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    Robert Fulford: how Chinese investment buys silence in the Middle East

    Under the ambitious and aggressive leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has for years given the world reason to feel uneasy. Xi’s regime uses every possible device to track the lives of citizens and control them — peasants can’t leave their villages without permission, for instance.
    Government maintains total control of the Chinese internet. It seizes as its own every little island visible from its shores. Recently its troops have been firing on protesters seeking a small measure of independence for Hong Kong, in brazen defiance of the agreement Beijing signed when it took over the territory in 1997.
    How Chinese investment buys silence in the Middle East
    Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on March 16, 2017 in Beijing, China. At the invitation of President Xi Jinping, King Salman Bin Abdul-Aaziz Al-Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will pay a state visit to China from March 15 to 18, 2017.

    Though a third of all Chinese live in poverty, the government celebrates the industrial progress of recent years for which it of course takes all credit. As a result, bureaucrats have developed a new and probably expensive strategy, the extension of Chinese influence across two oceans to the Middle East. It seems to them a place where China can flourish, and demonstrate its now proven industrial ability.
    At a meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) in Beijing, Chinese officials pledged US$23 billion in loans and development aid to the region. China and Saudi Arabia have signed a memorandum of understanding to explore US$65 billion in joint ventures, a contract with a big number but a vague future. Xi has visited Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt, to express personally China’s hopes for the Middle East.
    Even less important places, such as Oman, sometimes get Xi’s attention. China has helped build infrastructure for Duqm, a port on the Arabian Sea in central-eastern Oman. The town has doubled its population in the past decade (to 11,200) and the Oman tourism office plans to make it into a resort with 100,000 residents by next year.
    We might imagine that Islamic nations in the Middle East would be offended by China’s treatment of the Islamic Uyghurs in China’s western province. So offended, in fact, that they might refuse China’s invitations to engage in joint projects. For years, Beijing has pursued the goal of “pacifying” its Uyghur Muslim minority, whom Chinese bureaucrats see as dangerously prone to radicalization; it takes a communist to spot a dangerous radical.
    The government carefully monitors the activities of the Uyghurs, frowns on Islamic practice, and detains about a million Uyghurs in “re-education” camps. China calls this program “harmonization,” though foreign critics call it ethnic cleansing. But on this issue Muslim nations have chosen to remain silent or complaisant. They may sympathize with their co-religionist Uyghurs, but not enough to refuse investment from Beijing.
    Xi has emphasized that he’s not creating a “sphere of influence” in the Middle East. He’s interested only in development, he says. But, as Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council says, China’s regional involvement is far from benign.
    “It holds the power to alter alliances, political discourse, and even domestic freedoms throughout the region.” It can profoundly impact the region itself as well as its relations with the world in the years ahead.

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