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China proceeds with Belt and Road push, but does it more quietly

Construction workers at the site of the East Coat Rail Link project in Bentong, Malaysia, Nov. 17, 2018. Ever since Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a plan to link Asia, Europe and Africa with building projects, Beijing has hailed it as central to its foreign policy. The promotion has gotten more low-key. (Lauren DeCicca/The New York Times)

Written by Keith Bradsher

Ever since President Xi Jinping of China unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 to link the economies of Asia, Europe and Africa with highways, rail lines and power plants, Beijing has promoted the program as a centerpiece of its foreign policy.

But China has turned down the volume on its plan, even though it still appears to be moving forward.

Various senior Chinese government officials are at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, including Vice President Wang Qishan, who is to speak on Wednesday. None of them, though, participated in a panel during one of the forum’s most prominent time slots Tuesday that was focused on the Belt and Road Initiative and billed as a review of “China’s trillion-dollar vision.”

Instead, the vice chairman of a government-linked trade association and the chairman of a state-owned business spoke cautiously about the initiative.

Except for a long-scheduled meeting with African leaders in Beijing in September, top Chinese officials have said fairly little about the Belt and Road program since last summer. The initiative has been plagued by allegations of corruption, overspending on vanity projects, excessive debt and other problems in countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Uganda.

The panel on Tuesday seemed like an opportunity to recast the initiative’s image to a crowd stacked with government leaders and tycoons from developing countries, many of which have borrowed heavily from Chinese financial institutions to build infrastructure as part of the program.

But China took a different tack. Xu Niansha, the chairman of the state-owned China Poly Group, apologized for not having many statistics about the program, a rare occurrence given that Chinese corporate or government officials often lard their speeches and discussions with numbers.

Speaking in general terms, Xu said China’s rapid economic growth in recent decades had put it in a better position than many countries to foster economic development elsewhere. “We do know what people need,” he said. “That is why I think we can do a better job in cooperation.”

(Frank Ning, the chairman of the Chinese chemical giant Sinochem, said during a different panel that there was a new awareness in China about worries outside the country over how its businesses make overseas investments. “I think the Chinese are quite confused; they thought they would be welcome in other countries,” he said.)

The Belt and Road discussion was moderated by Tian Wei, a well-known anchor for the state-run China Global Television Network, making the absence of Chinese government officials, who typically shun panels with foreign moderators known to have criticized China, somewhat surprising.

Tian repeatedly hinted at the resentment felt by some people in China about foreign criticisms of the Belt and Road program, which she said was helping to build roads in developing countries that need them. “Let’s talk about facts, let’s talk about case studies, and let’s talk about the real stories, not just hearsay,” she added.

Wang Yongqing, the vice chairman of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, mentioned during the panel that China had helped build an industrial park in Ethiopia that makes leather products. But he and Xu avoided specifics about the hundreds of Belt and Road infrastructure projects already completed or underway. Critics say Chinese construction companies have moved so quickly partly because they bring in thousands of Chinese workers instead of training locals, and because they arrange special deals with local officials in developing countries that allow them to avoid paying tariffs on machinery that they ship in.

Sitting in the audience was Xiao Yaqing, the government minister who oversees state-owned enterprises. Asked to speak by Tian, he suggested one possible reason for Chinese officials’ caution when he said the Belt and Road push was good for Chinese companies as well as for other countries.

There have sometimes been criticisms on Chinese social media, quickly deleted by censors, that Beijing was spending money on overseas development that would be better spent at home, particularly when economic growth is slowing in the country.

China has been rethinking two aspects of the initiative: how it decides on overseas spending, and how the initiative is presented to overseas audiences. In September, Xi promised a further $60 billion for projects in African countries, but he made a point of saying that China would not pay for what he called vanity projects.

Nobody thinks Belt and Road is fading away. Wang, the trade association vice chairman, said China would invite entrepreneurs to events next fall that emphasized business opportunities through the initiative.

Among business leaders from countries like India that have been skeptical of the initiative, there are continuing worries that it will keep moving ahead, and leave them behind.

“Indian business leaders are concerned that China is building linkages around the world,” Gaurav Dalmia, the chairman of the Indian conglomerate Dalmia Group, said in an interview before the panel talk. “Indian companies may get left out on the resource side.”