News November 18, 2020

Domestic or International? The Belt and Road Initiative Is More Internally Focused Than We Think, Says Expert Min Ye

Min Ye speaking

The China Program at Shorenstein APARC had the pleasure of hosting Professor Min Ye of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies on October 14, 2020. Her program, moderated by China Program Director Jean Oi, focused on the much-discussed but poorly-understood Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping. While it is not widely known exactly what the BRI is or what Beijing hopes it will accomplish, it has been described as something of a modern silk road, connecting China to dozens of other countries through trade and extensive infrastructure projects. Based on research conducted for her recently published book, The Belt Road and Beyond: State-Mobilized Globalization in China: 1998-2018, Professor Ye enlightened the audience on a surprisingly critical element of this global program: the domestic component.

While Ye began her research with the assumption that many hold about the BRI—that it is primarily a global, internationally-focused initiative—as she continued her research, she found that many, if not most, BRI projects are either entirely domestic or have strong ties to domestic programs. To this end, she posed three questions during her program: Why did Chinese leadership launch the BRI in 2013? How did the Chinese state and businesses implement the BRI? and, What are the internal and external outcomes of the BRI?

To answer these questions, Ye explained the theoretical frameworks she used to understand both the BRI and China's "state-mobilized globalization." Firstly, Ye's "Chinese-State Framework" breaks the Chinese governmental system into three parts: Party Leadership, State Bureaucracy, and Subnational Actors. Each of these elements affect the others, as well as policy surrounding the BRI. However, this division also creates fragmentation in authority and ideology. Secondly, her “State-Mobilized Globalization” framework explains the process surrounding Chinese national strategy. Ye posits that national strategies are generally prompted by crises faced at lower levels of government, particularly when a lack of efficiency or communication is causing “state paralysis.” Once the strategy is announced in order to coordinate efforts and solve the crisis, it enters a feedback loop in which plans are adjusted and changed according to ground-level conditions. These frameworks informed the empirical studies used to answer Ye’s research questions.

The drivers of the BRI, argues Ye, were threefold: strategic, diplomatic, and economic. It was believed by interested parties within China that such an international initiative could ease tensions related to the United States and maritime Asia, as well as generally improve diplomatic relations for the country. China’s industries were also facing problems related to overcapacity, and economic and financial groups wished to use their excess capital to invest abroad. Actors from several different levels in China, including national agencies, local governments, and private entrepreneurs, were involved in executing BRI projects intended to alleviate these tensions. Different cities saw different sides of this implementation: Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities, is heavily dominated by state capital, with its main BRI actors being State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Wenzhou, a port city in Zhejiang province, is by contrast dominated by private entrepreneurs.

With diverse implementation comes diverse outcomes. Ye argues that some BRI projects have been helpful in reforming cities’ structural economy, while others have helped upgrade industry. The BRI has managed to alleviate some of the tensions listed above, but at the same time, it has created its own problems. While there has been a massive internal mobilization effort for BRI projects, there exists a disconnect between the domestic situation and demands for transparency from outside actors.

Ye concluded her talk by tying her research to current developments related to COVID-19. While one might imagine that a global pandemic would be a significant inhibitor to an international trade and infrastructure project, Ye finds just the opposite. Because the BRI is, in fact, quite domestically focused, many BRI projects are continuing at a rapid pace, albeit with digital adjustments. Some projects, such as the New Infrastructure Plan, were actually fast-tracked in the wake of the pandemic outbreak. Ye predicts that as COVID-19 restrictions ease and the world returns to “normal,” these domestic and digital elements will be combined with the BRI’s original projects.

An audio recording of this program is available at the link below, and a video recording is available upon request. Please contact Callista Wells, China Program Coordinator at cvwells@stanford.edu with any inquiries.