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China's Infrastructure Plan Criticized For Harming Other Countries' Environments

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Steve Inskeep is in China, and he brings us two reports this morning. They are related. One is a story about China's Belt and Road Initiative, and the other is a story of what is happening behind the scenes of that story.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: President Xi Jinping said he would meet the international media, which he normally doesn't.

All right. We've been told to assemble for a bus ride to wherever this press conference is taking place. I can't say that it's an exclusive event.

Since enough reporters lined up to fill seven buses.

OK. Get that one?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: OK.

Journalists hustled TV cameras and tripods onboard for a drive on a highway leading out of the capital city.

If we continued in this direction for a little under an hour, we'd arrive at the Great Wall.

Longtime correspondents do not recall China's president ever taking a question from the foreign press in Beijing. Why summon us now? Well, he's under pressure to be more transparent. He chose a grand setting to do that.

REENA ADVANI, BYLINE: It's very beautiful where we are. We're at the bottom of some foothills.

INSKEEP: That's our editor Reena Advani. President Xi had just finished the Belt and Road forum promoting his signature foreign policy move. China is building infrastructure in other countries. The United States has cast this as an imperial power play. Some projects in the Belt and Road Initiative have been exposed as bad deals with corrupt leaders. So it was with some anticipation that we arrived at a remote mountain retreat.

This has the feeling of a super high-end corporate resort.

ADVANI: It certainly does.

INSKEEP: We were ushered into a red-carpeted building past a blue Chinese vase the size of a person. The front rows of the press meeting were reserved for Chinese officials.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: President has entered to some applause.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: Everyone stands.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: President Xi welcomed his visitors.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) Ladies and gentlemen, friends from the media, good afternoon.

INSKEEP: And then something happened that's unusual for a press conference.

As the president speaks, one, two, three, four television cameras have been brought up to flank him facing us, cameras on tripods, because we are part of the intended message here, that he brought all of us here. He was looking transparent.

XI: (Through interpreter) We are committed to supporting open, clean and green development.

INSKEEP: That reference to green development pushes back on news that some Belt and Road projects harm the environment.

XI: (Through interpreter) I hope our friends from the media will continue to actively support Belt and Road cooperation. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: Then as applauding officials stood, the president walked offstage.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: That's the end of the press conference. Thank you.

INSKEEP: It had not been a press conference since he took no questions. Yet, it was revealing all the same in showing how the president of China would like to be seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: On the very afternoon of Xi's press conference, our reporting team examined part of his signature initiative, the story behind the story. Belt and Road infrastructure includes seaports, railroads, pipelines and power plants. China knows how to build power plants, having built so many at home. And our colleague Ashley Westerman went to see one.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: So we're in Chaoyang District of Beijing. It's raining. We're walking up this paved road to a power plant.

INSKEEP: This plant, with its many concrete towers, was one of four coal-fired plants within Beijing. The coal smoke added to the smog that descends almost daily on the capital. But in recent years, all four plants stopped burning coal. And this one, Ashley discovered, was converted to natural gas. She spoke with local restaurant owner Ma Fei (ph).

MA FEI: (Through interpreter) The air quality is much better than previously. So it's very good for my health.

INSKEEP: China has been restraining the growth of its coal industry. It's a dramatic shift. Edward Cunningham is a China specialist at Harvard University, and he told us China used to open new coal plants every year, new plants generating more electricity than all the coal plants in the U.K.

At what point did Chinese officials begin to say, wait a minute, this is a bad idea?

EDWARD CUNNINGHAM: There were several different turning points. One of the most important is, of course, the rise of local air pollution within Chinese cities.

INSKEEP: Choking air embarrassed a Communist government that professes to stand for the well-being of the people. China is a world leader in building wind farms and making solar panels, many of them sold in the U.S. It's won praise for fighting climate change. But experts say that's not quite so true with those Belt and Road infrastructure projects. China needs to keep the workers who built coal-fired power plants working.

So where is China sending all of those people who are less and less employable inside China?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, many are going abroad.

INSKEEP: China is building coal-fired plants in other countries, where they do not pollute China but still affect the climate. About 240 were built in recent years, and more are coming.

CUNNINGHAM: Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan, Philippines. All of those countries together have about 145 or so gigawatts of coal-fired power plants that are being announced and being built.

INSKEEP: I think most of us don't know what a gigawatt is, except it sounds like an awful lot of energy.

CUNNINGHAM: Right. It's a thousand megawatts. And so, you know, we're talking about, you know, 300, 400 coal-fired power plants.

INSKEEP: China is responding to the criticism this provokes. Remember that press statement by President Xi Jinping?

XI: (Through interpreter) We are committed to supporting open, clean and green development.

INSKEEP: Now you know why it was meaningful that Xi said green. At the Belt and Road forum, we interviewed Chen Wenling, of a government think tank.

CHEN WENLING: (Speaking Chinese).

INSKEEP: "We're not intending to transfer pollution to other countries," she says. "We're trying to create development opportunities. Other countries do need electricity, and at least some Chinese projects use renewable energy." At the forum, China showed it was at least willing to listen to critics. Harvard's Edward Cunningham was invited and says he's impressed by the shift in rhetoric but isn't sure it's real.

It sounds like they're changing the messaging. They're using the word green a lot more.

CUNNINGHAM: Yes. And clean, which is sort of anti-corruption.

INSKEEP: But not actually changing the program, just the words that they use to describe it.

CUNNINGHAM: At this stage, we've only seen rhetorical changes, yes.

INSKEEP: On this subject, China does not have to worry about criticism from the U.S. The Trump administration is pushing to increase American reliance on coal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That is Steve Inskeep reporting from China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.