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World China jails its citizens as it touts global benefits of ‘new Silk Road’

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a news conference at the Belt and Road Forum, at the International Conference Center in Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing, on May 15, 2017.

JASON LEE/AFP/Getty Images

The curtains closed on China's moment of international glory with leaders from 29 countries agreeing to a joint communiqué, an act of symbolic support for Beijing's vision of building a more prosperous global future around a "new Silk Road."

But as those leaders placed their signatures on a document pledging, among other things, "to be more responsive to all the needs of those in vulnerable situations," hundreds of Chinese people were being kept inside a black jail on the outskirts of Beijing, many of them with long histories of complaining about mistreatment they had endured. They remained there for the duration of the Belt and Road Initiative forum that brought crowds of foreign dignitaries to China.

On Tuesday, after the Presidents had left, police transferred several dozen people out of the black jail, the unofficial Jiujingzhuang detention centre where people who petition the government are often held. They were loaded onto a single car on a slow train to Shanghai, with men in uniform barring anyone else from entering or leaving for the 19-hour trip.

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Related: One Belt, One Road: China offers new roads, trains and ports – but here's what it wants in return

The gap between their treatment and the ideals put forward in the communiqué is one indication of the contradictions that lie at the heart of China's ambitious new desire to position itself as a new global leader, one at the forefront of a new era of common trade, security and peaceful relations.

The joint communiqué also pledges signatories, which include Russia and Turkey, to expand "peace, justice, social cohesion, inclusiveness, democracy, good governance, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality and women empowerment."

But to those in China who complain that their rights have been violated, "they treat us like enemies. They believe that while their meeting is on, we should not appear. We should disappear," said Mao Hengfeng, a long-time protester and human-rights defender who has been jailed multiple times since she was forced to have an abortion in the late 1980s.

Ms. Mao arrived in Beijing on Sunday, the first day of the Belt and Road forum. When she and a group of other petitioners reached a bus stop near the meeting site, police checked their identification and quickly took them away, depositing them first in what she described as an unused military warehouse, then taking them to a black jail, before evicting them from Beijing.

"It does call into question some of the high-sounding rhetoric in the joint communiqué," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

Elsewhere, too, there are inconsistencies between the rhetoric and practice of China's bid to fill the leadership vacuum left by a more inward-focused United States.

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China has said the world needs more connectivity, even though it is a leader in fencing off the Internet. China has called for removing obstacles to trade and investment, despite maintaining protectionist barriers at home and pursuing a national import substitution program to privilege its own manufactured goods. China's President Xi Jinping has urged the creation of "a big family of harmonious co-existence," while at home Chinese authorities urge the reporting of foreigners who might be spies.

"When they are dealing with globalization, they are not actually doing it in the way the term has previously been understood," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. China's President Xi "instead is emphasizing the kind of globalization the Chinese government wants to promote."

That may affect China's ability to assume the global primacy it has sought since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

"Leadership has two sides. You have to be willing and able to assert your leadership and you need other people willing to accept your leadership," said Prof. Tsang. China's willingness to expend vast funds in building new roads, rail lines and power plants on its One Belt, One Road initiative has won it supporters around the world, he said.

With Beijing "prepared to put an absolutely enormous amount of money behind it, you are not going to have a lot of people coming out openly to challenge you. And therefore you are going to be successful in the short-term, officially," he said.

And it's clear that globalization as it is currently constructed has run into problems, in Western countries and elsewhere. China is providing an alternative. Beijing says it is focused on trade and economic matters, and that it has no desire to meddle with the affairs or political systems of other countries.

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What's not clear is how much those who back Belt and Road are prepared to cede China a durable position of influence, such as the U.S. has managed to achieve.

With China, "all they are offering is the greatest-ever gravy train," Prof. Tsang said.

"If the Chinese economy does not stay on the current trajectory, then the game is changed. And if that money isn't there, then the gravy train becomes a train of sand, and you don't get the same reception."

Those aboard the slow train to Shanghai, meanwhile, questioned why China is spending so much time and money addressing issues outside its borders, when their own complaints remain unresolved.

Fei Aizhong has protested since her Shanghai home was demolished in 2002. To draw new attention to her case, she came to Beijing with others during the Belt and Road forum. Some of them slept under bridges because hotels barred them from staying during the event.

"For so many years, they robbed us of our house and property," Ms. Fei said.

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"One Belt, One Road is beneficial to people all over the world," she said. "But they haven't solved our problems. Instead, they treat us like class enemies."

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