Interview analysis yielded the key analytical categories for understanding Nepalese students’ opinion of Chinese foreign policy: their perception of the Belt and Road Initiative; China's contribution to Nepal and the world at large; the impact of course content; and students’ interest in collaboration with China.
Perception of the Beit and Road Initiative
Since 2013, China’s BRI has expanded to vast swaths of the globe, with as many as 138 countries signing on. In 2017, President Xi Jinping’s signature project was incorporated into the Chinese Constitution, receiving remarkable attention as the “project of the century,” reflecting the president’s political resolve to guarantee the mega project’s continuance and marking it a gift to the nation—for generations to remember (Jain, 2020). China has couched the program in multilateral terms, with a promise of shared benefits through road and maritime connectivity projects, reviving the ancient Silk Road and revivifying the spirit of commercial, cultural, and academic exchange (Jain, 2020).
Nepal joined the BRI in May 2017 by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The Nepalese government’s commitment to the project is debatable (Ghimire, 2017). A Nepalese finance ministiy official told the Kathmandu Post that Nepal needed to clearly communicate to the Chinese side whether the projects would be undertaken on the loan or grant basis. Impliedly, the opacity of China's terms and conditions in implementing BRI projects is causing concern, injecting caution into Nepal’s negotiation on this front (Giri, 2019). Similarly, Bhaskar Koirala, an expert on Nepal-China relations, notes:
OBOR [BRI] is important for Nepal but this is not everything for us. We have never talked about getting our basics on the trade with China right. We have huge trade deficit with China as well. We are primarily an agriculture-based economy. But we never talk about expoxting our agro-goods to China. At the moment, Nepali agricultural products are not allowed into Chinese market. We need to negotiate with China to get preferential access for our agricultural goods.
Another setback to China came in September 2018 when the Nepalese government led by Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli rescinded the MoU with China’s Three Gorges International (CTGI) after the latter withdrew from the SI.5 billion West Seti hydropower project in western Nepal. The CTGI had found the project unfeasible due to the “high resettlement and rehabilitation costs” even though the Nepalese government agreed to the power purchase agreement in US dollars as well as to revise the project’s installed capacity (Jain, 2020).
In contrast, the views of Nepalese participants interviewed in this study reveal a positive picture. The current or past students enrolled in social sciences programs in Chinese universities mentioned the BRI prominently when asked about their knowledge of Chinese foreign policy. Familiar with the soft power concept, international relations students explained how the BRI, soft power, and higher education were interconnected. For instance, Nisha, an alumnus from southwest China, shared her observation on Nepal-China educational ties:
From the perspective of soft power, China has been successful by adapting such [educational] ties because it provides an opportunity for students to explore more about China mainly on its developmental side followed by cultural, political and social life. China has also been able to create awareness of its grand project of OBOR [a former name of the BRI,] which is eventually going to be one of the most influential projects worldwide.
(Nisha, personal communication, November 10, 2017)
The above quote reflects the student's awareness and evaluation of China's soft power policy. Similarly, Rachit, a PhD candidate in North China, drew a connection between the BRI and scholarships for foreign students, while pointing out that China was “giving scholarships as a tool of soft power” and that it signified its “responsibility” toward developing countries. He said that with the BRI’s launch as “one of the prominent elements of [the] foreign policy,” the number of scholarships awarded to developing countries or to least-developed countries like Nepal had risen, which could result in China’s strategic foothold in Nepal. He further added that “every big power” uses this tool, while citing an example that India provides 3,000 scholarships to Nepalese students annually. Rachit’s mention of India is noteworthy inasmuch as China is endeavoring to curtail India’s influence in the educational sector.
Essentially, the above-stated opinions appear on the cognitive side of the perceptional spectrum, rather than affective, which is more conspicuous in Nepalese students’ write-ups in China Daily, a state-run newspaper serving as the Chinese Communist Party (CPC)’s “throat and tongue” (Wang and Wang, 2014). China’s media diplomacy involves relaying positive images of the country’s foreign policy initiatives using the channel of foreign youth, with the latter likely to feel recognized with publication. The Nepalese students’ role in serving as the Chinese government’s mouthpiece or “diplomatic proxy” (Wang and Wang, 2014) is discerned in their pro-China write-ups. For instance, China Daily carried a summary of a joint research paper by Nepalese students, titled "The Politics of Soft Power: Belt and Road Initiative as Charm Influence in South Asia.” The summary pinpointed flaws in India’s foreign policy: “Experts said that India’s hegemonic and [the] British-era foreign policy towards the neighbors is forcing them [the South Asian region] to look at China for cooperation” (Sharma and Khatri, 2017, para. 6). It added:
Due to the massive support of the global community to the initiative, it is said by many Indian scholars that India will not have any other choice than to support B&R [BRI]. They added that India made a mistake by not sending a representative to the Beijing B&R Summit.
(Sharma and Khatri, 2017, para.5)1
It is pertinent to mention that India boycotted the BRI Forum in 2017 over its concern that the BRI-CPEC project violates its territorial sovereignty.
Further, the following excerpt from an article penned by a Nepalese PhD candidate, featured on the CCTV (China Central Television), calls upon the Nepalese government to cooperate with China in implementing bilateral agreements.
Nepal should focus on implementing agreements. China, which is the second largest economy of the world and the biggest exporter, has capital, technologies, knowledge and experiences. Nepal-China relations can move in harmonious ways. Nepal stands committed to the One China Policy. China supports Nepal’s development. Now Nepal needs to do much more from its side.
(Sharma, 2017, paras. 15-16)
Another Nepalese PhD candidate writing in China Daily underscored BRI’s benefits for Nepal, for example, in terms of job creation, while criticizing India for intervening in Nepalese politics. More so, the author urged India to “join hands with China” by participating in the BRI. His or her thesis focused on China’s multilateral diplomacy in South Asia:
OBOR [or BRI] is based on win-win cooperation. It is a Chinese dream of building a [sic] interconnected world where the countries along the route are included in a global value chain. It is imperative for Nepal to create job opportunity so that the human resource do not have to go to the gulf countries to work in the poor working conditions and low pay. Seeing the proximity and affinity, a Chinese train could have first reached Kathmandu, which is merely 100 kilometers from the border of China before plying more than 12,000 kilometers all the way to London. These observations take us to a simple conclusion that it is already too late for Nepal to start collaborating with China in building infrastructure projects under the One Belt, One Road initiative.
(Upadhyaya, 2017, paras. 6-7)
In fact, the same author in yet another article in the China Daily minced no words in stating that “As a strong admirer of OBOR, I take this opportunity to wish the ongoing ‘Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation’ a grand success” (Upadhyaya, June 2017, last para.). Going further, he put forth a critical view of the West:
At the time when the West is fanning the clash of civilization, protectionism and isolationism, the Communist Party of China with Chairman Xi [Chinese president] as the core has put forward the Chinese dream of building a community of common destiny for mankind.
(Upadhyaya, June 2017, last para.)
Similarly, a Nepalese alumnus, currently teaching at Leshan Normal University in China, co-authored an article with another Nepalese graduate from Peking University, praising China for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Writing in a Nepalese newspaper, they sum up: “China’s lead in global engagement for combating the COVID-19 has demonstrated that the world may become more dependent on China than China on the world.”
(Sharma and Khatri, 2020)
These views clearly align with the CPC’s official stance on the BRI. As for the medical students, interviewed in this study, they were not much familiar with China’s foreign policy, but nonetheless, they referred to China’s developmental aid to Nepal or spoke favorably of Sino-Nepalese relations. Overall, there was no negative characterization of China’s foreign policy.