The “water and boat” metaphor is often used in China to refer to the relationship between the people and the government. About 2,500 years ago, Chinese philosopher Xunzi, writing about governance, said that “people are the water while the rulers, the boat. Water can support the boat, or overturn it.”

This metaphor has often been quoted as a reminder to rulers of the importance of the people. Today, when China’s influence reaches into countries around the world with its Belt and Road Initiative, it needs to be expanded, as people-to-people connectivity is one of the five initiative’s pillars, along with policy coordination, connectivity of facilities, unimpeded trade and financial integration.

According to the 2019 China Outbound Direct Investment Statistical Report, China’s total investments in belt and road nations reached US$117.3 billion. As of the end of 2019, more than 27,500 Chinese investors had established 44,000 direct investment enterprises in 188 countries and regions.

Billions of people’s lives are being affected, for better or worse. Eight national and regional non-governmental organisations from the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka interviewed more than 100 villagers and citizens who live near belt and road projects in these countries. Their testimonies provide a timely view of what lies ahead for the boat.

Their testimonies are presented in the new book Belt and Road Through My Village. It covers seven major projects in these five countries that affect some 15 million people.?

Based on the interviews, renewable energy and road construction are among the most welcome projects. However, a lack of communication between the affected communities and the Chinese investors and companies is among the most prominent complaints.“We remain clueless with the proposed dam,” Maria Clara Dullas from Daraitan village in the Philippines said of the Kaliwa Dam. “The Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage Systems [authority] has not reached out to residents of Daraitan to explain its possible impacts to the community.”

In Pitipana village in Sri Lanka, 49-year-old fisherman Aruna Roshantha Fernando is losing his livelihood to the construction of Colombo Port City. “We held many protests,” he said. “We said [if this project starts] we will lose our beach, our sea and our jobs. We explained to the government, but the government didn’t listen.”

Such frustrations are the initial ripples with the potential to grow into pressing waves that end up strong enough to capsize the largest ship. Unfortunately, they rarely get the chance to travel all the way to the Chinese policymakers and investors for various reasons, such as language barriers and cultural differences.
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Chinese media certainly have not played their part. In the years since the initiative’s launch, Chinese media coverage has mostly been harmonious, praising the benefits that such projects have brought to local communities.

Another possible reason is local partners and government agencies intentionally cutting off such communication to attract huge Chinese investment. As Ian Rivera, national coordinator of the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, said, “the Philippine government does not have a solid record of transparent and thorough environmental and social impact assessments”.

Whatever the reason, these initial ripples should not be neglected. It is not just people living near the projects whose lives are being changed forever. China’s reputation and investments are also being tested with each belt and road deal signed.

This is strong enough reason for Chinese stakeholders, especially those directly involved in making policy and finance decisions about the projects, to reach out to the communities that will be affected by these projects.

This includes the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Commerce, the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission and China’s major policy banks.

On China’s official belt and road website, there are frequent updates about policy connectivity, trade connectivity, infrastructure connectivity and finance connectivity. However, people-to-people connectivity showcases are tourism projects to attract more Chinese visitors, education programmes to promote language exchange or music and sports events.

These happy and harmonious projects are all good, but real people-to-people connectivity can only happen when Chinese policymakers and investors walk into the villages and listen to people’s real expectations, concerns and heartfelt thanks.

One example is Muhammad Iqbal from Pakistan, who is happy with the solar park near his village. “Our lands have gone from zero to hero since the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park project was initiated,” he said.

The belt and road ship, loaded with investments and projects worth trillions of dollars, is sailing towards a vision of a “community with a shared future for mankind”.

For the past seven years, crew members from different countries in charge of different departments have been learning to work together and speak the same language to keep the ship on course. Seven years later, the water is getting much deeper and the climate much tougher.

“Water can support the boat, or overturn it.” That is both a reassuring lesson and a warning to the ship today.

For smooth sailing, Chinese stakeholders and their partners must find a waterway that is deep enough to support the ship and calm enough not to overturn it. A master navigator will stay observant, sensitive and alert to the tiniest ripples in the deep sea and the smallest cloud in the sky.