From investing in Pakistan to deploying peacekeepers in South Sudan, China’s growing clout is being felt around the globe. But does the country’s influence come with a price?
In little more than three decades, China has transformed itself from a closed-off Asian nation mired in poverty to an emerging superpower that rivals the United States. Now, the tendrils of Chinese influence are gradually wrapping themselves around the world, upending roles and relationships that have dominated the global order for half a century. The latest step in China’s evolution as a global power is President Xi Jinping’s grand plan for the world economy that draws on the millennia-old tradition of the Silk Road trading route. We explore five ways China is changing communities and lives across the globe – with its financial clout and its influence on culture, education, travel and the military balance of power.
China’s global investment
Plotting Chinese investment deals worth $100 million or more (2005-2014)
Source: The Heritage Foundation
Part one Investment
Islamabad, Pakistan -- In a bustling street in Pakistan’s capital the air is thick with the familiar smell of mutton sizzling on charcoal. The plumes of smoke rising into the night sky are illuminated by something once uncommon here -- the blinking red neon of a sign bearing the restaurant’s name in Chinese.
Gulab Khan Shinwari, the owner, stands at its entrance welcoming a steady stream of Chinese customers. “My restaurant is called Khyber Shinwari but everyone here calls it the CPEC Hotel, since so many Chinese customers have started arriving since the deal was announced.”
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, popularly known by its acronym of CPEC, has become a buzzword for longed-for economic prosperity in Pakistan. An integral part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, the corridor is a combination of projects ranging from road networks, a fiber optic cable project, railway lines, a deep-sea port, coal mines and solar farms that Pakistan views as a huge opportunity to develop its economy.
Following the ancient Silk Road that stretches from the Himalayas in Pakistan’s northern border with China all the way down to the Arabian Sea, the corridor was announced with much fanfare in 2015 when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Islamabad and announced a $46 billion investment plan, roughly 20% of Pakistan’s economic output.
With the implementation of these projects and their promised riches, Pakistan has seen the influx of a large expat community, roughly 20,000, according to Mustafa Hyder, chief executive of the Pakistan-China Institute.
It’s a community whose influence is slowly trickling into Pakistan’s daily life.
In April, a commercial released by Shan Foods, a Pakistani company that sells spice mixes, showed Pakistani and Chinese neighbors bonding over a shared love for biryani, a popular rice and meat dish. The ad immediately went viral, with more than 59,000 shares on Facebook in the first week of its release.
The sleeping dragon has finally awoken”
While the ad might not have initially been made with CPEC in mind, there’s no doubt the foreigners Pakistanis interact with most on a daily basis are Chinese. “They’re our best neighbor,” says Humayun Farooq, marketing general manager for Shan Foods.
“If this ad has given CPEC a human face then I am glad for that.”
Across town, Pakistanis discreetly sip cheap Chinese beer and wolf down dumplings made by Amber Shen, from China’s Anhui province. Shen and other Chinese expats do their shopping from a handful of Chinese grocery stores that have sprung up in Islamabad. Popular American treats, like Chips Ahoy and Skittles, with Chinese packaging and even cans of stewed pork, a meat banned in Pakistan, are all available.
Last year, a bilingual newspaper called Huashang Weekly launched with a staff of both Chinese and Pakistani journalists. It publishes and distributes 30,000 copies each week to Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi.
"There's a lot of curiosity amongst private Chinese investors about the potential in Pakistani markets, there's just the language barrier that I wanted to erase through Huashang Weekly so these investors can have an understanding of what's happening in Pakistan. These are very interesting times," says Derrick Wang, the paper's publisher who came to Pakistan five years ago.
Meanwhile in cinemas, one of the latest movies “Chalay Thay Saath” (Together We Went), stars a Chinese-Canadian lead actor and is about a Chinese man finding his roots in Pakistan.
In Islamabad, a city that has never really had a Chinatown, these developments are unusual. But China’s embrace of Pakistan has risks attached. Analysts say Pakistan will owe China $90 billion if all the planned projects go ahead. But criticisms about Chinese investment aren’t evident on the streets of Islamabad.
Times are changing and Pakistan must keep up, says Sabina Zakir, an administrator at the Roots millennium schools, an education system that has introduced compulsory Mandarin lessons for all students starting at age 8 and going all the way up to middle school.
“The sleeping dragon has finally awoken,” she says about the country’s northern neighbor. “And our children, the custodians of our future, must be prepared to deal with this new roaring beast!”
Part two Education
How Chinese students are changing US campuses
Urbana, IL -- When Gregory Davis, a US accounting professor, opened his first roster at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign three years ago, he was shocked by the number of Chinese students in his class.
“Oh my gosh,” he recalled thinking. “How am I going to pronounce these names?”
Davis previously taught on the East Coast and thought the student body in this Midwestern town surrounded by soy and corn fields would be predominantly domestic. This year, he says, his graduate class is at least 80% Chinese.
The number of Chinese students at UIUC has risen fivefold to 5,629 since 2008 -- they make up a trend that’s playing out in college towns across the United States as cash-strapped public institutions welcome the higher fees paid by international students.
It’s easy to see the impact the Chinese students have had on this town of 207,000 -- bubble tea stores, Sichuan food joints and Chinese hair salons have popped up. One street has at least six Chinese restaurants.
The number of Chinese students in the US has more than tripled since fall 2008 to 329,000. The Chinese students, who believe a US degree will dazzle employers back home, are also transforming US classrooms and shaping the way professors like Davis teach.
There’s a lot of walls put up in the classroom”
“I try to address in my first couple of classes that I’m okay with wrong answers in class because that’s how the learning helps.”
It’s a shift in teaching patterns shared by many other professors, according to Yingyi Ma, a Syracuse University sociologist who is working on a book on Chinese international students in the US.
"Their (Chinese) classroom participation patterns right now really have pushed a lot of professors to think about how they can adjust the way they teach," says Ma.
To bridge the divide between domestic and Chinese students, Davis makes sure group projects and classroom seating aren’t split along ethnic lines.
While most domestic students appreciate the diversity, some feel negative about the big Chinese presence, Davis says. They feel sore that international students take seats away from their high school friends.
It works the other way too. Before coming to college, Wang Dinghong said he’d imagined having a lot of American friends, but the sheer number of Chinese students means he has very few.
“The only way to solve this issue -- and this might not sound very good -- is to reduce the number of Chinese students admitted every year,” Wang says.
Charles Tucker, UIUC’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Innovation, says administrators are well aware of the lack of integration between Chinese and US students and are making efforts to correct it.
“Just as there is no learning without teaching and without student effort, there is no cultural learning or cultural integration without some programmatic effort and some individual effort,” he says.
Ma says there’s much discussion on university campuses about the lack of integration but few have found a way to address it.
There’s a lot at stake. She says for Chinese students, it’s a lost opportunity to be fully immersed in US culture and get truly fluent in the slang-laden conversational English of their American peers. US students miss out on learning about the culture of a rising superpower. For the university, she says, graduates with little sense of school spirit aren’t likely to be the university’s best ambassadors when they return home.
China’s weight on US campuses is also felt by the 110 Confucius Institutes Beijing has opened nationwide. Their goal is to promote Chinese culture and language but several US institutions have cut ties over fears that a hidden ideological agenda undercuts academic freedom.
Davis, the accounting professor, says diversity will ultimately benefit all students.
“There’s a lot of walls put up in the classroom,” Davis says. “But if you actually spend that time to break down that wall, wow, it just makes the whole class and learning environment a whole lot better.”
Part three Infrastructure
All aboard! How Chinese money is transforming Africa
Nairobi, Kenya -- Kenyan and Chinese workers are putting the finishing touches on the biggest infrastructure project in Kenya’s post-independence history – a $3.8 billion, 472-km (293 mile) railway that runs from the port city of Mombasa to the capital Nairobi, part of a larger Chinese-built rail network linking several countries.
When the locomotives and freight wagons begin rolling in June, the line could be a game-changer for Kenya. Home to East Africa’s largest port, the country moves its goods by a notoriously dangerous two-lane highway.
The new railroad is expected to handle 50% of freight from Mombasa to the border with Uganda, compared to just 4% taken by the old British colonial-built railway, according to Alexander Wang, an associate professor at the Shanghai International Studies University, who has conducted field work on the railroad.
China’s presence in Africa has been the subject of heated debate, with investments dogged by allegations of shoddy workmanship, poor treatment of workers and a lack of transparency.
The company behind the Kenyan railway project, Chinese state-backed China Road and Bridge Corporation, has tried to ward off criticism by employing 25,000 Kenyan workers and training all crew members including drivers. It’s also built special underpasses to allow wildlife to cross the railroad, which plows through two national parks. However, last year at least eight elephants were killed while confused by the construction work, according to monitoring by Kenyan NGO Save the Elephants.
The railway line’s price tag has raised eyebrows. Funded by loans from state-backed China Export Import Bank (Exim), it’s twice as expensive per kilometer as the 750-km Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, also built by the Chinese.
Kenya Railways, which will operate the line, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment but officials have been quoted as saying in the past that the two projects shouldn’t be compared, as the Kenyan railroad has greater freight capacity and travels through more urbanized areas, making it more expensive. China Road and Bridge Corporation referred questions to its Chinese headquarters, which didn’t immediately respond when contacted by CNN.
“In Africa sometimes our policy makers think the Chinese are Santa Claus,” says Ali Khan Satchu, a financial analyst in Nairobi. “No, they’re there to make a return on their investment.”
In the 10-year period between 2004 and 2014, African countries borrowed nearly $10 billion for railway projects from China, facilitated by Exim. China sees the railways as an investment opportunity, which also creates an export market for their booming steel and construction industries.
At the railroad’s first stop out of Nairobi, locals like security guard Joseph Mailoya have little criticism for the project. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “Things are going to change around here.”
He motions towards hundreds of corrugated tin houses across from the terminal, a settlement for new inhabitants drawn by the railway.
“These people are going to start businesses, the community will get developed,” he says. “My kids may even be employed here.”
Part four Travel
China’s big spenders
Kidlington, UK -- Annabel Edwards, a British mother of four who lives in this quiet English village, remembers the first time it happened.
“There were 50 or 60 Chinese tourists walking up and down, in and out of people’s gardens, taking pictures of flowers and wheelie bins,” she says.
The mysterious visitors started taking an interest in her unremarkable street almost a year ago -- putting her home of Kidlington under a rare international spotlight.
Rumors said the tourists were misinformed that Kidlington was a film setting for “Harry Potter.” Another report said they were left in the village after refusing to pay extra for a ticket to the nearby Blenheim Palace. The BBC said they were attracted by the quiet houses and gardens.
No one seems to have the ultimate answer but one thing is for sure: Edwards and her fellow villagers encountered what’s perhaps been the biggest phenomenon to hit the global travel industry since the invention of commercial flight -- Chinese tourism.
Last year, 135 million Chinese tourists traveled overseas spending a whopping $261 billion, way more than anyone else including Americans, who spent $122 billion, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
A weak pound post-Brexit, more flexible visa requirements and better connections with China have made the UK much more appealing to Chinese tourists. Some 270,000 visited the UK in 2015 -- a 46% increase from a year earlier.
“I like everything about the trip. My favorite thing about the UK is its beautiful scenery -- no matter it’s the countryside or the city,” says Fu Shenghong, who’s just returned from a group tour of the country.
Britain, like other European countries, is unfurling the welcome mat. Compared to other international travelers, Chinese visitors stay longer (15 nights compared to eight for other visitors to the UK) and spend more ($2,807 for each visit, three times more than an average visitor), according to Visit Britain, which promotes tourism.
Visit Britain is also trying to make the UK more “China ready.” Among the 500 businesses signed up for the Great China Welcome program are hotels that serve Chinese breakfast food and offer Chinese TV channels, and retailers that accept Chinese payment methods like UnionPay or Alipay.
While the selfie-taking, bus-travelling tourist stereotype isn’t completely off the mark -- group travel is still very much in demand in China -- there is an increase in individual travel and a growing desire for a more authentic travel experience.
“My best memory is a homestay with an artist in a hidden cottage,” says Ken Chan, an IT manager from southern China, who spent a month traveling around the UK last year.
As for the Benmead Road residents in Kidlington, Chinese tourists are still coming to their village once or twice a week but have stopped trampling on their flower beds. “It’s bizarre, funny but also very sweet,” says Edwards.
Part five Military
A global military player
It’s in South Sudan where China has learned the hard realities of global power.
In July 2016, two soldiers involved in United Nations peacekeeping efforts in the capital Juba returned home in caskets. The Chinese military hadn’t seen combat deaths in more than three decades.
“For the government, it was a shock. They don’t want a death toll from what they see as efforts to project soft power,” said Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai.
The presence of Chinese peacekeepers on African soil is just one facet of China’s quest to become a global military player rivaling the United States.
It’s building its first military base in Djibouti, just a few miles away from Camp Lemonnier, the US base that opened in 2008, and it’s developing a “blue-water” navy capable of operating in open oceans -- in April its first domestically built aircraft carrier was launched. And China’s military hardware, while not yet rivaling the US, is getting increasingly sophisticated.
Beijing first sent troops into a combat zone in 2013, dispatching peacekeepers to Mali, and in 2015 sent troops to South Sudan, where part of the mission is to guard oil installations, some of which are Chinese invested. Three Chinese warships have joined the international naval flotilla battling piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
China supplies 2,322 troops to UN peacekeeping efforts worldwide -- by far the most of any UN security council member -- and has pledged 8,000 for a fast-response force. The US has just 42 troops but fronts the largest share of the UN peacekeeping budget -- although US President Donald Trump wants to cut that by half.
Shen says it’s about boosting China’s global standing as a responsible military power and training China’s troops, which haven’t seen combat since 1988.
However, Lt Col. (ret) Dennis J. Blasko, a former US army attaché to Beijing and Hong Kong, says it’s about garnering “maximum political and propaganda value from a minimal investment in personnel and money.” China’s Ministry of National Defense told CNN China has always actively participated in UN peacekeeping missions, saying "we are willing to contribute more to global peace and security."
In October, China denied accusations its peacekeepers failed to protect aid workers, who were attacked in a hotel the same day the two soldiers were killed, calling the accusations “malicious speculation.”
A UN report into the incident found that Chinese troops had left their posts. The report blamed a poor chain of command among the peace keeping contingents from China, Ethiopia, Nepal and India for a “chaotic and ineffective response to the violence.”
The deaths and ensuing scandal in South Sudan haven’t loosened China’s embrace of the blue berets.
The US Department of Defense in its latest briefing to Congress on China in December said peacekeeping allows Beijing to achieve “various objectives” -- including improving its international image and gathering intelligence.
Nine of the 16 UN missions are in Africa, where China has significant investments.
Greater involvement in peacekeeping may also give China more clout in decision making at the UN and positions Beijing to have a bigger say in future settlements in the Middle East, which Beijing relies upon for its oil.
“China wants both soft and hard power,” says Shen. “And this makes us more visible on the international stage.”