cover image displaying multiple flags

BRI From the Ground Up:
Leaders from 129 countries evaluate a decade of Beijing’s signature initiative

Samantha Custer, Ana Horigoshi, and Kelsey Marshall

March 2024

Executive Summary

In 2013, the advertised value proposition of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was clear: access to capital for physical and digital connectivity projects at scale, with minimal policy conditions, and impressive speed. Leaders in low- and middle-income countries saw the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as having the political will and the financial means to help them improve physical, digital, and people-to-people connections. Over the past decade, Beijing has become the Global South’s go-to infrastructure banker and most controversial debt collector.

Opinion runs hot on whether the PRC’s debt-financed development represents a net benefit or a net negative for partner countries. Nevertheless, a blindspot remains: what does the BRI look like from the ground up? AidData’s 2022-2023 Perceptions of Chinese Overseas Development Survey (BRI Perceptions Survey) helps to close this critical information gap. In this report, we analyze how 1,650 public, private, and civil society leaders from 129 countries think about the PRC as a development partner, the trade-offs of its projects, and the BRI overall.

How do Global South leaders think about Beijing as a development partner?

Seventy-nine percent of leaders surveyed viewed Beijing as actively supporting development in their country, often through financing and training. Even as it faces headwinds amid stories of debt distress and environmental decay, the PRC remains the infrastructure partner of choice for 38 percent of leaders globally, outstripping other major powers. Leaders from democracies and autocracies alike appreciated the economic potential of the PRC’s development model. However, Beijing’s brand does not extend as readily into other sectors. Few leaders viewed the PRC as their preferred partner in social, environmental, and governance domains, instead strongly preferring to work with democracies such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France or regional powers.

How do Global South leaders assess trade-offs of PRC development projects?

Leaders’ perceptions of Beijing’s development projects often align with its actual portfolio—bigger dollars and fewer policy conditions, but with lower levels of transparency, capacity, and quality. Context matters too: a sizable number of respondents view the PRC as offering more favorable financial terms, perhaps relative to borrowing from private capital markets, even as its assistance often involves loans using market rates rather than grants. Leaders also see trade-offs. They give high marks to the PRC for improving access to public services and economic gains from connectivity, access to technology, and vocational training. Conversely, they see these advances coming at the expense of worsening pollution, climate vulnerability, and corruption. Beijing attracted negative media attention for its domestic handling of the pandemic, but its contributions to COVID-19 response and recovery in other countries were seen more favorably. Ninety percent of respondents said that Beijing’s pandemic assistance either improved or had no impact on their views of the PRC as a development partner.

How has the PRC’s engagement with partner countries evolved in the BRI era?

International media scrutiny aside, more coverage of the BRI has not improved understanding of the initiative in the Global South. One-quarter of leaders struggled to articulate the BRI’s purpose and 40 percent were uncertain whether their country was a member. Leaders had more defined views on how Beijing’s engagement in their country has changed over the last decade. Three-quarters of leaders reported that the PRC had increased the number and size of projects in their country since 2012. The majority reported an uptick in the use of Chinese laborers, suppliers, and firms to implement these projects. While most leaders said they did not know the number of BRI projects in their country, they assumed these projects had larger dollar values and relied more on Chinese labor and expertise. As a brand, the BRI may have to navigate path dependence in the future: leaders strongly associate Beijing’s investments with infrastructure.

Looking forward, the report illuminates three implications for the future of the BRI and the PRC’s partnership with the Global South. First, Beijing must be prepared to navigate vulnerabilities from a growing gap between what it is willing to fund and what its partner countries want. Second, Beijing’s competitors will need to be more proactive in articulating their own value proposition in ways that are responsive to partner country priorities. Third, heavy-handed attempts by the PRC’s strategic competitors to vilify Beijing’s contributions as entirely bad for local economies will ring hollow. Instead, a more constructive approach would help countries maximize the economic benefits of PRC-financed development projects while mitigating debt distress, environmental harms, and higher corruption.