Foreign Policy Blogs

The Belt and Road Initiative: Shaping the Narrative of a China Story

Mapping the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one can easily get lost in the amount of information available. Hundreds of projects and nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of investments currently exist in over 60 countries. A serious analysis of each project must take into account a variety of factors, including funding sources, implementing partners, budget estimates, progress reports, as well as local needs and concerns.  

However, the BRI is much more than an investment plan aimed at improving connectivity among countries. The most important effect of the BRI regards how China’ is stepping up its effort to shape a narrative about itself – telling the China story. In this regard, the Chinese leadership is deeply aware of the importance of public diplomacy and institution building to improve its soft power. While the idea of a China story has been around since 2004, President Xi picked it up in 2013 and has been referring to it in various speeches ever since, urging Chinese leaders to play their role. From international summits to cultural associations, examples abound of different entities contributing to the development of a China story. Through the BRI, China has stepped up its reputation-building effort in an unprecedented way that will have long-lasting consequences on the world stage. 

In comparison with another widely common slogan, the Chinese Dream, there remains a subtle, but clear distinction. The Chinese Dream attempts to guarantee high living condition to every Chinese citizen, based on a flourishing and harmonious society. The China story instead refers to the ability to of designing China’s own narrative about its values and history to be projected outward to the rest of the world. Even though the Chinese Dream and the China story are related to a certain extent, the BRI remains an international initiative whose effects regard the narrative presented to other countries. 

China’s Public Diplomacy 

At the 19th Congress, President Xi Jinping expressed the intent to “improve capacity for engaging in international communication so as to tell China’s stories well, [and] present a true, multi-dimensional, and panoramic view of China.” The BRI is one the most ambitious expressions of this objective, undertaken to influence the perception of China on a global scale. President Xi in fact argued that the BRI and affiliated institutions contribute to “a further rise in China’s international influence, ability to inspire, and power to shape.” As defined decades ago by J. Nye, soft power enables one to attract and shape other actors’ preferences through culture, values or policies, as opposed to hard power, which entails coercive impositions based on economic or military might. 

Furthermore, by facilitating economic agreements and partnerships, China is advancing “cultural soft power and the international influence of Chinese culture.” Indeed, despite the difficulty of quantifying its influence, the BRI has already succeeded in generating interest among academic, business, and political circles.  

The response has not been entirely positive. In some countries, the BRI has received negative reactions from the public or government officials. Twenty-seven EU ambassadors recently drafted a report raising concerns about the unilateral nature of the initiative. Nevertheless, constructing projects is perhaps not as important in the short-term, as is conveying a clear narrative about China’s leading status on the world stage.  

Thanks to its historical reference to the Silk Road, the BRI has become a brand name, particularly in the eyes of foreign nations. While other countries had promoted similar strategies to foster development and connectivity, none had managed to build a narrative around it. Even if the TTIP or the TPP are sometimes considered the economic equivalents of the BRI, their names (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Trans-Pacific Partnership) certainly did not help building an attracting narrative around them. Likewise, previous outward-looking policies devised by China itself to promote investments abroad like the “Go Out Policy” always lacked a soft-power component.  

BRI’s Soft Power in Reality 

The scope of the BRI surpasses political and economic frameworks. Cultural initiatives that fall under the Silk Road umbrella keep increasing. In 2015, the Silk Road Research Institute of Beijing Foreign Studies University was founded to highlight “thematic studies to tell China stories, spread China voices and take Chinese culture to the world.” That same year, the University Alliance of the Silk Road, which consists of approximately 100 universities from 22 countries, was established to foster “institutional exchanges, talent training, joint research, and cultural communication.”  

In 2016, the Cultural Silk Road was launched first in China and then replicated the following year in Lyon, France.  During the same year, the Silk Road Music Industry Alliance that consists of 18 different countries was created to “develop and expand the music, film/movie, entertainment, digital media and culture industries in China.” This later initiated the Silk Road Music Festivals, which already counts two editions in China and the first international edition in fall 2018.  

In Thailand, the BRI even led to a Thai-Chinese Health Promotion Association, meant to assist Chinese tourists abroad. According to Lu Jian, Chinese Ambassador to Thailand, Confucius Institutes in Thailand are growing faster than in any other Asian country. Confucius Institutes have in fact already been indicated as a fundamental means in support of the BRI, holding dedicated lectures and events on the Silk Road. At the Joint Conference of Asian Confucius Institutes along the BRI, it was pointed out that 51 countries participating in the BRI had established 135 Confucius Institutes. 

BRI’s Snowballing Effect  

Born as a massive investment plan to improve connectivity around over 60 countries in the world, the BRI is clearly not only about building infrastructure and developing cities. The BRI has been a powerful leverage to boost China’s soft power through public diplomacy and institution building. Citizens and leaders around the world are eager to participate in events, conferences and associations to foster exchanges between different communities. 

The aforementioned cases show how the BRI is promoting initiatives that have a magnifying effect for China’s reputation and set the stage to tell the China story. By enhancing the soft power of this network, China has an opportunity to counter foreign narratives that securitize the role of Confucius Institutes and Chinese activities abroad. No other country has ever embarked on such a broad based plan with the same potential to shape its narrative – despite the common comparison with the Marshall Plan, their size remains significantly different. This will certainly remain the first chapter of the China story.

Cristian Tracci is an MIA candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where he specializes in International Security Policy and Conflict Resolution. He was previously a graduate consultant for the Eurasia Group and the UN Mission in Kosovo. While pursuing his undergraduate degree in International Affairs and Philosophy at John Cabot University in Rome, Cristian also studied abroad in Japan and Korea.