AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The leaders of more than 30 nations gathered in Beijing today, and a choreographed image said more than the words they spoke. Russia's Vladimir Putin and many leaders of Asian nations lined up in the front row of an enormous room. They were all looking up at Xi Jinping, the president of China. Their host was promoting an infrastructure-building program that positions China as a world leader, over the objections of the U.S.
NPR's Steve Inskeep is there. Hey there, Steve.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So what's there to object to about China lending money to developing nations for this program which is about roads, pipelines, ports?
INSKEEP: The way it's done, at least according to the United States. Now, China, of course, describes these projects as benign, an effort to link up the world. It's good for China. It's good for other countries. Analysts see it as China's way to put extra Chinese capital and labor to work. The U.S., though, is pushing back in many ways on this country that it sees as a rising power that's asserting itself. As you surely know, the U.S. is resisting Chinese tech firms and talking about possible spying. The U.S. is resisting Chinese military moves, and also trashing this building program, which is not that hard to do.
Some of the projects have failed, leaving countries with a lot of debt. They're built mainly with Chinese labor, not with local people. And people in places like Vietnam, just to give one example, are asking what they get out of this. And other countries have been renegotiating the terms. There are things to complain about.
CORNISH: So the Chinese hold this big meeting. How did they respond to all of this?
INSKEEP: They're reframing - at least the way that they talk about the program. The president, Xi Jingping, and others say they want projects to be green and clean, by which they mean free of corruption. And in his speech today to all those other world leaders, President Xi also took an apparent dig at the United States. Now, he didn't name the U.S., but just listen here.
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PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) We hope that other countries will also create an enabling environment of investment, treat Chinese enterprises, students and scholars as equals, and provide a fair and friendly environment for them to engage in normal international exchanges and cooperation.
INSKEEP: Now, think about his words there and some recent news. Chinese students who are studying in U.S. universities are sometimes reporting that when they go home for a little while, they have trouble getting a visa to get back to the U.S. There are Chinese scholars under suspicion for stealing technology from the United States. There's a Chinese tech executive famously detained in Canada for possible extradition to the United States. All of these, of course, are things for China to complain about. And Xi is referring to a whole host of them there, it seems.
CORNISH: Which side are developing nations listening to?
INSKEEP: Well, some are listening to the United States up to a point. The U.S. has been offering technical assistance to developing nations, telling them, hey, if you're going to make a deal with China, let us help you look over the contract and make sure it's a good deal and that you're not being taken advantage of. Some countries are, in fact, driving harder bargains with China than before.
But let's be clear. Developing nations do still want the money. And China is the world's second-richest nation. And there are signs of that here. A couple of examples - Kenya. China built a railway in Kenya that has become a scandal because it's so expensive, doesn't work very well. And yet, Kenya's president came here anyway looking for more Chinese money.
And then there's Malaysia, which is even more remarkable, Audie. A Chinese railway plan there became the center of a corruption scandal involving that deal that was made with a previous government. It was considered such a bad deal that the new government in Malaysia canceled it. But the new prime minister has since renegotiated the terms. And that Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, even after the scandal, came here to Beijing and paid his respects to China's president today.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Steve Inskeep in Beijing. Steve, thanks so much for your reporting.
INSKEEP: Glad to do it, Audie.