China’s Elitist Collaborators

by Juan Pablo Cardenal

Juan Pablo Cardenal is a researcher at The Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America (CADAL).

HONG KONG – At the beginning of this century, when China launched its “going out” policy – focused on using foreign-exchange reserves to support overseas expansion and acquisitions by Chinese companies – few expected the country quickly to emerge as a leading economic player in Latin America. Yet that is exactly what has happened. The question is whether this is good for Latin America.

In less than 15 years, China has gone from playing a rather marginal economic role in Latin America to being among the top investors and trading partners for most countries in the region, as well as its foremost lender and infrastructure builder. With its economic plans in Latin America cruising along smoothly – a trend that seems unlikely to change anytime soon – China has now set its sights on another goal: expanding its political influence in the region and beyond.

Of course, China’s status as an economic heavyweight already affords it a significant degree of political clout. But the Chinese state and its ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) are also pursuing a more direct, coordinated, and far-reaching strategy to expand its soft power.

That strategy – more “sharp” than “soft” in practice – focuses largely on promoting personal and institutional engagement, cooperation, and exchanges with Latin American elites in four main areas: media, culture, academia, and politics. For example, China produces free media content to be shared locally, provides scholarships to Latin American students and professionals to be “trained” in China, creates partnerships with local universities and think tanks, and opens and operates Confucius Institutes, among other initiatives.

But the single most powerful tool China employs is people-to-people exchange, whereby China seeks to build strong personal relationships with influential individuals from a variety of fields. To that end, Chinese leaders bring Latin American political figures, academics, journalists, high-ranking government officials, ex-diplomats, and others to China to participate in weeks-long trainings, academic events, or ad hoc exchange programs, and meet their Chinese counterparts.

This “elite capture” is not insignificant. According to President Xi Jinping, China w ill train 10,000 prominent Latin Americans by 2020. Moreover, the CPC has committed itself to inviting 15,000 members of foreign political parties to China for exchanges in the next five years – initiatives in which many Latin American political representatives are already engaged.

The primary goal of these efforts is to ensure that prominent figures, including current and future leaders of Latin America – typically handpicked by the Chinese leadership – are on China’s side. To put it bluntly, China’s authoritarian regime is subtly and gradually buying Latin America’s elites.

And the plan is working. The luxurious five-star hotels, over-the-top hospitality, and carefully crafted narrative and agendas make a powerful, even hypnotic, impression on China’s foreign guests. Many of them return home believing that China is a fundamentally benign actor, and thus that they have nothing to fear from its engagement in their countries. Many go so far as to become cheerleaders for China.

Their praise for China – expressed through published work, public remarks, or private comments – often, and understandably, focuses on the country’s perceived economic success. They speak with admiration about the economy’s transition from Maoism to “red capitalism,” its resilience in the face of the 2008 global financial crisis, and its emergence as perhaps the main winner of globalization. And they celebrate China as a valuable source of investments, loans, and market opportunities.

China’s experience proves, according to many of the regime’s newfound friends, that development without democracy is possible. That assessment is almost never qualified by recognition of the potential dangers of becoming too dependent on China, much less any reference to its authoritarian political system or poor human-rights record.

These enthusiasts probably would not want a China-style regime in their own countries. Yet, by accepting and even propagating the CPC-endorsed narrative and abjuring any critical analysis, they are contributing to a worryingly inaccurate image of China across Latin America. With little knowledge about China, many in the region are getting their information from their local elites – the very people whom China’s leaders are trying to attract.

The public, in Latin America and elsewhere, deserves to hear the whole story. They should learn about China’s asymmetric relationships with many of its trading partners, and the stark terms of Chinese loans, which have left many borrowers mired in a debt trap. They should also know the truth about labor conditions at China’s overseas projects, not to mention their environmental and social impact. And they should know about intensifying domestic repression in the age of Xi.

There is no doubt that Chinese engagement has brought major opportunities to Latin America. But the risks cannot and should not be ignored. The journalists, academics, politicians, and other influential people whom China is courting have a responsibility to avoid being swept up in the charm offensive, and to provide a clear-eyed assessment of the potential pitfalls of engagement. Otherwise, Latin America may soon find itself paying a high price for its blurred vision.


Juan Pablo Cardenal is a researcher at The Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America (CADAL).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
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