By Brian Kern
On 15 May 2018, Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong announced having received a donation of HK$50 million (about US$6.3 million) from the Lee Shau Kee Foundation to start a “Belt & Road learning and resources centre”. The centre is scheduled to open in autumn 2019 and, according to LPCUWC, “will allow a greater number of young students, including the external and international community, to experience the UWC Movement in action, through short programmes, interactive workshops, and diverse cultural exchanges.”
LPCUWC is one of 17 United World Colleges around the world which share a common mission to “make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” What that means in practice is that they bring young people from many different countries together to learn and study for two years. LPC, for instance, has 256 students from 80 different countries at its boarding school in Ma On Shan.
The donor, Lee Shau-kee is a Hong Kong billionaire allied with the Chinese Communist Party (as most Hong Kong tycoons are). His foundation engages in philanthropy in both Hong Kong and China and has made large donations to several Hong Kong universities and secondary schools. This is the first time, however, that it has given money to any educational initiative linked to Belt & Road.
Belt & Road is the premiere foreign policy initiative of the CCP. A sign of the high priority it gives to Belt & Road is that it was written into the Party constitution in October 2017. It is also closely linked with supreme leader Xi Jinping, (For an indication of how closely, see the attached image of the front page of the September 3 edition of People’s Daily, the CCP’s main mouthpiece, where Xi Jinping’s name is mentioned 43 times and Belt & Road 15 times.)
In his 2016 annual policy address, former Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung mentioned Belt & Road 48 times, becoming a laughing stock in the city but achieving his objective of showing his loyalty to the CCP and signalling the expectation that Hong Kong allies of the Party show their support of Belt & Road. Leung also made unprecedented attempts to control Hong Kong academic institutions, especially after the Umbrella Movement. LPC’s Belt & Road centre is one result of these double pressures to demonstrate support for Belt & Road and to rein in academic freedom. Only a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for an independent educational institution in Hong Kong to ally itself with the Communist Party.
It is unclear exactly who came up with the idea of the Belt & Road centre, but looking at the composition of LPC’s Board of Directors, it isn’t hard to guess how it might have come to pass. Of the 18 members of the board, seven are former Hong Kong government officials and seven are Hong Kong businesspeople. This nexus of government, business and the CCP is also what’s chiefly responsible for the on-going denial of democracy to Hong Kong. Within that milieu of government officials and businesspeople, it would be uncontroversial to approve a plan to name a centre ‘Belt & Road’ at a supposedly independent school. Indeed, one of the more troubling aspects of LPC’s Belt & Road centre is that it is a sign of the gradual erosion of norms in Hong Kong society under CCP pressure.
Taking its inspiration from the legendary Silk Road, the CCP’s Belt & Road consists largely of billions of dollars of loans to developing countries for infrastructure projects. It is not a peace initiative. It has no articulated peace plan, though it repeatedly invokes word-soup slogans like “peace, mutual learning and win-win cooperation”, “world peace and development” and “harmony, peace and prosperity”. The closest it comes to a peace plan is what it calls “people-to-people bond”. This sounds more like publicity in support of the initiative’s core strategic and development priorities, though it is presumably under this aegis that LPC conceives of its Belt & Road centre, in which case LPC could easily be perceived as conducting the CCP’s propaganda work on its behalf.
Belt & Road has been widely criticised as imperial and neo-colonial in nature as well as for corruption, lack of transparency, and causing debtor countries (usually run by undemocratic regimes) to fall into unsustainable debt. The Sri Lankan government was unable to repay its debts, resulting in China taking over a port in the strategically located country for 99 years. The new democratically elected head of Malaysia recently went to Beijing to try to get its Belt & Road agreements, signed by the previous corrupt government, cancelled.
The main contractors on Belt & Road projects are Chinese state-owned enterprises, some of which have also been involved in the CCP’s building of military complexes in the disputed South China Sea. China’s occupation and militarisation of that area claimed by multiple neighboring countries is, whatever else you may think of it, pretty much the opposite of a peace initiative.
There have been major international economic cooperation projects that have had significantly positive impacts on peace: The European Union has received the Nobel Peace Prize. But the EU’s economic integration ran parallel to other efforts, such as the Council of Europe with its core commitment to upholding democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Belt & Road is not the EU, China is not a democracy, and it has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
In naming its new centre “Belt & Road,” LPC is explicitly aligning itself with a specific government that is a dictatorship responsible for mass human rights abuses, not for advancing peace. As LPC prepares to open its Belt & Road centre, the CCP is interning an estimated one million Muslims in political re-education camps in Xinjiang. To name a centre “Belt & Road” and assert it is promoting peace is, at a time like this, tantamount to giving cover to mass oppression. UWC students and staff should be protesting, not opening a Belt & Road centre.
Xinjiang happens to be the region through which the Silk Road passed. It is bordered by Belt & Road countries. The mass detentions are by definition arbitrary, occurring entirely outside of any judicial process, and are for indefinite periods of time: The detainees don’t even know when they might be released, presumably when they have been deemed ‘re-educated’ by the authorities. Their supposed crime? Essentially, belonging to an ethnic group. The vast majority of the detainees are Uighurs, most of whom are Muslims. By virtue of their ethnicity and religion, they are suspected of disloyalty to the CCP.
The CCP fears Xinjiang could slip out of its control, and the mass detentions are part of an even larger system of mass surveillance intended to keep the region firmly in its grasp. The CCP continues to deny the existence of the camps, but evidence to the contrary is conclusive, as the United Nations recently asserted, along with a long list of human rights organisations and academic experts on Xinjiang. The CCP’s internment of Muslims in Xinjiang is so systematic and on such a large scale that it has been compared to apartheid in South Africa and oppression in North Korea as well as to Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet gulag, and the CCP’s own Cultural Revolution.
While some may regard the relationship between Belt & Road and the oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang as merely coincidental, both are imperial and neo-colonial. They are major initiatives undertaken by the supreme leader Xi Jinping with the intention of domination. And given that many of the countries involved in Belt & Road are majority Muslim, that does not bode well for peace. The premise of UWC is international understanding, presumably based on mutual respect and equality. One might have thought LPC would be leery of entering into any sort of association with a dictatorial regime oppressing a distinct ethnic group, but instead it is enthusiastically embracing it.
In response to my query, LPC states, “The Belt and Road Resources Centre espouses the cultural/education aspect of the Belt and Road Initiative. It seeks to facilitate a better appreciation of what countries in the region can do together. As a college, LPCUWC draws on its mission and values in developing the Centre to be a repository of knowledge, a bridge to understanding and inclusivity, and a channel through which ideas can be shared within a nurturing and healthy environment. We are aware of issues stemming from what could be political repercussions of the Belt and Road Initiative, and we proceed with a greater sense of responsibility in what we as an academic institution can do in operationalising our mission of achieving peace and sustainability through the Centre.”
In short, LPC acknowledges that the objectives of its Belt & Road centre align with those of the CCP’s Belt & Road initiative. As noted above, Belt & Road has no formal peace component. It is unclear whether or not LPC has established criteria to ensure that the centre’s activities actually promote peace or has taken any precautions to ensure that such activities are not complicit in oppression or exploitation, for example by acting as a public relations cover.
Worth emphasising is that peace promotion can and has occurred without any explicit link to Belt & Road; in fact, it would be more effective without the connection. And LPC has yet to explain why it thinks its peace-promoting activities will be more effective under the Belt & Road aegis. I suspect LPC is being guided less by principle and more by opportunity: It is following the money while supposing that through this donation, it will be able to effect positive change. It is far more likely that through its connection to Belt & Road and the CCP, it will undermine its educational integrity and academic independence.
LPC’s Belt & Road centre raises larger issues: What is our vision of peace? Is it the negative peace of dictatorial imposition by force and economic might? Or is it the positive peace that is based on justice, equality, democracy and human rights? Whether or not LPC proceeds with the centre and accepts funding from Lee Shau-kee to do so, it should definitely at the very least cease its association with Belt & Road.
Brian Kern is a former United World College teacher.