China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has hit a rocky patch.
Billed by Beijing as the 21st century’s best hope for a more connected world and economic opportunity for all, the BRI has also been a constant foil for China skeptics. Their warnings used to be the subject of Asia panels and investment forums but that has changed. The initiative is making global headlines that threaten to impede BRI’s short and midterm progress.
As the 5th anniversary of the BRI nears, a communicator’s take on the beginnings, where things stand today, the case for branding and strategic communications, and how to put Belt and Road where it belongs: on the winners’ podium.
OBOR or the early days
When President Xi Jinping announced One Belt, One Road (一带一路) in the fall of 2013, it was like Christmas had arrived early. The $1 trillion initiative that aims to connect some 70 countries and over two-thirds of the world's population via the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘21stCentury Maritime Silk Road’ knew only winners and no losers.
For developing economies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, this was the ticket to economic growth, new infrastructure and plenty of jobs, lifting millions out of poverty.
For Beijing, it opened new corridors to leverage overcapacity of state-owned enterprises, develop the restive Western region and gain access to new markets for Chinese brands while strengthening its political influence in far-flung places. Evoking imagery of the ancient Silk Road played well to a domestic audience keen to see China’s historical greatness restored and so further legitimizing the CCP’s rule.
The West saw opportunity and got reassurance. A China that upholds global trade and multilateralism while putting their money where the mouth is: what could be wrong with that? As Forbes contributor David Bulloch wrote:
“Pandas and China Bulls clapped, Davos cheered as the announcement itself seemed to occupy the strategic vacuum left by the credibility bombs of the financial crisis and the "War on Terror."
Belt and Road today
Five years on, the Belt and Road Initiative is making good progress but the global image of President Xi’s ‘win-win for all’ has taken a hit.
Within China, the initiative keeps inspiring a new way of life. BRI shapes everything, from politics to business to pop culture. There are BRI expos, fashion shows, art exhibits, marathons and even pop songs. China Daily just floated the idea of a Eurovision-like Belt and Road song contest. National pride: tick.
On the ground in Africa, South and Central Asia, the BRI provides financing and labor for ports, roads and rail networks, creating thousands of jobs and new trade links. For real believers, the initiative resembles a mini United Nations: an exclusive club with a shared vision and agenda for world development, peace and prosperity, always open for new members.
But not all is golden as the skeptics’ voices grow louder and louder.
The United States and some EU members still refuse full endorsement until they see greater transparency on the primary purpose, scope and priorities of the BRI, plus a guarantee for inclusiveness and environmental sustainability. And they resent the idea of Belt and Road as a highway for cheap Chinese goods into Europe. As French President Emmanuel Macron said in January:
“After all, the ancient Silk Roads were never only Chinese”.
Global media are catching up with a wave of critical reports that put a spotlight on political interference, economic coercion, ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, human rights abuses and even surveillance fears along the ‘Digital Silk Road’.
Public concern is also growing within Asia. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad cancelled several China-backed infrastructure projects, called out China’s ‘new form of colonialism’ and criticized Beijing’s militarization of disputed territory in the South China Sea, a hot topic all over Asia.
Even in China, observers are beginning to wonder about the mounting cost of Belt and Road projects.
Irrespective of what one’s position is on any of the concerns and allegations – overblown or largely accurate – the host of issues facing the BRI is undermining its short term prospect for success.
Not a strategy, not a campaign – it’s a brand (in the making)
China experts have long noted that Belt and Road was never designed as a communications strategy or campaign to promote China or its foreign policy. That would explain the absence of a clear definition of what constitutes a Belt and Road project.
The resulting ambiguity has left a vacuum that is filled by all kind of actors and players. But a new path is emerging. The Lowy Institute’s Merriden Varrall offers some fresh perspective, arguing that the BRI is in fact just a brand:
“It’s a marketing tool, a label applied with a sweeping generosity to a huge range of projects being undertaken by a vast array of actors – a large proportion of which existed well before President Xi Jinping announced his pet project in 2013.”
Fact is, name awareness and visibility alone don’t make a brand. And slapping a label on any number of existing projects, hoping it sticks and thus giving BRI some unified look is not what branding is about. In some comical twist though it does reflect the outwardly random nature of everything called a ‘BRI project’ today, making Belt and Road look like a free for all.
Belt and Road is a brand in the making. All it takes now is a comprehensive brand strategy with a clear purpose and strong (visual) identity. That plus an integrated communications strategy to advance authentic relationships in sync with everything BRI does or offers, in China and anywhere in the world, including services, people and experiences.
Once in place, Beijing can mark ‘approved’ projects and disown (by denying access to the official brand) ‘zombie companies’ and failed projects, lending greater credibility to the entire initiative.
Branding Belt and Road
Sooner or later Beijing will have to revisit its approach and correct some of the mistakes made. To illustrate that point, take a look at two Chinese-run Belt and Road websites.
The official Belt and Road portal is a press release bank with repetitive imagery of flags and banners and conference shots of men in dark suits, shaking hands. There are exactly two links to social media, Weibo and WeChat (Twitter of course is banned in China). It’s inward-looking and self-referential, with no discernible attempt made to engage any audience, Chinese or international, on their own terms.
The Hong Kong Trade Development Council’s BRI portal is a visually appealing, well-designed site showcasing everything Hong Kong offers under the BRI umbrella – the advantage of a global city with a long history of doing business with the world. There are multiple stories from participating nations, six social media channels, multimedia content, country profiles, searchable investment projects, and so on.
Both are telling their own BRI story without caring about the lack of a unifying theme. That is more than just an opportunity missed. Think of Mercedes Benz. It’s a different category altogether but the same brand principles apply. Every single Mercedes dealership, print ad, brochure, website or TV commercial in the world looks like it was done by the same designer. That is because it was. They all follow the same style book that lays out in every detail what colors, fonts and images are permitted. This is how a truly global brand looks and feels.
Communicating Belt and Road
As important as the brand strategy and visual identity are for shaping perceptions and creating excitement, pride and support, so are brand engagement and dialog. Four pointers for the BRI communications department:
Two-way, not one-way
Belt and Road PR cannot be handled like propaganda for some domestic mega-project under the executive control of the CCP. While historically understandable, the notion of BRI communications as governmental privilege that comes with interpretative primacy is plain wrong.
Communicating BRI will always have to be a multi-stakeholder exercise because it means different things to different people. Telling the BRI story in say, Kenya is unlike doing the same in Kazakhstan or Poland. That will take an open yet coordinated approach.
Beijing has access to thousands of storytellers waiting to spread the word around the globe, effectively removing the burden of communicating the story all by itself. By welcoming other nations, enterprises or institutions to contribute to BRI communications – under the official BRI banner – it lays proof to its claim of openness.
Dialog, dialog, dialog
Once an idea has caught on and gained a certain level of prominence, opposition becomes a fact of life. Blaming critics for having a bias and cold war mentality hasn’t silenced the doubters. Suggesting Belt and Road skeptics have 'evil intentions and vested interests' won’t do much good either. These are misguided attempts to dismiss all critics that will only burn reputational equity. Only by seeking dialog BRI will rise above all differences.
Explore the BRI’s inherent soft power
Belt and Road could get a real boost from focusing more on its soft power, putting a greater emphasis on the mutual benefits and gains from cross-cultural engagement and collaboration.
This argument was beautifully made by SCMP contributor Stuart Heaver in TheNewsLens:
“The ambitious BRI development strategy leans heavily on the history of the ancient maritime silk routes for credibility and a metaphorical luster that sparks imaginings of exotic fleets from the four corners of the globe criss-crossing the high seas. It's a vision that speaks of mutual exchange and benefit. … Yet a closer analysis reveals that [...] the modern-day BRI lacks the cross-cultural engagement that defined intercontinental trade of yore.”
Belt and Road stands out for the sheer scope and scale by which it connects the world. There is a treasure trove of ‘otherworldly’ content waiting to be explored for storytelling under the BRI brand (every PR guy will instantly see scores of visual Belt and Road stories popping up).
Always consider the big picture
Belt and Road is not the sum total of Beijing’s foreign policy but both are closely linked. If the BRI makes a mistake, China as a whole takes a hit. Here is what Ian Batey wrote in Asian Branding, his seminal book first published in 2002:
“Numerous disparate dynamics obviously contribute towards the brand identity of a country, and the negative effort of just one small part can seriously upset the good work of all other parts”.
Taking a page from the Olympics
The best example for the successful deployment of Chinese soft power dates back one decade, to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
There are some interesting parallels between the two. Both Belt and Road and the Olympics are globally recognized and in a wider sense highly aspirational ventures with seemingly limitless potential, synonymous with human progress and achievement. Both are sources of sympathy and goodwill – no one wants to see the Games fail. And both are more than just Chinese initiatives.
Let’s zoom in on that last part. The Olympics are owned by the world community. Beijing merely hosted the Games and took excellent care of them. Looking at BRI in a similar way – as a global initiative led (“hosted”) by China but supported and therefore co-owned by multiple parties, nation states and enterprises – reveals the true promise Belt and Road holds.
It has worked before and will work again. China had its fair share of criticism during the Olympics bid in 2001 and the seven-year run-up to the Games. It dealt with all of that in an open and transparent way and in the end delivered the “most watched sporting event in history, attracting 4.7 billion people worldwide (two-third of world population), and gaining entries in the Guinness World Records as the ‘Largest TV audience for an event’.”
Belt and Road is here to stay, its success underwritten by the CCP, which enshrined it in the constitution and abolished the presidential term limit, giving Xi Jinping unrestrained power to push it through.
The time has passed where Belt and Road branding could be treated like an afterthought, a nice-to-have. The BRI deserves no less than an Olympic class brand, developed by the best in the industry. Only then can Belt and Road aim for gold, take its rightful place on the winners’ podium and succeed the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as China’s biggest brand.