Xi’s Legacy May Rest on the World’s Biggest Infrastructure Project

China’s ambitious One Belt One Road initiative will leave a big mark one way or another.
Illustration: Chris Nosenzo

During Xi Jinping’s first five years in office, it’s become a journalistic commonplace to describe him as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

The signs and trappings of his immense clout are indeed apparent almost everywhere one looks in China. He’s mounted a sweeping but opaque crackdown on corruption, whose rich and powerful targets lend the campaign the appearance of a vendetta against potential sources of resistance within the system, real or imagined. He’s almost completely usurped the role of Li Keqiang, his prime minister, a post whose historical function has been to run the economy.

Beyond that, Xi personally chairs almost all the so-called leading small groups, the secretive, intimately sized consultative bodies where big policy matters get decided. He’s also systematically downgraded rival power structures, such as the Communist Youth League, which once incubated leaders for a system based at least informally on the notion of alternation between competing ruling factions.

As if this weren’t enough, Xi has overseen the construction of a personality cult, with his image and propaganda extolling his many merits already all but inescapable. Going into the 19th Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which opens on Oct. 18, Xi is said to have won a reworking of the country’s constitution and rules of leadership succession to accord him an exalted place in history, as a near-peer of Mao and Deng Xiaoping, and to allow him to stay in power well beyond the 10-year tenures that have been the norm since Deng’s time.

For all of Xi’s zest in pursuing political changes like these, the stark truth of Chinese history is that none of them may end up leaving a big or even lasting mark. What, after all, remains of Mao’s radical politics today? One might even wonder how familiar today’s China would be for Deng, even though he’s remembered as the man who opened his country to capitalist reforms.

There’s one ambitious scheme of Xi’s about whose importance we may already be certain, one that will leave a big mark one way or another. It’s fundamentally geopolitical in nature, though it may ultimately maintain China’s historical sense of empire. The project is the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to be nothing less than the biggest infrastructure program the world has ever seen.

Sometimes known as One Belt One Road, or OBOR, it will attempt to integrate China’s markets with those on three continents, Asia, Europe, and Africa. The idea is to build an integrated rail network crisscrossing Central and Southeast Asia and reaching far into Europe, while constructing large, modern deep-water ports to link shipping from China and the surrounding western Pacific to South Asia, Kenya, Tanzania, and beyond.

So far, more than 60 countries have signed on or appear inclined to participate. Together they account for about 70 percent of the Earth’s population and 75 percent of its known energy supplies. Finding reasonably accurate statistics about Chinese geopolitical initiatives has long been a challenge, but under Xi, OBOR appears to have amassed well over $100 billion in commitments from various Chinese or Chinese-derived institutions, including the recently formed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which some already see as a rival to the World Bank.

Backed by Xi’s personal prestige, heft on this scale has turned OBOR into a kind of organizing motif for China’s politics and economy. The clear hope is that it will cement the country’s place as a leading, and, perhaps someday soon, the preeminent center of gravity in the world. Distinct echoes of this kind of ambition are becoming common in the speeches of Chinese officialdom. In September, for example, Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi promoted Xi’s “diplomatic thought,” saying it “innovates upon and transcends the past 300 years of traditional Western international relations theory.”

Neither Chinese money nor Xi’s grand ambitions are guarantees of success. It’s certain OBOR will vastly improve transportation across China’s Central Asian hinterland—no small legacy in itself—but it may not result in a major reordering of the world economy, or, for that matter, even pay off.

Before considering why this is, it’s worth noting that for all the plaudits showered on OBOR in the Chinese media, it’s largely a derivative idea. Europeans proposed similar schemes in the early 1990s just after the Cold War ended. In 2011, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, promoted a plan for something she called the “New Silk Road Initiative.” Not to be left out, Japan and South Korea have also long kicked around such ideas.

China’s insight lay in repackaging these concepts as an opportunistic, nonconfrontational response to the Obama administration’s proposed, but never wholeheartedly pursued, “pivot” to Asia, now seemingly dropped by the Trump administration. The pivot proposed recentering America’s military, economic, and diplomatic energies on an increasingly prosperous East Asia to the relative detriment of the slow-growth North Atlantic and the strife-torn Middle East. Sensing U.S. inconsistency and distraction, Xi took the pre-existing ideas and doubled down on them. The question now is: What will it all yield?

Nothing could be less certain than an immense economic payoff. This, for starters, is because of the fine details of geography. The distance between the big cities of western China and the economic heartland of Western Europe is twice as great as the distance from the East to West Coast of the U.S. In contrast to the American Midwest, the geopolitical jigsaw of Central Asia is true flyover country: Its countries are thinly populated, relatively poor, and badly governed, and have low productivity. OBOR has often been compared to the U.S. Marshall Plan, launched to redevelop Western Europe after World War II. But Chinese social scientists have themselves observed that even in the wake of that devastation, Europe had far more going for it by way of population density, industrial expertise, government know-how, cultural unity, and human capital than the Kazakhstans and Tajikistans of the world.

Although downplayed in boosterish Chinese discussions, Beijing’s desire for markets to help soak up some of its overcapacity in steel and cement is an important motive behind OBOR’s focus on infrastructure—especially railroad lines. In 2015, China’s steel surplus was equivalent to the total output of the next four producers, Japan, India, the U.S., and Russia. Much the same is true for other key industrial materials.

This push to develop outlets for China’s badly unbalanced economy has led many to skip over basic questions about the economic rationale for a vast rail network in the first place. If the ultimate idea is to link East and West with rapid, modern freight trains, as is often suggested, what’s the category of products that will benefit enough from these connections to make them profitable? Perishable and highly time-sensitive goods will almost always be transported by air. Meanwhile, no train, no matter how modern, will beat ocean freight for capacity or price per mile.

Xi’s pharaonic scheme faces geopolitical difficulties, as well. China has 17 land neighbors, many of which are privately wary of becoming more dependent on the country. This includes Russia, a situational ally that’s worried about being completely eclipsed by China, and India, which sees itself as a potential peer and already a rival. Beijing hasn’t figured out how to achieve the enthusiastic buy-in of these powers or even of smaller, regional actors such as Myanmar. So while an enduring legacy will be created for Xi in the form of endless miles of new railroad tracks, and seaborne commerce will increase apace, there are reasons to doubt that the OBOR initiative will live up to the hype. But even if it doesn’t, one often-overlooked payoff may make it all seem worth it in the long run.

On maps, the boundaries of China are mostly those of the huge empire stitched together by the Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1912. Its most restive regions lie in the far west, relatively poor territories such as Tibet and Xinjiang that are home to ethnic and religious minorities—Buddhists and Muslims—who’ve resisted assimilation. Here, too, there are no guarantees. But long after Xi is gone from power, whatever the ledger books say about OBOR’s profitability or return on investment, if these regions can be rendered prosperous and quiescent through transportation and trade links with the rest of the world, Chinese historians may say it was all worth it.


French is the author of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.

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