China’s President Xi Jinping intends to tell you a story.
But first he’s going to try it out on the world’s political leaders. Not those of the United States, Japan, India or much of the European Union. They’ve declined the invitation.
But this weekend Mr Xi is gathering all the presidents and prime ministers he can muster in Beijing, hoping to inspire them with a vision about China as a force for good in the world.
Xi Jinping came to power five years ago with a determination that China should stop hiding its light under a bushel. Instead of creeping up timidly on the world order, he felt it should walk tall as a mighty and ancient civilisation which had gone from marginal economic player to the world’s biggest trading nation in less than four decades.
“The relationship between China and the rest of the world is undergoing historic changes. Tell China stories well,” he urged the nation’s media, diplomats and think tanks, adding that they must present China as a builder of world peace and contributor to global development.
This weekend he himself takes the stage as storyteller in chief at Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum. It helps that there is currently no competing global narrative from the United States or the European Union, as President Trump turns inward to “Make America Great Again” and the EU struggles with Brexit and a slew of other challenges.
A geopolitical agenda?
China’s underlying narrative is well known to all Mr Xi’s guests. Economic transformation and breakneck growth have returned it to its traditional position at the centre of the East Asian economy.
And now Mr Xi wants to use Chinese money and construction might to rebuild much of Eurasia’s infrastructure of ports, roads and rails and put China at its heart. A giant exercise in joining the dots whose buzzword is connectivity.
Critics in Washington, Tokyo and New Delhi observe that some of the biggest belt and road projects seem to be for strategically significant assets. Like the oil and gas pipelines across Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka which might serve military as well as commercial uses.
Many observers see an obvious geopolitical agenda to the belt and road initiative, but in a suspicious and prickly neighbourhood China firmly denies it. To make the plan less threatening, it frames it as a revival of the ancient Silk Road whose camel caravans carried Chinese goods west across Asia more than 1,000 years ago.
The aim is a soft-power message of a China which is mighty but peaceful, delivering what it can to the world in exchanges of mutual benefit. But the belt and road is much more ambitious than a camel caravan.
By land and by sea, through transport networks, telecoms, energy pipelines and industrial hubs, it promises to integrate more than 60 countries and 60% of the world’s population.
And for domestic Chinese audiences, the story of the belt and road is told with a different emphasis, focusing less on the wins for foreigners and more on opportunities for China’s impoverished west and assisting China’s push up the value chain into industries like high speed rail and nuclear power.
There’s even a narrative aimed at foreign children. Mr Xi may be the headline act on stage this weekend but in the scramble to offer the warm up, the state-owned China Daily newspaper is running online videos of an American father telling his daughter bedtime stories about the belt and road as “China’s idea which belongs to the world”.
And in a catchy music video, ukulele strumming multi-ethnic children surrounded by cut-out camels sing the praises of the belt and road.
“We’re paving new roads, building more ports, finding new options with friends of all sorts, It’s a culture exchange, we trade in our wealth, we connect with our hearts, it strengthens our health,” it goes.
Mr Xi has been telling the belt and road story for four years now. Why gather the world’s decision makers in Beijing for a grand rendition now?
Personal and national ambitions
One short answer is that he needs to drum up growth. China’s domestic economy is slowing and exporting Chinese construction capacity to the belt and road would help boost the domestic economy in the short and medium term.
If even some of the infrastructure projects succeed, they might in turn contribute to growth in the long term by spurring demand from China’s neighbours.
But a more personal reason for the timing is Mr Xi’s own political cycle. In the one-party state, being Communist Party leader is more important than being president and this year China will hold a vital Party Congress.
Hosting the world this weekend burnishes Xi Jinping’s aura of invincibility by reminding his party and public that he is increasing China’s clout on the international stage.
A third reason for the timing is the international picture. Many of America’s friends and allies in the region were dismayed by Mr Trump’s decision to walk away from the TPP trade agreement, an agreement which his predecessor had said was vital to the US setting the rules of the road in Asia rather than letting China set them.
Mr Xi’s new push for the belt and road initiative is the same kind of canny political opportunism that spurred his defence of globalisation at the Davos forum in January.
So China’s president has been lucky in his timing and bold in seizing the stage. And it will certainly look to his guests as if he usually gets what he wants. No country puts on a grand spectacle of purpose and progress quite like China does.
This weekend Beijing’s sky will be blue. Smog, traffic snarl and ghost towns littered with white elephant infrastructure will be safely far from view.
This is the show and tell of Xi Jinping’s story… China the can-do master builder inspiring awe in all beholders and giving hope that what China has achieved at home it might replicate elsewhere.
But the truth is that Mr Xi’s will works as an organising principle only for some of the people some of the time, and usually only for a very small number of highly specific objectives. Even in Beijing, the sky is not always blue, the traffic is often snarled and resources are often misallocated.
How much more is this true beyond the glittering capital. China is an economy with a perilous debt overhang precisely because its investors are just as fallible as those of other countries.
Yes, on the right project and for the right price, Chinese money and Chinese master builders can work infrastructure wonders. But that was always the case. The belt and road is an important initiative, but one of indeterminate boundaries, duration and outcome.
Mr Xi’s guests should not make the mistake of thinking all Chinese players will do his bidding and all bedtime stories will come true.