Review ‘The Chinese Vortex’. China is the new NINJA loan officer
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has surprisingly been barely covered by US media, overlooked by trade deficits, trade wars and now COVID. The infrastructure megaproject affects more than 70 countries and will cost China well over $ 1 trillion. Spending has already reached $ 700 billion. Daniel Wagner, who has written books on China three times in the past two years, has devoted an entire book to the subject titled The Chinese vortex: the Belt and Road initiative and its impact on the world.
From the outset, Wagner states that “the BRI is a great project designed to project the power of Beijing and expand its global footprint and influence, while creating a base for development through the provision of infrastructure projects. It’s a scattered collection of infrastructure investments in countries around the world, including Asia and Africa. The earmarked BRI funds, in the form of cross-border loans, go to everything from airports to power plants, rail projects and seaports. Many countries that are normally excluded from accessing such loans are able to finance projects, thanks to the BIS let it go attitude towards candidates with poor governance or poor financial stability. Think of the BIS as the NINJA lender for developing countries.
Like many failed NINJA loans (and which led to the US housing bubble), many BIS loans have defaulted on payments by the governments that signed them. While a defaulting homeowner is forced to give up their home, countries that default on their loans have to give up much more. For example, Kenya lost its port of Mombasa to China in 2018 and Sri Lanka lost its port of Hambantota to China in 2017. Beijing has made countless other loans to countries that are hardly able to keep up with their payments. Wagner notes that “between 2013 and 2018, Zambia’s national debt tripled as a percentage of national income. Most of it was owed to China.
Poor countries like Zambia must resort to harsh austerity measures or cancel before the completion of BRI projects in order to avoid default, although China has recently become much more open to the idea of forgiving or to restructure part of some of these bad loans, due to outcry from international organizations.
Wagner spends the first part of the book discussing the nature of the aforementioned BIS loans from China to countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and Europe, as well as the motivations for China and the impacts of each type of project (such as Kyrgyz citizens’ projects protesting against the dumping of pollutants into waterways). Daniel Wagner then discusses the cyber aspect of China’s national and international development. The yuan will be the first major national currency to be reflected by a cryptocurrency equivalent, digital currency / electronic payment (DCEP). The ramifications of the DCEP on Chinese and international trade and monetary policy are discussed at length. Staying along the cyber line, the book also explores the intersection of Chinese technology with state surveillance, which has recently received a lot of negative publicity.
Software, hardware, cloud computing and AI are fast becoming the keys to economic supremacy. China has been aware of this since the 1980s and, as a result, has positioned itself at the forefront of technological innovation. Much of these gains have been fueled by state-owned enterprise espionage. Tech companies that want to establish a base in China must give the government almost unlimited access to its secrets, like encryption keys and user data. This has enabled Chinese tech companies to take giant strides, allowing China to snatch software and hardware plans from foreign companies.
In the same vein, China is now suspected of wanting to export technology that can be used to spy on foreign citizens and businesses. Sensitive products like satellites, telephones and telecom lines are being shipped en masse to countries around the world, although there has been some setback recently among Western countries. Authoritarian governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Myanmar, are also demanding access to China’s notorious Great Firewall censorship and spy software, which ironically can also be used by China to spy on said authoritarian governments.
More favorable publicity has been garnered by China in terms of environmental awareness, although Wagner points out that the BRI is quite mixed in terms of green impact. As the author noted, “The Development Bank of China and the Import-Export Bank of China funded power plants in 38 countries between 2013 and 2019, nearly half of which were fossil fuel-based. . China particularly favors the financing of coal plants, inefficient to the point of being phased out in countries like the United States
The BRI has also been surprisingly rare in terms of wind and solar power projects; instead, it favors hydropower as the green energy source of choice. However, hydroelectric dams are incredibly disruptive both to the local ecology and to local residents, who are often moved by tens or hundreds of thousands to make way for the dams. Several BRI dam projects in Southeast Asia have been canceled due to local outcry over these concerns. BRI projects can sometimes ignore environmental impact studies to save time and money. Thus, projects have all kinds of deleterious effects on local ecospheres.
The Chinese whirlwind is a helpful and succinct introduction to the myriad of global effects of the BIS – from diplomacy to technology to trade. The chapter on Chinese cryptocurrency is particularly groundbreaking, as most people don’t even know it’s in the works. I wish Wagner had spoken more about the controversies surrounding Huawei and TikTok, as these two companies have some of the most tangible effects on the average Westerner. Huawei, as the only 5G telecommunications entrepreneur not named Ericsson or Nokia, can shape wireless communication for potentially billions of people for decades to come. TikTok has hundreds of millions of young people as active users. Overall, this book will prove to be informative for those who read it.
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