APEC Blue and China’s Hegemonic Dreams

by Michelle Bovee

Early in November, for a few crisp fall days, Beijing’s normally smog-filled atmosphere miraculously lightened.  The dense pollution clouds melted, the sun shone through, and the sky was clean and blue.  This is, anyway, the illusion that the Chinese government tried to create for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, which was held in Beijing from November 5th through 11th.  The government did everything they could think to reduce pollution by 30% before the summit, from banning the burning of funeral offerings to taking cars off the roads, but on the first day of the summit the U.S. Embassy, which monitors the air in Beijing and several other major cities in China, reported pollution levels of 157, or “unhealthy.”  To save face, the government did the only thing they could: block access to the Embassy data on all local smartphones and websites, and release its own, more positive, reading of only 83, or “good.”   No one was fooled, leading online commentators to dub the color of the sky after the stunt “APEC blue,” for something lovely but fleeting and false.

President Xi Jinping used the Summit partly as a show to demonstrate that China’s economic development is the linchpin for the entire Asia-Pacific region, and the fake skies were only a piece of the illusion.  Petitioners, protesters, and activists were arrested in the weeks before the event to prevent any embarrassing incidents, schools and government agencies were closed, and even marriages were forbidden for the length of the Summit.  This effort culminated in Xi’s announcement of an “Asia-Pacific dream,” based loosely on the “Chinese dream” he has been touting since his election.

This “Asia-Pacific dream” involves promoting development and prosperity for the entire region—with China, naturally, at the helm of this progress.  Xi has begun aggressively promoting a free-trade agreement for the region, the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), which rivals Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.  He has also pledged to provide $25 billion in start-up capital for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and $40 billion to fund the re-creation of a Silk Road that traces the old trading route between China and the Mediterranean.

This “Asia-Pacific dream” certainly sounds rosy and positive.  Who could deny the positive impact of economic development and close regional ties?  China is planning to devote $1.25 trillion to development within the region over the next 10 years, which could go a long way towards improving conditions and boosting trade.  This dream is not without a cost, however, considering the prime role China would play if everything were to fall into place as President Xi has outlined—which would be an impressive feat on its own.  Beijing has conveniently placed itself at the center of these projects, meaning that every accomplishment within the Asia-Pacific region would come with the caveat that Beijing is in charge.

Additionally, this dream, while full of financial charm and business acumen, lacks the soft power element that would make Beijing a leader in people’s hearts, as well as their wallets.  China can attempt to buy regional authority by throwing money into infrastructure and development while ignoring the associated environmental and human rights costs, but the nation remains locked in several regional battles over territory in the South China sea and democratic rights in Hong Kong, among others.  Building a new Silk Road and creating an Asian development bank that doesn’t rely on Western funding are worthwhile projects, but to truly be a regional authority, President Xi will have to look outside of China’s borders and address the issues that cannot be solved simply by forking over one or two billion dollars—and blocking access to accurate information is probably not the best way to start.