'Made in China' infrastructure is often a glorified money pit

Published on February 17, 2023

By Marco Rubio, U.S. Senator and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The Florida Republican is also a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

My mother worked at a folding chair factory in Hialeah, Florida briefly during my childhood. It was not glamorous work, but it put food on our table and she made a quality product in the process. You can bet those chairs lasted years, if not decades.

Today, in contrast, virtually everything bears the label "Made in China." These items may be cheap, but they certainly do not last.

You get what you pay for, as my parents said. And in the case of many Chinese-made products, what you are paying for is shoddy craftsmanship.

That is bad enough when you are talking about household appliances and furniture. But what about when the product is a school, an apartment building or a hydroelectric dam?

This is the question that China's Belt and Road Initiative partners are now being forced to reckon with.

When Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping announced what would become known as the BRI in 2013, he sold it as a pathway to prosperity for developing nations. Beijing would lend billions of dollars for international infrastructure projects, creating a network that would lift economies in the developing world along with China's rising tide.

Xi's pitch caught the attention of dozens of governments, which began lining up for investment. Since then, Beijing has provided more than $1 trillion for projects across the globe.

It seemed too good to be true -- and it was. BRI partners are now realizing that many of their projects are not functional.

Last July, Pakistan shut down the 969-megawatt Neelum-Jhelum hydropower plant on its side of Kashmir after less than four years of operation because of cracks in a key water tunnel.

Ecuador is considering the same action with the Coca Codo Sinclair dam, which has thousands of cracks and appears to be causing erosion damage to nearby communities.

Walls in Chinese-built apartments in Angola are cracking too. Officials in Uganda have discovered hundreds of construction defects in a major BRI hydropower plant there.

These construction failures will cost billions of additional dollars to countries who partnered with Beijing.

The Coca Codo Sinclair dam, for example, is the largest piece of infrastructure in Ecuadorian history and supplies a third of the country's electricity. Decommissioning it will be extraordinarily painful.

Moreover, the dam debacle has inflicted a human cost that is impossible to calculate. People like Adriana Carranza, who had a job with the Chinese contractor that built the dam, lost everything when she and her family were forced to flee their home due to erosion.

Some may be content to chalk these failures up to honest mistakes, but countries like Laos, Sri Lanka and Pakistan understand that there is nothing charitable about the BRI.


Unlike America's international financing efforts, which come in the form of investments and grants, BRI projects are driven by loans from banks controlled by the Chinese government. As soon as economically fragile nations found that they were unable to pay their debts, Beijing began extorting concessions to expand its political and military influence.

In the case of Laos, for example, a Chinese company demanded control of the national power grid for 25 years in exchange for debt forgiveness. Beijing has also exerted leverage to set up a People's Armed Police base inside Tajikistan, betraying serious designs on its neighbors' sovereignty.

Meanwhile, Chinese companies contracted to carry out international projects, many of them state-owned enterprises, have become embroiled in hundreds of human rights violations over the course of the BRI's life span.

Authorities in Peru and Zambia have accused Chinese miners of arbitrarily detaining and beating native citizens and even opening fire on protesting workers. Uganda and Pakistan are seeing increased pollution-related health risks from Chinese energy producers. In 2016, Amnesty International found that tens of thousands of Congolese children were mining cobalt under hazardous conditions, largely for the benefit of China's Huayou Cobalt. The list goes on.

In 2019, I warned developing nations not to be fooled by Xi's promises of economic growth and prosperity and said that the true goal of the BRI is to "undermine foreign competition by stealing intellectual property and trade secrets, and artificially propping up Chinese state-directed actors at the expense of [China's] trading 'partners.'"

Today, I would add that the BRI is also a one-way ticket to broken power plants and collapsing infrastructure.

It is not too late to learn the lesson that "Made in China" projects are glorified money pits at best, and serious security threats at worst. That is why I am committed to ensuring America's financing agencies offer developing countries meaningful alternatives to the BRI in the form of affordable and lasting solutions to infrastructure problems rather than enforcing unrealistic climate goals or exporting woke ideology, as the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden would have them do.

There should be no excuse for continuing to pay a genocidal, totalitarian regime for worthless infrastructure.

Article originally appeared in NikkeiAsia