By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, December 7, 2017 — The UCLA Center for Chinese Studies hosted Emily Yeh, chair of the geography department at the University of Colorado Boulder, in late October. Yeh spoke on two initiatives begun by the Chinese government in 1999: the Open Up the West (also known as “Go West”) campaign, which aims to help the Western Chinese states “catch up” to their wealthier Eastern counterparts, and the “Go Out” campaign, which encourages Chinese citizens and corporations to invest abroad.
Yeh argued that the “Go West” and “Go Out” initiatives intersected the same discourses, which focus on infrastructure as a means of development and rely on controversial Chinese labor migration. These parallels, she said, shed light on Chinese development discourse and practice as China grows ever more influential in the field of development. Yeh also discussed the One Belt, One Road development strategy and how it relates to these earlier government campaigns.
Comparing “Going West” and “Going Out” to western aid
Ongoing, often critical international conversations about China’s policy of non-interference is one parallel between both initiatives, said Yeh. Both “Go West” and “Go Out” are critiqued by states who perceive Chinese development policy as exploitative and interfering. Yet according to Yeh, “Chinese investment abroad doesn’t make sovereign claims over territory... despite frequent inaccurate media discourses.”
“Within China, particularly with regard to the development of Tibet and [Rural Western China], the Chinese state interprets criticism of its governance as attempts to meddle in its internal affairs and as illegitimate efforts to split Chinese territory up,” she explained. “Scholars tend to conclude that Chinese aid and investment are more similar to those of western countries than is often acknowledged,” she said, disagreeing with the widespread public perception of Chinese aid as less effective than western aid because it props up authoritarian regimes and supports poor governance.
She maintained that despite western nations’ distaste for the direction of Chinese development policy abroad, the Chinese state is “blurring the lines between altruism and mutual benefit” and will shape the models followed by international development projects of the future. “China’s approach has been lauded by policy makers and intellectuals in Africa and elsewhere for offering a legitimate alternative to dependency on western aid,” she said.
By directly acknowledging that all aid is strategic, she said, one could argue that Chinese engagement and development abroad “is a more honest, if not better, alternative to traditional western development and aid,” which is fraught with problems of its own.
Development as a gift
“A second developmental discourse which is really pervasive within China [with respect to “Going West”], but also deployed at times as part of ‘Going Out,’ is this idea of development as gift,” said Yeh. “Within China, the state and a majority of citizens are really discursively positioned as providers of aid to the [western China], with an expectation of gratitude and the performance of gratitude.”
In Tibet, she explained, banners frequently remind citizens that one should be grateful. “To the Chinese, the refusal to act properly grateful for gifts is treated as a sign of separatism and punishable as a political crime,” said the speaker.
“The insistence on sovereignty and non-interference makes the idea of development as a gift very different abroad than [in Tibet and western China].” Yeh noted. “Nevertheless, there are certain points when Chinese development projects abroad are presented as gifts. Take, for example, Chinese-sponsored stadiums referred to as a gift for all Costa Rican citizens,” she said.
When not given as a gift, she continued, “aid... is intertwined [with] other forms of investment abroad and both are channeled through corporations.” Yeh referred to projects in this vein as “win-win” because they are “directly responsive to development needs while simultaneously benefiting Chinese companies and granting them building contracts.
”This business approach, combined with Chinese respect for the sovereignty of countries to deal with their own internal affairs is the basis of western critiques of Chinese aid abroad,” said Yeh.
Infrastructure, labor migration, and the image of the Chinese state
Yeh argued that infrastructure was an important part of Chinese development both at home and abroad, identifying a second parallel between the “Going Out” and “Going West” campaigns. For example, she pointed out that the domestic infrastructure spending of China and the United States is 40 percent and 2 percent [of total government spending], respectively. The speaker asserted that the Chinese state was similarly focused on infrastructure in its international development efforts.
“Abroad, China's infrastructure focus has been welcomed by governments,” said Yeh. “In Africa, many countries have a big need for infrastructure and traditional western donors aren't building that, so it's a great opportunity for them.” Yeh explained that these ambitious initiatives, led by a “project-by-project focus,” tend to leave large conspicuous projects that serve as “visual reminders” of Chinese largesse. “A focus on physical legacy has led to the building of a lot of large structures on the side of the road," she commented. "Local Tibetans tend to call infrastructure projects and development projects ‘image engineering.’”
The migrant labor component of the infrastructure projects affects how the Chinese state is viewed both at home and abroad. Whether Chinese-funded infrastructure projects spring up in West Africa or West China, Chinese laborers are certain to follow.
“Popular and problematic discourses suggest that migrants are brought directly by the [Chinese] state [to work on these projects], while scholarship has shown that this is not the case," said Yeh. "It’s not the case in Tibet, it's not the case in Latin America, it’s not the case in Southeast Asia,” said Yeh.
Instead, Chinese labor migrants are moving on their own initiative, independent of state direction. “Of course, the opportunities that they are responding to are structured by state strategies and state policies,” she noted.
“Migrants shape how the state is viewed. They are going into local economies of a small size, so a modest number of migrants can have a disproportionate impact,” she explained. For example, migrants in Tibet “tend to dominate in urban... and roadside [areas], so locals feel swamped,” said Yeh.
Even though locals see them as agents of the state, Chinese labor migrants often perceive themselves as victims of state neglect. “Chinese migrants in Tibet claim that the Chinese government is too generous with Tibet and not developing their own hometowns as they should,” said the speaker. A survey of Chinese immigrants to seven African countries, she added, found that most laborers complained that Chinese officials offered them no real help.
Silk road project extends earlier development priorities
Yeh described the “One Belt, One Road” project as an extension of Going Out and means of accomplishing Going West. The One Belt, One Road project links maritime Silk Road routes with the overland Silk Road economic belt, positioning China at the center of a trading network that could potentially bring nearly a trillion dollars of investment to 60 countries.
“The initiative consolidates and elevates already existing ideas and practices of Chinese-funded development,” said Yeh. Called a “New Marshall Plan” by some because of its scale, the project is not referred to as such by the Chinese government.
“Within Tibet, the building of infrastructure was very important for ‘Going West.’ Connecting that infrastructure to China’s borders and trading partners accomplishes ‘Going West’ as well,” Yeh explained. She noted that the narrative surrounding the Silk Road project helps assuage other countries’ fears that China will infringe on their sovereignty, allowing China to maintain control over its own borders while expanding Chinese capital outward.
“‘Going West’ is more of a grand, altruistic development, while ‘Going Out’ is understood more as an unfolding of low-key capitalist development,” Yeh concluded. “But they are two sides of the same coin.” She predicted that as the two forms of development continued to collide, the lines between them would become blurred — and lead to the rise of more projects which go both out and go west with the aim of benefiting both locals and Chinese corporations, as seen in the the One Belt, One Road initiative.