China flaunts its globalist ambitions, but cooperation isn’t easy

This article is part of a “Reporter’s Notebook” series, wherein CNBC journalists submit tales and observations from the field.

BEIJING — I was on my way to dinner, walking near a luxury hotel on the second day of China’s much touted Belt and Road Forum. As I approached, I heard a woman screaming. Police officers had pushed her to the ground behind one of their vans and were slapping handcuffs on her along with a young man.

Then I noticed on the pavement the familiar stack of official-looking documents often carried by petitioners, aggrieved Chinese citizens who travel to Beijing in the hopes of getting their voices heard by the country’s leadership. One of the officers grabbed the folder of papers as the police carted her and the man away.

When I mentioned the incident to my colleague, she said she saw a similar incident at another hotel. In fact, there were several reports that the authorities had been taking away petitioners all over the city.

China's President Xi Jinping

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China’s President Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping’s message at the Belt and Road Forum was that his infrastructure building program would bring people together through openness and inclusiveness. However, that spirit often runs counter to the way the government acts.

The fate of this petitioner, whatever she may or may not have done wrong, got me thinking about the message China was trying to send the world. Dubbed, “One Belt, One Road,” the president’s initiative aims to build infrastructure all over the world, boosting the global economy and improving relations among trading partners by reviving the ancient Silk Road trading routes. The international diplomatic initiative, which could become China’s largest, involves two-thirds of the world’s population across more than sixty countries with hundreds of billions of dollars already pledged.

“Global growth requires new drivers, development needs to be more inclusive and balanced,” Xi said during his opening address. “We should build an open platform of cooperation and uphold and grow an open world economy.”

But this vision of openness doesn’t always seem to extend home.

Xi’s government has tightened controls, clamping down on activists, lawyers and petitioners and has further restricted internet access for the public.

For the forum itself, security was especially omnipresent and took measures to the extreme. A friend of mine ordered new kitchenware online and was alerted that the delivery of his cheese knife would be banned until after the event. “To the Chinese, this is normal,” he said.

For many participants at the forum, the environment was equally restrictive.

I found people even more reluctant than usual to go on the record. That may be because the initiative is seen as Xi’s pet project and people were extra cautious not to offend.

But behind the scenes, China seemed to have trouble following through on its inclusiveness.

One Asian diplomat told me China was getting a lesson in multilateralism. He said the Chinese didn’t like the push-back they were getting on the communique because they weren’t used to it.

The South Koreans, meanwhile, weren’t invited until the 11th hour. One South Korean government official I spoke to said he wasn’t sure of the reason, but speculated that it was likely at least in part because South Korea has been on China’s bad side over an entirely different issue — Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD, a U.S. anti-missile system.

And while Xi is claiming he will be sensitive to all parties, he has already shown otherwise. India, a fellow BRIC country, was conspicuously absent, in part because some construction would be built through a part of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir that India sees as its sovereign territory.

One China analyst, Victor Gao, struck a hopeful note that New Delhi will come around — though still on Beijing’s terms.

“There may be areas where India is not satisfied with, but I don’t think it gives India reason to disregard it,” Gao said. “India is in dire need of capital to build up its power stations, highway connectivity, railway connectivity, airport connectivity, and this is exactly what the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative can offer.”

But the challenge for Beijing will be to think beyond the building.

The Belt and Road Initiative will likely put China in the middle of regional disputes, domestic politics and other countries’ internal affairs. That may require the Chinese to reach out to local communities and listen to wide-ranging opinions from multiple stakeholders.

As the crowds dispersed around the hotel after the petitioner was hauled away, a porter turned to me before I left. “She wanted to say something,” he said.

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