Open Forum

China has an authoritarian political system and state-controlled capitalism. It is natural for foreign observers to predominantly view the autocrat-launched Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a cohesive geostrategy to project Chinese power abroad. Such a view, however, is premised on misunderstanding China’s domestic politics and overlooks deep fragmentation among policymakers in China and market tendencies in actual policy implementation. This article investigates the entire process of the Belt and Road, from original ideas, to policy formation, to consolidation, and to actual implementation and shows that, on the one hand, bureaucratic practices have largely shaped the central guidelines, and on the other hand, subnational and state capital have reinterpreted and implemented the strategy on commercial terms and market imperatives. In short, while the autocratic leader announced the BRI based on nationalist and strategic mobilization, it is the functional bureaucracies and commercial actors’ market needs that shape its implementation and outcomes.

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