China’s tentacles

July 2, 2017

From the July-August 2017 issue of News & Letters

Participants of the Belt and Road Forum. Photo:

China hosted its Belt and Road Forum in May as Trump, under the banner of America First, unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord and sowed doubts among old allies with his praise for North Korea’s Kim and Russia’s Putin. China moved to fill the vacuum created by Trump’s disengaging from Europe and Asia to dangle before assembled world leaders a trillion dollars of infrastructure investment—highways, high-speed rail, ports, bridges and energy projects—across Eurasia.

Xi Jinping announced in 2013 the two-pronged Belt and Road initiative: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Some nations fear that the Belt and Road initiative, while evoking ancient trade routes, would use Chinese financing and technology through mountain, steppe and ocean to make all roads lead to China.

But Belt and Road is intended first to control China’s people. When the Great Recession of 2008 crushed China’s double-digit production rise, workers increased strikes and job actions, protesting theft of severance pay as factories shuttered just as wages had been driven up tenfold by strike action against both company and state power.

Massive borrowing (currently adding 15% of the GDP each year to the debt) has kept GDP growth above 6% per year to ward off revolt of the entire working class. Monumental Belt and Road construction projects would address the chronic overproduction of steel, cement and other commodities that heavy borrowing has produced.

The spotlight shone on Ivanka Trump’s line of shoes, made under conditions which would shame any family capable of shame, is a rare glimpse at the worker intimidation, extension of the working day and theft of overtime pay that are standard in Chinese factories. China Labor Watch reported that the government detained one worker-activist at that factory, and that two others were missing altogether.

Huajian, the factory owner, has already moved part of its shoe manufacture to Ethiopia, employing 5,000 workers there, and threatens remaining workers in China with imminent job loss. Today’s China followed the route of Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He to East Africa and built an electric railroad linking Djibouti to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Huajian followed.

Maps, even very old maps, have been the excuse for war by China, from its invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the Sino-Indian War in 1960 to China’s island building and garrisoning on coral reefs in the South China Sea. The maps linking Xinjiang to Turkey and Tibet to South Asia threaten continued repression of Uighur and Tibetan self-determination by China’s rulers.

—Bob McGuire

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