RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
China's president is promoting his country's global ambitions today. Xi Jingping is hosting leaders from around three dozen nations in Beijing. He's promoting something called the Belt and Road Initiative. That's China's name for roads, pipelines, power plants and ports. They are built across Asia and beyond with Chinese loans and labor. But the U.S. is not comfortable with the Chinese influence that comes with the money. Steve Inskeep is in Beijing reporting on this. Good morning, Steve.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Hey there, Rachel.
MARTIN: What's the meeting like?
INSKEEP: Well, it's being held in this enormous convention center. China is known for big buildings, and this is one of them. Traffic was jammed by motorcades as people headed over there. There's extra security at all the top hotels here. Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar is here. Russia's Vladimir Putin is here, leaders of U.S. allies like the Philippines - all of them lined up politely in the front row of this enormous room as President Xi welcomed them.
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PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Mandarin Chinese).
INSKEEP: He's saying, "we need to protect the Earth where we all live." And he's promising projects that are both good for the environment and free of corruption, answering criticism that many projects are actually neither of those things.
MARTIN: I guess that helps explain why no top American officials are attending the conference.
INSKEEP: Yeah. The U.S. has attacked China's motives, asking why it's offering loans and construction in so many countries. But Westerners are here, and we slipped into one giant room where corporate CEOs were giving speeches.
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UNIDENTIFIED CEO: ...In helping deliver the huge benefits that the Belt and Road Initiative can entail.
INSKEEP: The speaker was the head of a London-based global bank. He's trying to encourage China to run its program better even as Western officials more directly question it.
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INSKEEP: Now, Americans are not completely absent from this forum. Edward Cunningham, a China specialist at Harvard University, was invited to take part. We met him for breakfast at a hotel down the street from Tiananmen Square. So what is this mass of Chinese-built railways, pipelines, ports and highways?
EDWARD CUNNINGHAM: It is probably the grandest attempt at storytelling that we have seen in the post-Bretton Woods era.
INSKEEP: He's referring to a World War 2 conference where the U.S. and its allies set up the modern financial order. Now China is telling its own story of how the world should develop. To see how China builds, we slipped away from Beijing and took a ride eastward on a high-speed train.
We're accelerating toward 200 miles an hour. I'm standing comfortably. I'd like to share the sound of this train with you. But after the door closed, it is as quiet as a library. Out the window, our editor, Reena Advani, saw miles of new apartment towers and construction cranes beneath a darkening sky.
REENA ADVANI, BYLINE: ...Appears to be worse and worse as we go out.
INSKEEP: Yeah, it's really gray.
Pollution hangs over northern China, prompting many people to wear face masks all day.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The next stop is Binhai Railway Station.
INSKEEP: We walk through that station beneath its soaring roof of concrete and glass. It's in a financial district under construction. Skyscrapers - some unfinished, others barely occupied. It was meant to make this city, the port of Tianjin, a rival to Manhattan. Gao Fe (ph), a local real estate analyst, says the office space is largely unfilled.
GAO FE: (Through interpreter) Many business plots have been transformed into residential buildings. Otherwise, not many people want to buy them. The government made a compromise with reality.
INSKEEP: This is how China developed, with government-directed projects that are massive and sometimes excessive. Belt and Road projects apply that model to other countries. People we met on the streets of Tianjin have heard of the initiative.
LIO JU: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: Lio Ju (ph) says, "it helps China's development and helps us go global."
Do you think it also makes China more powerful in the world?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Of course.
INSKEEP: We met on a street of old Italian-style buildings. They were built in colonial days when Western powers were pushing trade on China. Now China is pushing outward, though some Chinese have questions. On the street, we met Jian Qu Shi (ph).
JIAN QU SHI: Yes, it's a good thing to turn. But as a common people, so far, we don't feel the benefits about these ideas.
INSKEEP: You don't feel any benefit in your life from...
JIAN: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
INSKEEP: Facing skepticism, the state-run media and think tanks promote Belt and Road. In Beijing, we walked the grounds of Tsinghua University, established amid the trees and ponds of what once had been an imperial garden.
MIRABELLE SINGH: It is, well, one of the best universities. People who are not really humble say it's the best because we want to make the neighbours kind of angry.
INSKEEP: There are other universities around. Yeah.
SINGH: Beijing University - yeah.
INSKEEP: Mirabelle Singh (ph) is a graduate student who says the university encourages Belt and Road study.
SINGH: We actually joke about this sometimes among the students that, if you want to get your articles published or supervisors approved, it's easy just to do anything related to Belt and Road.
INSKEEP: It is harder for China to steer the dialogue overseas. A Chinese-built port in Sri Lanka failed, and China repossessed it. The Trump administration accuses China of loaning money on bad terms or making deals with corrupt leaders. Before coming here to China, we met a U.S. official charged with a response. David Bohigian directs an American development agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
Was there a moment when people realized, wait a minute - this Chinese initiative is in some ways a threat?
DAVID BOHIGIAN: Well, I certainly think that the way China's operating on the global stage has changed. Ten years ago, I was an assistant secretary of Commerce. At that time, the Chinese were talking about harmonious development. And I was helping lead clean energy trade missions to China and India to support that sort of growth together.
INSKEEP: It seemed like China could be a partner.
BOHIGIAN: Absolutely. I left government eight years later, came back, and the tune had changed. China is a revisionist power.
INSKEEP: He means China wants to reshape the world order. Congress is renaming Bohigian's agency and doubling its investments to compete. At the Belt and Road forum here in Beijing, Chinese officials are ready for this kind of criticism. In a hallway, we met Chen Wing Ling (ph) of a government think tank.
CHEN WING LING: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: "There is no coercion," she says. "China has never pressured other countries. This makes no sense." And there are signs that China could spend development money within global standards. We visited a Beijing office building, and Lindsay Mack of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank led us into an elevator.
LINDSAY MACK: So this is our temporary headquarters, and we will be moving to our permanent headquarters early next year.
INSKEEP: This suggests how new this institution is.
MACK: Yes, yes. We're only at three years.
INSKEEP: It's China's nearest equivalent of the World Bank, Chinese-led with many member countries. The executive who met us was German, Joachim von Amsberg. When lending to developing nations, the bank insists on environmental and corruption safeguards. It has only supported a few Belt and Road projects.
JOACHIM VON AMSBERG: We are a multilateral institution that has a very clear legal foundation, very different from an initiative that is very vague and open-ended.
INSKEEP: But von Amsberg says China commonly builds infrastructure before it is needed.
VON AMSBERG: China had a much more systematic approach toward planning infrastructure, building ahead and then letting the economic development catch up or inducing the economic development that uses the infrastructure. That model may or may not work when it's brought elsewhere, and I think that's where some of the tension arises.
INSKEEP: Whatever the standards, the world is interested in Chinese investment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.