Monday, 15 May 2017

"One Belt, One Road" Could Be Path-breaking, But Will It Play In the Provinces?

Finally, Jiangsu residents get to hear about the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

That's an exaggeration, of course: Only cave-dwelling hermits could have avoided the media coverage about China’s new strategic enterprise in the past few days. But while China Central Television has flooded its channels with Beijing’s Silk Road initiative, the local news here focused on more proximate matters, such as a conference on civilized conduct in Nanjing, continuing challenges with pedestrian crossings being ignored by drivers, and another round of property market regulations.

That changed Monday morning, as Nanjing Daily finally followed suit by giving front-page treatment to President Xi Jinping’s carefully composed and articulate speech on the New Silk Road. Authorities in Jiangsu may feel little excitement, but they also have little choice. Beijing sets the agenda, even if not everyone gets the memo.

Of course there’s support for “One Belt, One Road” [OBOR, or “一路”] among entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, and citizens in China generally. But it’s been difficult to locate locally. That’s in large part because, for more than a few residents and officials here, OBOR is just more Beltway theater—a play for places far away, particularly in the economically-bereft Northeast and Western regions. Some residents see OBOR as a major project designed to bolster Beijing’s prestige as much as China’s. After all, Jiangsu and its adjoining provinces are doing rather well economically. How OBOR might benefit cadres and citizens in China’s affluent east isn’t at all apparent—and the local media isn’t articulating it either probably because officials here can’t quite figure out the payoff to the province themselves.

Indeed, there are some here who wonder if “One Belt, One Road” will divert resources from local projects, including infrastructure and innovation initiatives that officials here thought were supposed to be the priority--the agenda that Premier Li Keqiang has been spelling out for some months now and has been pursued with vigour. Are those efforts to reorganise and restructure and reform for the sake of local innovation now less important to Beijing? 

This local perplexity is important to take note of--one of those instances in China where silence outside Beijing doesn’t mean complicity with central directives but simmering disquiet. There isn’t organised resistance to “One Belt, One Road”, but there's at least clear reluctance to jump on the bandwagon—or caravan—when the focus for Beijing is helping regions other than Jiangsu. That disinclination could end up being debilitating. 

Likewise, there’s no express political opposition to Xi’s initiative that's apparent. But there’s a sense for some here that OBOR is not clearly connected to specific local concerns, which means that Xi and his allies probably still have some selling to do at home after they're through hosting those from abroad. That’s really why the State media here keeps harping on the benefits for everyone in China, to persuade the skeptical that this is a new road worth walking on together and, just as importantly, to support Xi. Xi and his allies work to dominate the national airwaves because they’ve been unable to dictate the local conversation, and this is another instance where they seem to think they need to.

OBOR as a strategic concept is bold and potentially brilliant. But there are grounds for wondering if it will truly succeed the way the ruling powers in Beijing are currently promising. How it plays in the provinces will go a long way in determining if they’ve really chosen the right road.

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