When China’s President Xi Jinping first spoke of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, it marked the beginning of a once-in-a-generation development.
But a substantial element of it has been missed, and it is important for companies on the Chinese mainland and throughout the Silk Road to stay true to the underlying motivation for the Initiative.
As the People's Daily wrote in 2016, the aim was "to construct a unified large market and make full use of both international and domestic markets, through cultural exchange and integration, to enhance mutual understanding and trust of member nations, ending up in an innovative pattern with capital inflows, talent pool, and technology database" (emphasis ours).
So, while the focus since then has been largely on the hard assets, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, as they are officially called, are not just about infrastructure and trade.
“Communication between different people and communities” is one of the five main objectives.
A year earlier, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had issued a final statement (quoted here) of more specific policy goals of the BRI that include:
- Improving intergovernmental communication to better align high-level government policies like economic development strategies and plans for regional cooperation.
- Strengthening the coordination of infrastructure plans to better connect hard infrastructure networks like transportation systems and power grids.
- Encouraging the development of soft infrastructure such as the signing of trade deals, aligning of regulatory standards, and improving financial integration.
- Bolstering people-to-people connections by cultivating student, expert, and cultural exchanges and tourism.
My emphases show communication is substantially the focus of this initiative.
But - and here's the rub - it hasn’t always worked out that way.
Here are examples to prove this point:
China’s Ambassador to Tanzania, Lu Xinsheng, criticised the smuggling of ivory and rhino horns of his fellow citizens in an interview.
Growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka is a concern for New Delhi and the island.
A Chinese man, Liu Jiaqi, was deported by Kenya’s immigration department after a video emerged of him calling all Kenyans, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, "monkeys".
What your company must do
So, what can companies on the Chinese mainland do to improve the situation, and to ensure the true objectives of the BRI are achieved?
Here are the top five priorities for any business leader:
- Connect – Show you care. Demonstrate that you are aware of how your audience feels, and that you understand the situation from their point-of-view. The more empathy you show, the easier it is for you to connect with your audience.
- Media profile – It is important for you, as a senior business leader, to have a strong media profile. Get your message across to a wider audience, faster.
- Transparent – Show you have nothing to hide. The audience will trust you more if you are genuine and real. People trust people who are open and speak candidly.
- Brand visibility – Boost sales by appearing in the media and raising awareness about your brand.
- Talent acquisition – You will build new connections and keep in touch with individuals across various backgrounds or industries. This will be valuable for you when looking for promising talent in China, but especially overseas.
The investments in infrastructure in the Belt Road Initiative are huge. China has pledged US$1 trillion out of the US$26 trillion needed, according to the Asian Development Bank.
But the BRI is about so much more than money. The 65 countries it touches have a population of 4.4 billion people, or 62% of the world's population.
The possibilities to create a lasting global impact are enormous. In the end, it's not just the bridges that transport cars and trains, but the bridges between people from different cultures that will really matter.