China’s belt and road cargo to Europe under scrutiny as operator admits to moving empty containers

  • China Railway admits the existence of the problem in an interview with the state-run Global Times but insists it has improved recently
  • Cities and provinces were looking to benefit from subsidies offered by both the local and national government as part of Xi Jinping’s plan to boost global trade
Topic | China economy

Sidney Leng

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The belt and road plan, masterminded by President Xi Jinping, is the central government's trade initiative to link economies into a China-centred trading network to grow global trade. Photo: Kyodo

Widespread waste and fraud associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been unearthed after the country’s state railway group was forced to admit this month that a significant amount of cargo containers shuttling between Chinese factories and European cities were empty.

The admission by the state-run China Railway – the sole operator of the lines – followed an investigation by the Chinese Business Journal, a newspaper supervised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which found that in one extreme case only one of 41 containers on a particular train actually carried goods.

The belt and road plan, masterminded by President Xi Jinping, is the central government’s initiative to link economies into a China-centred trading network to grow global trade.

This led to many local governments rushing to open train services through the vast central Asian territory between China and Europe to show their support for Beijing’s geopolitical strategy, but many exporters actually transported empty containers in order to receive  government subsidies.

China Railway admitted the existence of the problem in an interview with the state-run Global Times last week, but insisted it had largely been eradicated in 2018 after new rules were introduced limiting the number of empty containers allowed to just 10 per cent per train.

The company said that of all containers heading to Europe in 2018, only 6 per cent were empty, compared to 29 per cent for eastbound trains. In the first half of 2019, they said, the ratios had fallen to 2 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively.

Jonathan Hillman, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, said the problem of empty containers “is consistent with the belt and road’s emphasis on short-term political gains at the expense of longer-term economic fundamentals”.

“These routes are an effective advertising device for selling the belt and road’s overland dimensions – which, despite the hype, will not challenge the dominance of maritime trade,” said Hillman, who closely monitors trade flows between China and Europe.

[The problem] is consistent with the belt and road’s emphasis on short-term political gains at the expense of longer-term economic fundamentals

Jonathan Hillman, Centre for Strategic and International Studies

Generous state subsidies for the cargo traffic routes, as well as praise from Chinese state media, combined to encourage the exaggeration, he added.

In 2018, China’s Ministry of Finance offered subsidies of up to 50 per cent for cost of shipment by rail between China and Europe; they were reduced to 40 per cent this year. After a cut to 30 per cent in 2020, they will be completely abolished in 2022, although the lower subsidies are already having an effect.

In Heilongjiang, China’s rust-belt province on the border of Russia, the two westbound rail services from the provincial capital of Harbin to Moscow and Hamburg, Germany, did not operate last year due to the lack of subsidies, according to Zhao Quanshang from the freight department of the China Railway Harbin Group.

In addition, local governments also contributed their own generous incentives, with the central city of Xian offering up to US$3,000 for every container destined for Europe in 2018, according to government notices. Overall, subsidies varied from US$1,000 to US$5,000 per 40-foot container, according to a CSIS report last year.

A study by two Chinese researchers found last year that some local governments were offering subsidies of up to US$7,500 per container for locally produced goods and US$4,000 for goods from other provinces, leading to fierce competition among provinces.

The first express rail service between China and Europe began in 2011 from Chongqing, on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, to Duisburg, Germany, a 11,179km (6,946 miles) route passing through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland.

As many as 59 mainland cities from Harbin in the northeast to Shenzhen in the south have since commenced direct rail services between China and Europe after President Xi unveiled the belt and road plan as a national strategy.

But not all the services make economic sense, with one freight forwarder surnamed Zhu from the eastern city of Hangzhou often recommending to clients that they ship their goods to Europe by sea due to cost savings – even though the journey takes longer.

There is not a big difference. And the cost of rail [transport] is at least twice that of sea [transport]

Freight forwarder surnamed Zhu

“If we take the China Railway express from Hefei [the capital of Anhui province] to Hamburg [in Germany], it would take about 18 days. Sometimes it could be delayed to more than 20 days. If we take the sea route, it would take about 30 days. So there is not a big difference. And the cost of rail [transport] is at least twice that of sea [transport],” Zhu said.

Last year, rail only carried 1.3 per cent of trade between China and the European Union by volume and 2.6 per cent by value despite being usually cheaper than air and faster than sea transport, according to the European Commission.

Sea transport that offered more competitive prices dominated 90 per cent of overall trade by volume and 60 per cent by value, while air freight used for cargo requiring rapid delivery accounted for 2 per cent by volume and 27 per cent by value.

China economy
Belt and Road Initiative
European Union
Belt and Road: The nations
China-EU relations
Belt and Road: The projects
Sidney Leng joined the Post in 2015 after spending a year and a half working for US media, including National Public Radio and Foreign Policy Magazine. He has been covering China's macroeconomic policies and financial regulations since 2016.
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