Across different regions journalists face similar constraints and challenges when reporting on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive trade and infrastructure project rolling out in more than 100 countries from Southeast Asia to Africa to Latin America and the Pacific Islands.
Those challenges mean media coverage of the BRI is often inadequate at a time when local communities need information more than ever on how the large-scale investments and developments that are taking place at their door-steps will affect their lives. At the global level, people are also seeking in-depth reports and analyses to understand China’s growing role in the world.
At a workshop in May jointly organized by the Earth Journalism Network, chinadialogue and the Myanmar Journalism Institute, journalists from China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Kenya and Colombia shared their experiences reporting on the BRI and discussed ways to overcome some of the challenges they’re facing.
In China, for example, the media mainly report the perspective of Chinese actors while side-lining the voices of local communities in countries where BRI projects are developing, workshop participants said. Media outlets outside China also tend to approach the topic with their own firmly held world views, often without engaging with Chinese stakeholders.
Journalists at the workshop recognized the general lack of Chinese perspectives in BRI media reports produced outside China, saying a language barrier makes it difficult for non-Chinese journalists to reach out to Chinese sources for their stories while a lack of publicly available documents makes it difficult for them to access BRI data and information. Journalists also said they rarely are allowed to visit BRI project sites and their requests for interviews and questions to Chinese investors or authorities are often met with silence or “no comment” responses.
Meanwhile, Chinese journalists who are keen to channel the voices of local communities near BRI project sites are constrained by the lack of financial resources and logistical challenges that come with visiting projects located in remote areas that are costly and time-consuming to get to.
On top of these constraints, workshop participant said the media generally looks at BRI through political and economic lenses, rarely providing in-depth reports on the social and environmental costs of the initiative.
Part of that stems from the fact that while journalists are used to covering myriad issues, rarely is a topic as multi-dimensional as BRI, which requires technical knowledge across so many areas: global and regional geopolitics, country-specific environmental and business regulations, national loans and debt structures, energy and extractive industries.
Take the local regulatory environment, for example. In the case of Myanmar, one of the workshop speakers, Vicky Bowman, director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, emphasized the importance of understanding the changing regulatory environment for investments.
Until 2012, due to Western economic sanctions, investments in Myanmar were dominated by China, and there was no obvious regulatory process for investment nor requirement for environmental impact assessments. Following the return of a democratic government to Myanmar in 2012, the regulatory environment has significantly improved with the introduction of new investment, labor and environmental regulations. Nevertheless, Myanmar is still playing catching up in enforcing these regulations while global investments flow into the newly opened market.
Bowman said that because journalists often do not understand the regulatory framework and investment processes, “they often are not able to ask the right questions to the investors and relevant authorities.”
In some cases, the media even helps reinforce skewed public impressions of BRI, said Bowman, referring to the perception that China imposed development of the unpopular Myitsone dam in Myanmar while, in fact, it was initiated by Myanmar’s former junta government, which lobbied strongly for Chinese investments despite China’s initial reluctance to invest due to the country’s complex political and social situations.
In Kenya, journalist Maina Waruru said local media reinforced the false rumor that China is bringing its national prisoners to Kenya to serve as cheap labor for BRI projects. Similarly, in Indonesia, journalist Untung Widyanto said he fears rumors about foreign workers from China entering the country may heighten pre-existing anti-Chinese sentiment, in a country with a history of violent acts targeting ethnic Chinese Indonesians. For example, in post-presidential-election riots in Jakarta in May that led to several deaths, hoax messages spread quickly on social media blaming the deaths on “police from China” who entered Indonesia “disguised as foreign workers.”
In Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, where the media is heavily controlled by the state and cybersecurity laws are used to silence critical voices, journalists said they fear negative repercussions when writing stories that may not be aligned with those states’ support for BRI projects.
To overcome these challenges, workshop participants identified several strategies. On an individual level, journalists must increase their understanding of investment regulations, environmental impact assessments and foreign loans, among other BRI-related topics, said Colombian journalist Andres Bermudez Lievano. They also need to be more rigorous in their fact-checking and put effort into including Chinese perspectives.
Journalists agreed that they would benefit greatly from sharing information with each other, such as Chinese companies’ track records and sources of information on BRI projects. In particular, Chinese think-tanks could act as go-betweens in helping journalists get access to Chinese authorities and BRI project investors.
Through workshops like this, EJN and its partners are working to provide a platform where journalists from China and BRI countries can share local perspectives and circumstances and form networks to exchange information and carry out collaborative reporting.
Following the workshop in May, participating journalists started an online collection of BRI resources they can share among themselves to help with their future reporting. By taking these steps, we hope journalists will develop more nuanced stories that can collectively shape a better global conversation about the BRI.
Banner photo: A family bathes in the Mekong, close to Luang Prabang and in front of the railway. Several shops and restaurants in the city are now Chinese-run, with Laotians having rented their properties and moved out / Credit: Surya Chuen