China’s Xi Pledges ‘Zero Tolerance’ on Corruption to Calm Belt and Road Initiative Criticism

April 26, 2019 by HJ Mai
Chinese President Xi Jinping with his wife Peng Liyuan, center, Russian President Vladimir Putin, second from left, and other leaders attend a group photo session at a welcoming banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People on April 26, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Jason Lee/Getty Images/TNS)

Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged transparency and zero tolerance for corruption in an attempt to alleviate criticism for his country’s Belt and Road Initiative from the United States that described the massive infrastructure project as a debt trap for poorer countries.

“Everything should be done in a transparent way, and we should have zero tolerance for corruption,” Xi said on Friday while addressing some 5,000 attendees at the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. “The Belt and Road is not an exclusive club.”

The Belt and Road Initiative, which was launched in 2013, wants to create a modern version of the ancient Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected Asia to Europe and Africa, through enormous infrastructure investments in maritime, road and rail.

Since launching the initiative almost six years ago, direct investments from Chinese enterprises in countries linked to the BRI have exceeded $90 billion, Gao Feng, spokesman for the Chinese Commerce Ministry, said.

When Xi initially unveiled the plan, he identified five main goals: political coordination, infrastructure connections, trade liberalization, free movement of capital and boosting mutual understanding between nations.

However, the project has come under fire from a number of Western countries such as the United States and Germany.

Acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jonathan Cohen said in March that the Belt and Road Initiative had “known problems with corruption, debt distress, environmental damage, and lack of transparency.” During the same month, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development issued a study that said eight countries may face difficulties with debt sustainability linked to the Belt and Road Initiative.

German politicians last month criticized Italy’s decision to join the initiative. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “China is not a liberal democracy.” He added that countries engaging in business dealings with China will “suddenly wake up in dependency.”

Furthermore, European Commissioner Guenter Oettinger suggested that the European Union should have the right to block China from taking control of critical infrastructure on the continent.

“I view with concern that, in Italy and other European countries, strategically important infrastructure projects – power grids, high-speed train lines or ports – are no longer in European hands but in Chinese hands,” he told Germany’s Funke Mediengruppe. “That is why we should consider a European veto right or a European right of approval, carried out by the commission.”

Despite those criticisms and warnings, over 125 countries have signed BRI cooperation documents, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in February, citing Chinese state media.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country joined BRI in 2015, was among more than two dozen head of states that attended this week’s forum in Beijing. Washington, on the other hand, did not send any high-level officials to the three-day meeting.

During the forum, the BRI received further international backing. U.K. Chancellor Philip Hammond said that Britain intends to cooperate with China on the project, while United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hailed Beijing’s plans as one of “remarkable importance.”

“The Belt and Road Initiative assumes remarkable and urgent importance. With the scale of its planned investments, it offers a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the creation of a more equitable, prosperous world for all, and to reversing the negative impact of climate change,” Guterres said.

It appears the United States is once again having a hard time finding European allies in its opposition to a large international project; similar rifts exist over Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and the use of information equipment from Chinese IT giant Huawei.

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