Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Beijing uses infrastructure as friendly forerunner of political power and Tibet is an unfortunate example of that.

June 27, 2018

The Sydney Morning Herald, June 18, 2018 - The Chinese Communist Party built a road into Tibet and the Tibetans were excited - it was their first highway: "We were promised peace and prosperity with the highway, and our parents and grandparents joined in building the road," as the president of Tibet's government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, tells the story.

"In fact, they were paid silver coins to help them build the road. So there was a popular song during those days, it goes like this: Chinese are like our parents; when they come, they shower you with silver coins," the Harvard-educated lawyer recounted at the National Press Club in Canberra last year.

The Chinese soldiers were patient with the local kids and bore their taunts with smiles, he said.

"Then they built the road. Once the road reached Lhasa – the capital city of Tibet – first trucks came, then guns came, then tanks came. Soon, Tibet was occupied. So it started with the road."

Beijing maintains that Tibet was peacefully liberated and developed."But this is the definition of peace - nearly 1 million people have died under various forms," says Sangay. "They've died of famine, they've died in prison, they've died in labour camps."

The cultural and religious purge of Tibetan Buddhism is well known. The Chinese authorities razed more than 90 per cent of monasteries and convents.

The Chinese Communist Party built roads into Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority lands just to the north of Tibet. "When the Chinese people first went to Xinjiang, we all thought, what nice people," says the voice of the ethnic Uighur people's independence movement in the region, Rebiya Kadeer.

"We treated them nicely, we expected some investment and development," she tells me. "Initially they said 'we will help you with development but you will rule over the land," says Kadeer, once one of the richest women in China and a member of China's National People's Congress, now living in exile in the US.

"Only three per cent of the people in Xinjiang were Chinese," ethnic Han speaking Mandarin Chinese, distinct from the Turkic-speaking Uighur who make up the biggest ethnic group in what is now a province of China.

The Beijing government operates a transmigration policy in Tibet and Xinjiang, relocating Han people from the south to change the ethnic and political composition. The percentage of Han Chinese is now about 40 per cent in Xinjiang.

"They increased and and increased and now they are killing us," says Kadeer. The Chinese Communist Party has built a network of re-education camps for the Uighurs. Kadeer calls them concentration camps where people are detained indefinitely without due process.

In the biggest Uighur city, Kashgar, 120,000 people were held in the camps in 2017 according to a local security chief, or about one in four of the entire population. Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch estimates the total across Xinjiang to be as many as 800,000 people.

The Economistmagazine's headline on a piece about China's gulags in Xinjiang read: "Apartheid with Chinese characteristics."

These are both cases where China has a historical claim, dating back over centuries, for asserting sovereign ownership. Both involve lands adjoining China's heartland.

These are cases of China consolidating power on its periphery. They are not stories of the Chinese Communist Party conquering foreign nation states.

But they are, nonetheless, instructive tales of how Beijing has used infrastructure as the friendly forerunner of political power.

President Xi Jinping portrays the Belt and Road initiative as China's generous gift to humankind. Its breathtakingly ambitious scope is offered as a pathway to shared prosperity and harmony, a "community of common destiny".

But it is also a strategic initiative. A general in the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force, Qiao Liang, in 2015 described it as "truly the strategy of the shrewd". A military theorist, he explained that "if you tell people, 'I come with political and ideological intentions', who will accept you?"

It's an infrastructure plan with an underlying strategic intention: "Pulled ever more closely into China's economic orbit," sums up Nadege Rolland of America's non-profit research agency National Bureau of Asian Research, countries embraced by the belt and road "will find it increasingly difficult to stand up to Beijing.

"As China gains political influence over its neighbourhood, it will be able to push back against US dominance and reclaim its own regional strategic space," she concludes in her book "China's Eurasian Century".

Of course, the Chinese Communist Party is not the first power to conceive of a network of dual-use infrastructure. The ancient Romans built 80,000 km of paved road, straight and durable, to allow rapid movement of troops to extend and maintain empire, but also to allow efficient commerce.

The Roman road system was so powerful and its commercial benefits so enduring that, even today, it delivers economic benefit. Four Nordic scholars this year mapped ancient Roman road routes onto today's nighttime light intensity and found that the evidence shows the Roman road network as "playing an important role in the persistence of subsequent development". Right up to now, millennia later.

So what's so terrible if the Chinese Communist Party creates a modern equivalent? They may have strategic motives, but the economic benefits for many millions of people across dozens of countries could be transformative and enduring.

Unfortunately, the political costs could be high. Of the 68 countries signed up to date, 33 are ranked as below investment grade by the world's rating agencies. So they're not very creditworthy but China is cheerfully lending them billions they may not be able to pay back.

Already, in this very early phase of Belt and Road, new Chinese lending is exposing eight countries to risk of financial distress, according to a report by the Centre for Global Development, a US-based non-profit think tank.

And if they can't make their repayments? When Sri Lanka asked to renegotiate its $US8 billion debt to China for the Hambantota Port project last year, Beijing converted its debt into ownership equity and a 99-year management lease on the port.

Debt is another way of spelling obligation. The Chinese Communist Party has a history of using infrastructure as a Trojan Horse for domination.

Belt and Road, unless approached with care, could end up being another way of spelling bought and sold, with Chinese characteristics.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank