising that this can be viewed with suspicion in a region where China had previously used overseas Chinese for political purposes. This is why opposition politicians and civil society leaders often find it expedient to challenge deals advocated by Chinese investors. A few significant Chinese investments in Myanmar have already experienced such a backlash. Some Chinese scholars warned that Chinese investments in Cambodia might encounter similar resistance.

During my research trip, some analysts in Southeast Asia also noted that as China becomes stronger, some Chinese elites now seem to demonstrate a sense of socio-cultural superiority.

One retired Thai official disclosed that Chinese officials used to be humble. But now their prevailing mentality is that ‘you need us’. Unintentionally, they have placed the pride of a stronger Chinese economy above mutual trust and respect.

Culture has become an important pillar in China’s strategy for expanding international influence. Given the fact that many countries in South-east Asia remain wary of China’s economic and military rise, Chinese elites and investors should be a lot more sensitive to cultures and social norms in the region.

More positive cultural and social exchanges between China and South-east Asia will help pave the way for a smoother implementation of the BRI in the region.


Gong Xue is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.


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