Who Manages China’s Belt & Road Initiative?

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

  • It isn’t Xi Jinping – and learning how China’s structures are diversified helps understand how China plans ahead
  • Fundamental differences in Chinese and Western decision-making processes

China’s Belt & Road Initiative is somewhat enigmatic when it comes to who is behind the project. There appears to be no official secretariat, no centralised office, and no specific official responsible for discussing its objectives. Although there are various thinktanks, specific advisory bodies and a Chinese Government website dedicated to it, no-one specifically appears to be masterminding the operation. It’s an interesting question as answering it helps explain the differences in political structures between China and the West, and where confusion and assumptions can go awry in relations between the two.

It is telling that in the absence of a specific Chinese BRI official Guru, the West has instead appointed one, with the generally accepted view that the Belt & Road Initiative is “Considered a centerpiece of Communist Party of China General Secretary and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s foreign policy”

That largely came about because it fell to President Xi to originally announce the strategy as the “Silk Road Economic Belt” during an official visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013. Even today, the Belt & Road Initiative is often described as “Xi’s Belt & Road”. But is it?

Being the President of China of course is one of the biggest jobs in the world, immensely time-consuming and extremely hard work, with thousands of things to keep on top of, changing all the time. And of course, the man must have family time too. However, the construct that President Xi is the Mastermind behind the BRI is a Western imposed image, not a Chinese one. And this is where the West’s understanding of how China works begins to go astray. In the absence of a prescribed official “Head of the BRI” the West must appoint one themselves. This is because in Western political and management structures we appoint specific leaders: Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chairman, Ministers, CEO’s.

What confuses the West is that while China also uses those terms itself – partially because they are relatively simple to understand – the operations and methodology behind them are substantially different.

The Western model is rigid and has a defined reporting structure, emanating from the very top down, identifiable by having in place specific individuals along the ‘chain of command’. It is in essence a very 19th century, discipline, born from military structures.

China appears at face value to have that – but in reality, it does not. Immediately under President Xi sit a number of executive committees, with a two-way decision-making process: they report to him, but crucially he also reports to them. This two-way flow of decision-making runs through the National People’s Congress, the State Council and continues across different Ministeries and Governments throughout the country.

One of the most important of these is the National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC) – responsible for the complete administrative and planning control of China. The structuring and planning for the BRI almost certainly falls under the NDRC – and probably resides within the Western division of the organisation. It employs 890 civil servants, with many others linked into it, feeding it data, and ideas. However, Xi Jinping isn’t Chairman of the NDRC – that position is held by He Lifeng, who is also a Vice-Chairman of the CPPCC. He has been in the role since 2017. Back in 2013, when Xi announced the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ the head of the NDRC was Xu Shaoshi, and before him – when no doubt the concepts of what would become the BRI were being honed down – it was Zhang Ping, who held the role from 2008-2013. Xi didn’t become China’s President until 2013. Also part of this communal process is the Financial Stability and Development Commitee, formed at the same time as the launch of the BRI in 2013, and it is believed this also has considerable input. This is headed up by Liu He.

This anecdote therefore really serves to illustrate the differences between China’s management of its overall direction and that of the West. China has managed to develop political and business structures which while on the surface appear similar to those in the West, are in fact organised as an in-depth series of think-tanks, constantly sharing, and exchanging information and collectively reaching decisions.

In the West, the process involves specific individuals who at any time can be discarded either through incapability or political differences. While democracy remains an excellent system of governance – it begins to fail when it loses middle ground – which is what is currently occurring in the West. China’s model, rightly or wrongly, discards much of that political debate. It maintains the middle ground by collective consensus.

So, when pondering “Who manages China’s Belt & Road Initiative”, I would suggest an accurate answer would probably be “Xi Jinping as the Spokesperson, reporting on findings concluded by He Lifeng, as directed by the National Development & Reform Commission and the Financial Stability and Development Commitee, using incoming data and ideas from Chinese officials and businessmen from throughout China and across the World.”  Now that is impressive.

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Silk Road Briefing is written by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm has 28 offices throughout Asia, and assists foreign investors into the region. For strategic advisory and business intelligence issues please contact the firm at silkroad@dezshira.com or visit www.dezshira.com