KUNMING, Yunnan - While China was lauded for the benefits that its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) brings to developing countries, it was also reminded at a forum on Friday (Dec8) that it needed to be sensitive to their cultures and traditions.
Noting that landlocked nations like his found it hard to do business, former Kyrgyzstan prime minister Djoomart Otorbaev said at the China-Asean Entrepreneurs Forum that his country welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping's idea of updating the ancient land and sea Silk Roads by building roads, railways and ports to link Asia with Europe and Africa.
The BRI would provide the crucial connectivity for Central Asian nations like Kyrgyzstan to do business with the rest of the world.
In his keynote speech, Mr Otorbaev noted that the hard power aspect of the BRI - building of infrastructure in the countries along the route - is the easiest part.
Soft power is the more complicated aspect that needs to be worked on to ensure the success of the initiative, he said at the forum that brings together business leaders, government officials and academics.
This soft power involves "people to people interaction, cultural adjustments, understanding the differences between culture, language and history", he added.
At a session on the BRI, Vietnamese scholar Do Tien Sam said the initiative's projects should be "pragmatic and felt by the general public". Noting that there were many minority groups in countries such as Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, he said there was a need to "protect the cultural features and essence" of these groups.
He pulled no punches, noting that Chinese firms in Vietnam performed less well in corporate social responsibility that Japanese and South Korean firms.
Dr Sam told The Straits Times that Chinese firms need to do more in areas such as environmental protection. He noted too that the Chinese are not doing enough to train local talent. Especially in contractual projects, the Chinese tend to bring their own workers and even their own equipment, although these are available locally.
"This leads to antipathy among some local people," he said.
Sharing his view was Mr Ong Tee Keat, chairman of the Malaysian-China Silk Route Business Chamber.
Noting the Chinese companies' tendency to bring in entire production processes, he said if "even the cleaners and cooks are hired from China, there will be resentment from local companies".
Chinese firms should share the benefits with the locals , "not just local Chinese but also local communities and different ethnic groups", he said. "The locals want to feel that the (entry of the Chinese firms) will bring something good to the local economy."
Some of these problems were acknowledged by Mr Xu Ningning, executive president of the China-Asean Business Council, one of the hosts of the forum.
In his keynote speech, he said he had been told by an Indonesian minister that Chinese entrepreneurs honour only 7 per cent of their promises, while the Japanese do so 70 per cent of the time.
He said in some countries, Chinese entrepreneurs are seen as rich people who spit in the street, jump queue and are loud. In the mainstream media among the 10 Asean countries, negative reports of China outnumber positive ones.
"We should respect local customs and localise our products," he said.
"People to people connections are most important when Chinese companies enter Asean markets," he said, adding: "Connecting with, and understanding between people is the soil of economic growth."