I just spent two weeks in China, as I do every May. I use that time every year to check-in with colleagues and friends, to get a sense of what is on peoples’ minds in China. It’s a fantastic way of ”œgetting the pulse” of the country. A few years ago, folks were focused on the American idea of the G2 in the wake of the financial crisis. Recently, all the talk in the China has been about the American ”œpivot” to Asia, explained by the US as simply re-balancing its global presence, but seen by the Chinese as an effort to contain China. Then of course there were the Olympic Games and domestic debates about Chinese soft power. The Copenhagen environmental summit had everyone in China talking about how the industrial countries of the West were historically much dirtier than China, and how despite being the world’s largest GHG emitter, on a per capita basis China has continued to fare much better than the US. And of course, over the past few years, China has fixated on changing the language around ”œChina’s rise” to ”œChina’s peaceful development,” an effort to de-fang China’s ascent to great power status.

This year the talk was all about the proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), basically a World Bank-type financial institution centered in Asia for Asian countries and bankrolled by Asia’s largest economy, China. As well, the talk in China was about President Xi’s ”œone belt, one road” (yidai, yilu) economic plan, a revival of the Silk Road economy that positioned China centuries ago as the center of the global economy. The ”œone belt” alludes to the westward push along the Silk Road route through Central Asia into Europe. The ”œone road” refers to the planned maritime Silk Road southward throughout Southeast Asia. The one belt, one road plan involves major commercial and infrastructural investments from China along these belts and roads to facilitate Chinese trade and investment with their western and southern neighbors. The Chinese government is slated to finance $40 billion US towards this effort.

When asked why the Chinese government is pursuing this strategy, the answers are all over the place. One argument is that this is China’s response to America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific – that is, if the Americans seek to close off China’s expanding influence in the Pacific, then China will simply turn to its west and south. Another response one often hears is that the AIIB and the one belt one road programs represent China’s ”œbig brother” role in the region. China, which insists it remains a developing world country, has nonetheless developed capacities that it can – and indeed should – extend to the aid of its neighbors, such as rails, ports, industrial investment and so on. Drawing on historical narratives about China’s role in mobilizing the third world, the one belt, one road plan is a contemporary extension of China’s good will to its developmental brethren, as it has done in parts of Africa.

Another explanation about why China is developing the one belt, one road program is that the Chinese economy, having benefited from years of economic growth and industrialization, is experiencing overcapacity. Its manufacturers are manufacturing too much. There is too much capital for China’s domestic capital markets. As one person explained it to me: ”œIn China, we are producing 100 miles of railway track when we actually only need 50 miles of it. We need to offload this overcapacity.”

This sounds like textbook Lenin. Peel back the development rhetoric and what we seem to have here is textbook imperialism. Lenin explained, in reference to the imperialist West, that imperialism is the highest form of capitalism. In Lenin’s view, monopoly capitalism means that firms (and hence countries) need to expand and locate elsewhere to mitigate overcapacity. Finance capital, he argues, has to find other places to invest in. Manufacturing firms, making too much stuff for domestic markets, need to find other markets to manufacture for. Governments consequently have to extend their reach beyond their borders so that economic overcapacity at home does not threaten domestic stability. The example of railway track – in China they make 100 miles but only need 50 miles – captures exactly the logic of imperialism.

The line between exploitation and development is razor thin. But what strikes me is that so many in China do not see this, especially given the country’s Marxist-Leninist heritage. But then again, I am also reminded that Western powers, in spreading their economies and civilizing missions with unapologetic zeal, never thought they were imperialists either.

Photo by Antonio R. Villaraigosa / CC BY-NC 2.0 / modified from original

Joseph Wong
Joseph Wong is the Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He is also a Professor in the department of Political Science, where he holds a Canada Research Chair. From 2005 to 2014, Wong was the Director of the University of Toronto's Asian Institute. Wong thinks and writes about a range of global challenges: poverty and development; innovation policy; democracy and democratization; and global health. He is a keen advocate of global learning experiences for students, believing that young people should see with their own eyes rather than just read about their world.

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