Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Can China’s Belt and Road plan bring Chinese-style prosperity to developing nations?

CommentInsight & Opinion
Yanfei Li says the answer to a few key questions will determine whether China is able to realise the belt and road principles of shared prosperity and inclusive growth, succeeding where West-led initiatives have failed

As the US appears to be retreating from the world, China is making big investments in ­regional and even ­global connections, especially under its “Belt and Road Initiative”. But is the strategy feasible? In other words, is China capable of translating the “belt and road” into feasible development plans?

China’s vision involves funding a very ambitious collection of infrastructure projects that are intended to enhance connectivity and ­improve cooperation between China and countries across Asia, ­Africa and Europe. The stated aim of the initiative is to promote shared prosperity and inclusive growth, with an emphasis on enhancing land and maritime routes through the development of highways, railroads, sea lanes, ports, energy ­networks, fibre optic cables, and even new financial systems.

While the belt and road strategy is intended to enable participating countries to replicate China’s rapid economic growth, it is unclear whether and how this can happen.

China’s success has been largely predicated upon its unique ­economic, political, and social characteristics. In the Chinese context, the massive scale of infrastructure development over the past decades has been dominated by government planning and public financing, and supported by state-owned banking and industrial systems that are able to recoup their investments through monopolistic control of steadily growing domestic markets. Within this system, all the financial, political, and policy risks involved in these huge infrastructure investments can be ­absorbed internally.

It is not clear whether the belt and road countries will be able to replicate this experience, given that they do not share many of the characteristics that enabled China’s dramatic growth. It thus remains to be seen whether and how the belt and road-driven infrastructure projects will provide adequate return on ­investment for the private sector.

In many of these countries, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have been striving to eliminate infrastructure deficits for decades without success. How will the belt and road succeed where these institutions have failed?

As a matter of fact, infrastructure projects operated by private investors always face the problem of ­insufficient return, due to its nature of being a public good – that is, significant positive externality to the public but limited measures to collect service charges from everyone that has benefited. Thus, government subsidies are generally needed to incentivise investment, as well as sustain the operation of the infrastructure. The subsidies required to sustain the operation of the belt and road infrastructure may become a fiscal burden.

And the immediate question is who should bear how much of such a fiscal burden, especially in the case of cross-border projects, like highways, railways and pipelines. Assuming that China benefits most from belt and road interconnection projects, will a proper mechanism be established so that the Chinese government will shoulder most of the fiscal burden for operation costs? At this moment, the answer is uncertain.

Even assuming that it is possible to finance and implement the infrastructure side of the grand development vision, will the belt and road be able to facilitate high levels of inclusive economic growth in other countries? Which particular economic sectors will be positioned to take advantage of this infrastructure? How will the additional infrastructure generate new economic activity in the belt and road countries?

The key to addressing this issue is understanding the role of the Chinese economy in global value chains, and China’s ability to ­reshape and relocate these value chains to belt and road countries.

Unfortunately, global value chains are still largely controlled by multinational corporations from outside China, which implies that, for belt and road countries to benefit, new opportunities to either participate in or move up global value chains do not rely on the Beijing-led initiative alone.

Taking Asean economies as an example, the relationship between China and the 10-member bloc is characterised by both competition and dependency. On one hand, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations overlap in their top category of commodity exports: electrical machinery, equipment and appliances. With costs rapidly rising in China over the past decade, low-to-medium technology manufacturing firms, which used to flood into China through foreign direct investment by multinationals, are ­increasingly shifting to Asean. This means Asean countries are becoming competitive vis-à-vis China in this sector.

On the other hand, the second largest Asean export and the second largest Chinese import also ­happen to be in the same category: mineral and energy resources.

Thus China is very dependent on Asean economies for the supply of raw material inputs and Asean economies are dependent upon these exports to China. In this case, will the belt and road increase the competition from Asean industries, or will it turn the Asean into a bigger supplier of raw material inputs?

Last but not least, if the belt and road initiative were to forge closer economic and financial ties ­between China and participating countries, does China have a strong commitment to ensuring that its economic, industrial, fiscal, monetary and financial policies will be sufficiently transparent and consistent, and thus predictable? Given that the Chinese economy is already the world’s second largest, its influence on the economic and financial ­stability of other nations, especially belt and road ones, will be crucial.

At present, the Chinese economy seems to be characterised by a property market bubble, the ambiguous status of non-performing loans of Chinese banks, and dangerously high levels of private and public sector debt. The renminbi has been under significant pressure, and the government has chosen to impose tight controls on foreign ­exchange rates, the capital account, and the domestic property market.

Such blunt forms of government interference could raise warning signals for belt and road countries regarding the stability and predictability of the outcome of the plan.

The belt and road plan’s stated principles of inclusive growth and shared economic prosperity are very attractive. Indeed, the history of economic and social development also clearly indicates that addressing infrastructure deficits is a vital means of enabling higher rates of economic growth. So far, initiatives from advanced Western economies have failed to enable the majority of ­developing nations to achieve their aspirations. It is therefore very tempting for these countries to turn to this new alternative.

However, the above-mentioned crucial questions must be resolved as the prerequisite for belt and road to be feasible. In fact, serious reflection on some of these questions is equally important for the internal reforms that the Chinese economy has longed for under China’s ­version of the “new normal”.

Yanfei Li is an energy economist at the Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (ERIA). The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect ERIA’s position


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China’s belt and road can lead the world to a greener future

CommentInsight & Opinion
Andrew Leung says the Paris climate accord is in tune with UN goals, which have much synergy with the vision of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, meaning China is well-placed to steer a global response to global warming

Following US President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Paris Agreement on climate change, three questions of strategic import beg to be answered.

First, how will other large backers of the climate accord, like the EU, China, Japan and India, address the resultant deficit in financial and emission commitments?

Second, with financial assistance expected to be curtailed due to the US withdrawal, how can less-developed nations diversify from carbon-intensive development?

Third, what will be China’s role in all this as the world’s largest ­carbon emitter?

There is little doubt that the Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries and ratified by 148, has won widespread support from both developed and developing countries. This outcome has been driven not only by looming climate change threats to security and livelihoods, but also by fast-growing green-economy businesses and their job-creation capacities.

It’s no wonder that American mayors, governors, academics and business leaders are rallying behind Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, to submit a plan to the UN pledging to help the US to meet its Paris commitments, regardless of Trump.

Even with Paris pledges intact, some estimates put the planet on track for warming by 2.7 to 3.7 ­degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, well over the target limit of 2 degrees. Without federal regulatory and funding support, US emissions – a fifth of the global total – are ­expected to go down by only 15 to 19 per cent by 2025, against the pledged 23 to 28 per cent, over the 2005 baseline. The withdrawal of the United States, the second-largest carbon emitter and still the world’s largest economy in nominal terms, may trigger dire global ecological consequences.

Nevertheless, the US withdrawal may not be the beginning of the end of the planet. It could, for example, spur other signatories to redouble emission pledges. Under the Paris accord, the US cannot exit until ­November 4, 2020, the day after the next presidential election. However, the Trump administration has cancelled the outstanding US$2 billion of the US$3 billion pledged by America to a Green Climate Fund to help vulnerable smaller countries. This leadership vacuum in galvanising global responses to climate change demands imaginative responses from all other signatories.

The European Union and Japan are champions of green technologies and ecological sustainability, with their cities winning many green awards. They seem on track to fulfil their Paris pledges.

Relative late starters China and India are now exceeding their voluntary emission targets. China is ­investing more in renewable energy than any other nation, pledging a further US$360 billion by 2020. ­Experts now predict that China’s carbon emissions will peak, and then begin to decline, much earlier than its 2030 target. However, if only to avoid moral hazard, it is doubtful whether these large economies will want to pick up any American shortfall without a joint global effort.

Most of the Paris signatories are less-developed countries struggling to cope. Many face challenges of poverty, poor social and physical infrastructure, and a lack of capacity to diversify from an economy that is energy-dependent, with high carbon footprints. To rid themselves of the “resource curse”, many nations in Africa, for instance, have tried to diversify into upstream or downstream “linkage industries” – but few have succeeded.

Landlocked signatories from Central Asia with massive oil and gas reserves (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) or minerals (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) remain largely unable to capitalise on their resource wealth to broaden and upgrade their economies.

While governance and other ­institutional deficits remain an ­important barrier, expanded transport and infrastructure connectivity, both with regional neighbours and the broader world, will help boost their capacity for economic transformation and ability to cope with climate change.

The question, then, is whether China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, the largest single transcontinental infrastructure initiative the world has ever known, would be a timely boon or bane for global responses to climate change.

Many Western observers have cast doubt on the Chinese initiative. Some view it as a back door to export China’s excess capacity with very large carbon footprints. Others consider it a ploy to project China’s influence, if not dominance. Still others regard it as a reinforcement of China’s position as a global hub of the world’s supply and value chain.

Few consider its potential as an anchor for global responses to ­climate change.

Infrastructure projects and trade agreements signed under the belt and road already embody green objectives and provisions. After last month’s international Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, attended by more than 20 heads of state, the Chinese government wants to ensure the initiative is in line with its environmental goals.

This is stated in the national document, “Guiding Opinion on Promoting Construction of a Green ‘One Belt One Road’” – released on April 26. Among the principles listed are building an “ecological civilisation”, promoting global ­cooperation in a low-carbon economy, ecological conservation, technological ­exchange, law enforcement, effective management, green production, free finance and green consumerism.

It’s early days yet, but some green projects related to the belt and road are already taking shape. For example, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the World Bank have co-financed a ­hydropower project in Pakistan to the tune of US$720 million, in support of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Most of the AIIB’s proposed belt and road projects for this year across Bangladesh, Indonesia and Kazakhstan involve ­renewable energy or an element of energy efficiency.

The Paris Agreement is in line with the UN’s sustainable development goals. These have much synergy with the belt and road plan, according to Aniket Shah, sustainable ­finance programme leader at the UN Sustainable ­Development Solutions Network. With closer ­coordination, and partnership with national and commercial funding institutions, further integration with the belt and road strategy will result in a new form of multilateralism, or “Globalisation 2.0”, in response to climate change.

So, while China is unwilling to take over America’s role as the world’s policeman, the country is likely to be more forthcoming in sharing leadership with a coalition of the willing, including active players such as the EU, in galvanising global support for the Paris Agreement. After all, blue skies and clean waters are part of the China Dream. For this, China is likely to use the belt and road for good measure.

Andrew K.P. Leung is an international and independent China strategist

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Is China’s belt and road ready to be the new face of globalisation?

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Andreea Brînza says the initiative has plenty of ambition but still lacks a clear vision or some early project successes. And, importantly, China’s relatively weak soft power remains a drawback at this stage

If Thomas Friedman wrote his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree today, maybe the Lexus would be replaced with a Chinese vehicle, like a Geely, for example, because globalisation has a new pole: China.

In the past, the US led the wave of globalisation through its economic might, soft power and hyper-connectivity. But with the Trump administration now promoting protectionism, China has replaced the US as a standard-bearer for globalisation. This new face of globalisation has Asian features, too, thanks to Beijing’s new soft power strategy: the Belt and Road Initiative.

Formerly known as the “One Belt, One Road” strategy, it was interpreted by Western observers as an ellipse of roads, railways and pipelines which link China to Europe. The new name emphasises that the idea is much more than a single belt and a single maritime corridor; it’s more of a network of corridors and roads which connect all parts of Eurasia.

Still, a quick look at the map will make us understand that the Belt and Road Initiative is not only a connection by land and water, but specifically one that encapsulates all Chinese investments along the way. If it were only a road, railway or corridor, it would pass through conflict zones like Afghanistan. Therefore, we should see the belt and road more as a zone of investment, rather than a de facto road.

Moreover, the recent Chinese investments in Africa and Latin America, placed under the umbrella of the belt and road, support the idea of a worldwide strategy. Thus, the belt and road should be perceived as a Chinese strategy for the 21st century and as a new type of Chinese external policy. The belt and road may well be Xi Jinping’s (習近平) landmark strategy, similar to Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) “peaceful rise”.

Some people no doubt hold the view that the belt and road is just an iron silk road, defined by infrastructure projects like the railways which connect China with Europe. But those railways aren’t new. Moreover, the first route of the iron Silk Road, from Chongqing ( 重慶 ) to Duisburg, Germany, was revived by Hewlett-Packard in 2011 to transport its products to Europe, and not by the Chinese government or Chinese companies. HP’s example was followed by other companies, giving an example of the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative.

We can also see the belt and road as a new face of globalisation. Even before the belt and road forum held on Sunday and Monday in Beijing, Chinese state media were already referring to it as “Globalisation 2.0”. On a theoretical basis, it fits perfectly with the idea of globalisation, because the initiative sets out to enhance the interconnectivity between countries and people, it promotes free trade, aims to become an avatar for China’s soft power strategy, and wants to help the countries along the road to develop.

But on the ground, the reality may be a little different.

“The Belt and Road Initiative, in a sense, is China’s answer to globalisation,” said Zhou Wenzhong, the secretary general of the Boao Forum for Asia. That much is clear, but how? Until now, despite the stated goals, China has yet to articulate a coherent strategy for the belt and road.

What does the project really involve and how will it be implemented? For example, how does China plan to achieve policy coordination in the belt and road countries, and how does it plan to strengthen people-to-people ties? Will the belt and road simply remain an infrastructure project? Nobody – apart from the Chinese officials, who have been quiet – really knows, but each scholar sees the project differently. There is no consistency even in the use of the name of the initiative. Many scholars still prefer the old “One Belt, One Road”.

One of the main goals of the belt and road is to forge connections within Eurasia and improve its infrastructure. But, almost four years after the announcement of the initiative, none of the projects envisioned by China has been completed. Even the most important Chinese project in Europe, the Budapest-Belgrade high-speed railway, is being held up by European Union regulations.

Another mission of the belt and road is to build bonds between people. The achievements in this area are debatable. In the Western world, the Chinese government actively tries to promote stronger ties through its Confucius institutes and various student grants and exchanges. But despite its efforts, China lacks the same sway with young people as Japan or South Korea, with their unmatched cultural soft power.

For China and the belt and road, this is a drawback, because without strong social ties, it is difficult to persuade people to open up to Chinese investments and opportunities. On the contrary, lately, debates have begun even in Europe about the need to restrict Chinese investments in the EU, on the basis of reciprocity, as foreign companies face numerous barriers in China.

Without a clear vision of the belt and road, without tangible achievements and with an inefficient soft power strategy, China doesn’t yet have the power to become a new driver of globalisation, even if the US has lost some of its worldwide appeal under the populist and anti-globalist Trump administration.

But let’s not be too pessimistic. Maybe the glorious times of the Tang dynasty, when China was the soft-power leader of Asia, may return, restoring China to the status it has longed for. And if in the past globalisation had the face of Disney characters with Mickey Mouse ears, maybe, in the near future, Disney will be replaced by the Wanda Group, and globalisation will have a panda’s face.

Andreea Brînza is vice-president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific. Her research focuses on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of China and especially on the Belt and Road initiative

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Western and Japanese snub of China’s belt and road summit is a missed opportunity

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Jean-Pierre Lehmann laments the myopia of major Western economies and Japan in staying away from the Beijing-led initiative, whose vision of dynamic cooperation for shared prosperity deserves support
The conspicuous absence of the heads of state from the major Western economic powers and Japan at the belt and road summit this month in Beijing is a big mistake and a missed opportunity for enhancing dynamic and cooperative globalisation.

I live in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is well known among many Chinese as the city in which the International Olympic Committee is located. My flat is near the Olympic Museum and I often walk through the Olympic Museum Park down to the lake at weekends. I did this last Saturday and there were – as there have been ever since the Beijing Olympics – busloads of Chinese tourists. More people from China seem to visit the Olympic Museum than from any other country. This would have been unfathomable when I moved there in 1997.

It is, in fact, one of many illustrations of China’s most awesome achievement over recent decades: the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty and the creation of a vast new urban middle class. As The Economist recently noted: “In 1981, 88 per cent of Chinese (and 96 per cent of rural Chinese) lived below the poverty line; in 2013, only 2 per cent of Chinese were extremely poor.” That is worthy of respect and admiration. If only other poor countries, notably India, could achieve something even remotely comparable.

China’s achievement is all the more impressive in that it was not only unprecedented, but also unexpected. The often proclaimed “era of humiliation” – from the first opium war in 1839 to Liberation in 1949 – was no myth, but very much a reality. Though China was not colonised by any single power, as, say, India was by Britain, it was what Sun Yat-sen termed a “poly-colony” – ie, gang-raped.

While the rising dragon is clearly no sweet pussycat, in comparison to other industrial powers – notably Britain, France, the US, the Soviet Union and Japan – it has been pacific. Thousands and thousands of Chinese come to visit the Louvre in Paris these days, to gape at the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces of art, not to pillage and burn it down as French troops (in cahoots with the British) did to the Summer Palace in Beijing. In 1950, the newly liberated People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet, which was reprehensible, but Britain also invaded Tibet (in 1903/04), not to mention the roughly half of the planet that was conquered and subjected by the empire. In its wars against China, Japan is estimated to have caused some 30 million deaths, along with multiple mutilations, tortures and rapes. I am not aware of a single Japanese killed by Chinese troops in the course of China’s recent rise.

While the US presents itself as the great global moraliser, it seems to forget that its rise to great power status included the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of Africans, wars against its Latin American neighbours and the conquest of the Philippines. While China went to war against Vietnam in 1979 (and lost), in terms of crimes against humanity, it was nothing compared to the war against Vietnam (and Laos) waged (and lost) by the US. Seemingly addicted to belligerence, this century has seen America’s illegal war against Iraq, with all the carnage that ensued.

All this, needless to say, is not to suggest that it is now China’s turn to invade, conquer and pillage. Though China’s 2005 pledge of a “peaceful rise” seems more illusory with each passing year, it would be in the world’s best interests if it could be achieved. Indeed, the implications of the alternatives are cataclysmic. However, in the process, the West and Japan should be conscious of the inevitable scars China bears from past exploitation and humiliation and thus refrain from taking the hypocritical high ground, which seems to be common China policy currency.

It is especially important that China be engaged in the institutional framework of global governance, and that initiatives for enhancing trade and investment, such as the belt and road, be welcomed rather than rebuffed. Yet the opposite has been happening.

As Silvia Menegazzi has stated in arguing why the EU must engage with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), “the decision to launch the AIIB came as a direct result of China’s growing frustration … over only playing a marginal role within the existing international financial system”. This is true of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

As to the World Trade Organisation, the death of the Doha Round is in great part due to the inability of the erstwhile established leaders of the global trading system – the so-called “Quad”, consisting of Canada, the EU, Japan and the US – to integrate China. Instead, the US and Japan proceeded to create their own initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which China was visibly excluded; this way, as they claimed, “we will write the rules, rather than let the Chinese do so”. Surely, the appropriate, constructive and dynamic approach would have been to write the new rules ­together.

Not only did the Japanese-American alliance seek to exclude China by setting up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but when the Chinese launched the AIIB, aimed at financing much needed infrastructure investments across the Eurasian continent, they refused to join and sought to browbeat other nations to follow suit. Fortunately, on this occasion, good sense prevailed in Europe and Asia, as most countries from both joined. However, it does not make it less disappointing that the major Western powers and Japan should be no-shows at the forthcoming summit.

Of course, at this stage, the belt and road represents a vision, a dream, that will face innumerable obstacles – financial, environmental, technological, logistical, social and geopolitical – to translate into reality. It is also without doubt motivated primarily by Chinese interests. But what country ever undertook a major international initiative that wasn’t primarily motivated by its own interests?

The post-war Marshall Plan was not an act of pure American altruism, but rather one of enlightened self-interest.

The potential benefits of the belt and road, if the dream were even only partly realised, could be enormous. The inclusion of the Middle East and Central Asia could contribute to peace and prosperity in these currently dramatically turbulent regions.

As I have tried to stress, China is by no means an angel. Nor, however, as Western and Japanese rhetoric tends to proclaim, is it a devil; or certainly no more so than previous rising great powers. Furthermore, while for much of modern history China was subjugated and marginalised, its quite staggering re-emergence will continue to mark the first decades of the 21st century.

A successful, inclusive, globally collective effort to make the belt and road a reality could be a harbinger of peace and prosperity. It is a pity that myopia and prejudice prevent Western and Japanese leaders from being present at this potentially seminal event.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong

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How China’s belt and road can pave the way to global sustainability

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Yixiu Wu says Beijing should ensure its belt and road projects address environmental concerns, so as to shape development across three continents and leave behind a green legacy

On May 14 and 15, 28 heads of state and government leaders will convene in Beijing for the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. At a time when much of the world is recoiling into protectionism, the Belt and Road Initiative represents China’s unprecedented entry onto the global stage. A new chapter of the China story is unfolding.

The success of the initiative, which spans 65 countries, will depend on whether long-term concerns are prioritised. In the face of climate change, a transition away from fossil fuel consumption and towards environmental sustainability is imperative.

The launch of the belt and road follows three decades of rapid economic growth in China, which has been fuelled by infrastructure development and intensive energy consumption. As a result of this legacy, China’s investments in the initiative have attracted scepticism. Observers questioned whether the belt and road is merely a vessel for China to reproduce its old development model, which, despite ushering in unprecedented growth, has led to widespread environmental degradation. Such questions are valid, considering that, between 2005 and 2016, 40 per cent of China’s outbound investment was directed towards energy projects and 18 per cent to infrastructure. Moreover, environmental negligence is one of the most frequently cited complaints about Chinese companies overseas.

The Earth has reached a crisis point. Extreme weather patterns are becoming the norm, forests are shrinking, and water supplies are running dry. There is no room any more for a development model that promotes growth at the expense of the environment.

Moreover, the belt and road countries are home to some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems and most precious carbon sink. They also use much of the world’s resources: a study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 38 key belt and road nations emit more than 55 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases and consume 66 per cent of global water resources.

The good news is that, within and outside China, models of sustainable development appear promising. Domestically, China has begun to decouple its economic progress from fossil fuel consumption and is now home to the world’s fastest-growing renewable energy industry. China’s coal consumption has fallen for three years running, a key factor in the flattening of global greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, the imperative for multilateral sustainability initiatives is indisputable, as exemplified by the Paris agreement on climate change.

Shaping belt and road projects with the environment in mind makes economic sense. A focus on sustainable development will help achieve economic and political stability for China and its belt and road partners. It will improve energy efficiency and limit regional conflicts over natural resources.

The question now is how to ensure that long-term imperatives are not overlooked in favour of short-term profit. Doing so requires rules and processes, backed by high-level political resolve. It also depends on the inclusion of diverse stakeholders to assess the environmental implications of belt and road initiatives. It is crucial that China make publicly available information about the overseas belt and road projects, subjecting them to scrutiny from local and international communities.

The belt and road has the potential to shape sustainable development across three continents. The initiative is ambitious and complex. It calls for collaboration from key international actors, such as the UN, the EU and the multilateral development banks.

If wisdom and resolve prevail, three decades from now, the Belt and Road Initiative will exemplify the benefits that a rising China can bring to the world. It is now more important than ever that the next chapter of the China story be centred on a commitment to sustainable development. This emphasis is key not only to preserving China’s legacy, but also to ensuring global prosperity for decades to come.

Yixiu Wu is a campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. Her work focuses on China’s global environmental footprint and One Belt, One Road polices