New study uncovers China's massive hidden lending to poor countries

New report shows the extent of China's hidden power as the developing world's creditor.

New study uncovers China's massive hidden lending to poor countries
  • Over 50 developing countries' Chinese debt accounts for on average 15 percent of their individual GDP.
  • New report shows that the majority of the world's developing country's debt to China is considered "hidden."
  • China's loans for poor countries are primarily for crucial infrastructure.

China's overseas lending, which was virtually zero before the turn of the century — well, about $500 billion in 2000 — stands today, ostensibly, at around $5 trillion. Indeed, they are now the world's largest creditor, being twice as large as both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, combined.

As much of what China does is under a veiled curtain of secrecy, it's been difficult to track how all the money is flowing. A new comprehensive study though, by Sebastian Horn and Christoph Trebesch of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, and Carmen Reinhart of Harvard University, has provided some new insights about China's official credit lending empire. What did the researchers discover? More than half of China's lending to developing countries is what they term "hidden" money — loans that haven't been reported to any of the international funds, such as the World Bank.

Indeed, economist and author of the report, Tresbesch, recently told Germany's Spiegel in an interview following the release of the study's findings, that compiling all of the information was like "a kind of economic archeology." Their information came from numerous financial world databases, along with some documents provided courtesy of the CIA.

It's no secret that China would like to keep this type of information occluded from the international scene. Opponents of China's secretive lending practices fear that Beijing is engaging in predatory debt diplomacy and using their worldwide Belt and Road Initiative to create a new kind of economic colonialism over Africa and other parts of the developing world.

China’s creditor strategy for economic growth

China is in a state of further economic evolution. Long gone are the days of being the world's impoverished manufacturer. With a thriving consumer market boosted at home, China is now flexing their influence over vast swathes of the world. One of their strategies is by becoming the world's most involved lender to poor countries.

This can be problematic for a number of reasons. Countries that take this deal, end up grossly indebting themselves to China's policies in a number of ways, both monetarily and culturally. An example on the extreme end of the spectrum is Djibouti, whose Chinese debt is equivalent to 70 percent of the country's GDP. On average, the top 50 of China's borrowers owe somewhere near 15 percent of their GDPs, which, still, on a global scale is quite a lot.

The authors also found that China has never officially disclosed any loans to Iran, Venezuela, or Zimbabwe, which on other records it's been shown that China is a major creditor. The report speculates that one of the ways to avoid these international cross-border crediting claims, is by the Chinese government disbursing loans straight to Chinese contractors rather than the developing governments themselves.

A great deal of these loans aren't subject to credit rating agencies, because most of China's foreign loans flow straight from their government. China's lending practices take on another interesting dynamic, as the country is lending much more than just money: it is also helping build crucial infrastructure in these developing nations. In doing so, China exports a healthy dose of its culture and influence.

Growing influence in Africa 

China's investment in Africa takes the form of loans in exchange for infrastructure development. Oftentimes, Chinese companies and citizens reap the benefits and profits of these large projects. While many Africans welcome the much needed investment into their countries, it's not clear how much the continent is benefiting from this Chinese influence.

One major issue a lot of countries are facing is that almost the entirety of their country's debt load comes from China. For example, of Kenya's $50 billion in debt, more than 72 percent of it is from China. In Senegal, highways, industrial parks and other crucial developmental projects for a functioning country are all funded by large, risky Chinese loans. Again, much of this value goes back to China. They're not doing this for humanitarian reasons. The Chinese expect a capital and cultural return.

Tim Wegenast, who wrote a report about Chinese mining in Africa states:

"It's more or less safe to say that Chinese companies employ less local labor than other companies because they bring over many Chinese workers, and when they develop local infrastructure, they provide countries with loans which are being used to pay for it, which is then constructed by Chinese companies and Chinese labor."

A future of Chinese credit

According to The Economist, China's lending prowess is more of a mixed bag. While many new loans from China were offloaded with debt relief by Western creditors after defaulting, China has in the past put forth some debt restructuring plans on 140 of their foreign loans. Although at other times, they've taken their collateral with ruthless abandon, for example when they seized the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka.

Many Chinese loans have higher extended interest rates and short maturities, with heavy collateral that includes commodities, or even important strategic foreign infrastructure.

The authors of the report note that China has started talking about being more transparent and sustainable on their loans in the future. But no clear evidence of this taking place has yet to materialize.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
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