Belt and Road mir­rors China’s en­ter­pris­ing spirit be­hind re­form and open­ing-up

People's Review - - COMMENTARY -

Forty years have passed since Deng Xiaop­ing ini­ti­ated China's mod­ern eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and open­ing-up to the world. Dur­ing the course, China has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion. Hundreds of mil­lions have been lifted out of poverty, with hunger be­com­ing a thing of the past for most of the na­tion's pop­u­la­tion. In 1978, the vast ma­jor­ity of China's pop­u­la­tion lived in great hard­ship in the coun­try­side, forced to sup­ply their needs from their own back-break­ing la­bor. In 2018, over half of the na­tion lives in cities, in mod­ern apart­ments with elec­tric­ity and run­ning wa­ter. Health care has im­proved im­mea­sur­ably. Child mor­tal­ity is down. Life ex­pectancy has soared to more than 70 years. Trans­port has im­proved by leaps and bounds. The high­speed train net­work is the world's most ex­ten­sive, and still grow­ing. Air­ports are tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced and Chi­nese air­lines op­er­ate with ex­cel­lent safety records. All th­ese ad­vances owe their ex­is­tence to Deng's will­ing­ness to ex­per­i­ment with free trade zones and en­cour­age new modes of en­trepreneur­ship. For­eign in­vest­ment brought in waves of money that was uti­lized to fuel a revo­lu­tion in in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion. Of course, there have been draw­backs to the break­neck de­vel­op­ment. Air pol­lu­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age have reached crit­i­cal pro­por­tions. But China's gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to deal­ing with th­ese prob­lems. In­vest­ment in green tech­nolo­gies is now higher in China than any other coun­try. Ac­qui­si­tions of for­eign re­new­able en­ergy firms are at an all-time high. The trans­for­ma­tion of China is still in progress, not yet com­plete. All th­ese changes owe their ex­is­tence to Deng's vi­sion and the will of China's cit­i­zens to im­ple­ment them. China's eco­nomic re­forms emerged from an at­ti­tude of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion char­ac­ter­ized as "cross­ing the river by feel­ing the stones." It was the en­cour­age­ment of en­tre­pre­neur­ial risk-tak­ing as an op­por­tu­nity too good to miss that gave China's rapid rise its mo­men­tum. The con­tin­u­a­tion of Deng's poli­cies is Xi Jin­ping's Belt and Road ini­tia­tive. This grand project, launched in 2013, with the aim to con­nect more than 60 coun­tries in Asia, Europe and Africa, builds on China's ear­lier "go­ing out" pol­icy. The Belt and Road ini­tia­tive is also based on a prag­matic spirit of ad­ven­ture. It takes ac­count of the need to re­al­ize that be­ing risk-averse is in­her­ently risky. Of course, this means that some Belt and Road projects face high risks. But this is no dif­fer­ent to the pat­tern of eco­nomic re­forms un­der Deng, who knew that some of the ex­per­i­ments he over­saw would not work out. The key was that he also knew that some of them would be game-chang­ing. A good ex­am­ple of this is the Spe­cial Eco­nomic Zones or SEZs. As is now well-known, the grand­est SEZ ex­per­i­ment took place in Shen­zhen, which was just a vil­lage of 30,000 when re­forms be­gan. What is less well-known now is that Shen­zhen's growth to a city of more than 12,000,000 in­hab­i­tants was very far from guar­an­teed. Deng took a risk - and the re­sult was one of China's most boom­ing cen­ters of in­dus­try. Thus, the Belt and Road ini­tia­tive can be seen as a tran­si­tion of China's 40 years of open­ing-up into the over­seas arena. What China needs to make sure is to com­mu­ni­cate the meth­ods and goals of the ini­tia­tive as clearly as it has man­aged to get the world to un­der­stand the na­tion's rise over the last 40 years. This is no easy task. There are skep­tics as well as en­thu­si­asts, and the for­mer are not eas­ily con­vinced of the mer­its of China's plan. Nev­er­the­less, if the en­ergy of four decades of suc­cess­ful do­mes­tic re­forms can be trans­lated into a zone of eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion which be­gins to trans­form large swathes of Asia, Europe and Africa, it will be a clear sign that China's mir­a­cle can become the world's mir­a­cle.

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