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China lends billions to poor countries. Is that a burden ... or a blessing?

China's New Silk Road project is lending out billions to countries in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa to build and upgrade railways, ports, pipelines, power grids and highways. Above: A Kenya Railways train pulls shipping containers as it departs from the Mombasa port station.
Luis Tato/Bloomberg via Getty Images
China's New Silk Road project is lending out billions to countries in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa to build and upgrade railways, ports, pipelines, power grids and highways. Above: A Kenya Railways train pulls shipping containers as it departs from the Mombasa port station.

Chinese leaders have often boasted about their country's "miracle" progressin alleviating poverty and indicated their willingness to share their expertise with other nations.

Take its "Belt and Road Initiative," also known as the New Silk Road. China has spent nearly one trillion dollars in the last decade building highways, railways, ports and energy plants from east Asia to Europe in a bid to boost global trade.

But development experts who monitor such programs have long said that there's a catch – that China burdens countries with unsustainable debt as it asks for repayment and that it leaves human rights abuses in its wake.

Maybe the critics are wrong?

Now a major new survey looks at how countries view their participation in China's development projects. The finding challenges critics who say that countries have an overall negative experience. And of course ... it's a bit controversial.

AidData, a research lab at William & Mary University, surveyed 7,000 leaders in public, private and civil society sectors in over 140 countries. They asked participants to score the progress of various goals such as economic stability, security, public services and employment.

Lead report author Samantha Custer tells NPR that leaders with China as a development partner felt more optimistic across the board than countries that did not work with China. These China aid recipients were more likely to agree that their country had made progress on government accountability, physical security and social inclusion.

"Leaders often say they like that China is very quick to deliver financing and assistance," Custer explains. "For newly elected leaders when they need to deliver promises quickly, China is a preferred partner [compared to Western ones] because there is not as much red tape."

But does the survey ring true?

Others in the sector are skeptical of the participants' ability to be candid.

John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Projectat the Middle East Institute wonders if taking leaders' answers at face value may give a misleading picture.

"I would guess at least some Middle East and North African [MENA] officials would not wish to air any problems or dissatisfaction with China lest this compromise their relationship," he says.

Custer says that the participants were afforded various levels of anonymity, but she cannot exclude the possibility that some may have felt intimidated.

But she believes there may be other theories for the reports of optimism. Perhaps these countries may have a lower expectation for internal reform or may find that projects work well "despite, rather than because of, China's contributions."

Calabrese added that certain features of the Chinese model may appeal to the leaderships of some countries, such as non-interference in other country's domestic affairs. A 2022 report by Arab Barometer – a non-partisan research network –revealed that China remains more popular across the MENA region than the United States.

Another possibility raised by critics: Maybe it's just too soon for countries to draw meaningful conclusions about the impact of the substantial outpouring of Chinese aid. According to AidData, China has recently disbursed billions in emergency loans. About 60% has gone to already-indebted low-income countries.

"We know that China is very opaque about the terms of its assistance," Custer says. "They will include in lending contracts explicit non-disclosure clauses prohibiting the lender from saying how much was borrowed and under what terms."

In 2019, China funded one out of every five infrastructure projects worth over $50 million in Africa. That's slightly less than the amount funded by African governments. Joseph Asunka, CEO of the pan-African research institution Afrobarometer, says that in terms of broad development partnerships, the U.S. (which historically reserves a quarter of its foreign assistance for Africa) gave $7.65 billion to Africa in 2021) and China come "neck and neck" in terms of positive perceptions across the continent.

"The majority of people express concern about the amount of money their government is borrowing from China," Asunka continues, "but the mitigating factor is when they see the infrastructure projects realized — a highway near their town, for example — and cheap and accessible Chinese goods like mobile phones."

But Asunka underscores that this changes when the subject of Chinese negative employment practices is raised. "The more violence perpetrated," Asunka says, "the more China's image begins to diminish."

In April a court in Rwanda sentenced a Chinese national to 20 years in prison for tying two of his local employees to a tree and whipping them. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre watchdog recorded 181 human rights abuse allegations linked to Chinese business conduct in Africa between 2013 and 2020. Asunka says that most African stakeholders are in favor of conditions that would drive the growth of democracy and accountable governance, stipulations not usually associated with Chinese aid.

Ultimately, says AidData's Custer, China is still the financier of first resort when it comes to major infrastructure projects, but with the assistance of other partners, low-resource countries can strive to be more resilient when negotiating the terms.

"There is a role for Western democracies to play in addressing and curbing some of negative by-products of Chinese projects by improving internal systems to reduce corruption. It's not to say that countries shouldn't borrow from China, it's about doing so responsibly."

Andrew Connelly is a British freelance journalist focusing on politics, migration and conflict. He tweets @connellyandrew

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Connelly