Poorly organized and tightly controlled: inside China’s Belt and Road party
Apr 29, 2019
Photo: Simon Song
Lee Jeong-ho andKeegan Elmer

Trying to dispel foreign skepticism over its Belt and Road initiative, Beijing held a three-day summit last week gathering foreign leaders and delegates from 150 countries.

But traffic woes, poor organization and tight media control during the forum – China’s most important diplomatic event of the year – have raised questions over its ability to project soft power.

Poor organization

Lack of a clear schedule often left attendees either waiting for hours on end or scrambling to catch up after an event started suddenly.

One delegate from a European country complained that the forum was chaotic, saying there was no clear agenda provided – only a schedule giving time slots for speakers.

Television broadcasts of a round-table discussion on Saturday joined by nearly 40 world leaders featured only the opening remarks by President Xi Jinping, and the live stream was cut abruptly before any of the Belt and Road partner countries had a chance to speak.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and foreign leaders walk to attend the opening ceremony of the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on April 26, 2019. Photo: Xinhua/Li Xueren

In the run-up to Saturday night’s press conference with Xi, organizers realized there would not be enough reporters to fill all the seats at the venue so they hit the phones, asking journalists to attend the event – and bring their colleagues.

“We got a call from Chinese officials asking for our attendance at Xi’s press conference [on Saturday],” said a person working for a foreign media organization. “They said they realized that they did not have enough reporters attending the press conference, and desperately asked for us to attend.”

Tight media control

Chinese officials had been told not to speak to any media organizations about arrangements for the Belt and Road Forum throughout the event, a person familiar with the forum’s administration told the South China Morning Post.

Domestic media were told by the propaganda department they could not comment on sensitive issues such as China’s trade war with the United States while the event was on.

Attendees pick up copies of a book on the governance of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the media center for the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Friday, April 26, 2019. Photo: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The forum also lacked sufficient content for a three-day event.

On the first day, only smaller panel discussions took place and they were “very general,” according to a Chinese participant.

“So basically this forum, to me, was a one-day publicity stunt for China,” said another person close to the conference’s organization.

“Most of the Chinese officials on Saturday were off to the airport to send the attendees home,” the person added.

Traffic woes

The forum also created more headaches for ordinary Beijingers, who already had to cope with heavy traffic in the congested capital city.

Traffic stalls as a limousine carrying Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad traveling past Chang'an Avenue in Beijing on the first day of the Belt and Road Forum in 2019. Photo: AP Photo/Andy Wong

Large stretches of Beijing’s already busy highways were closed for the forum, trapping attendees, taxi drivers, and commuters in seemingly endless traffic jams.

The irony was not lost on locals.

“Beijing hosting the Belt and Road Forum is supposed to promote global connectivity, but the traffic has been seriously chaotic these last few days … leaving no ‘connectivity’ for Beijing’s roads,” quipped one resident on social media, adding that GPS displays were showing roads where traffic had come to a standstill.

“The traffic police only care about the VIPs,” the person added.

Jeong-ho is a contributor to Inkstone. He covers China's diplomacy, East Asian security and defense for the South China Morning Post.
Keegan is a contributor to Inkstone. He is a reporter at the South China Morning Post covering China in world affairs.