China's flagship investment program — known as the Belt and Road Initiative — is one of the answers to the emerging world's infrastructure needs, but it has been shrouded in criticism amid allegations of debt-trap diplomacy and neo-colonialism.
To improve the image of the multi-billion dollar program, Beijing must do more to embrace local stakeholders, a panel of experts at the Milken Asia Summit in Singapore said on Thursday.
"A common lament of recipient nations is that despite all the investments from huge infrastructure projects, there's a lack of local employment opportunities," said Robin Hu, head of sustainability and stewardship at Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings.
One of the biggest complaints around the initiative is an excessive reliance on Chinese employees for on-the-ground projects, which deprives participating countries of jobs. That's triggered anti-Beijing sentiments in places such as Laos and Turkmenistan. In instances where locals are employed, complaints about dire working conditions are rampant, with public demonstrations being held from Vietnam to Sri Lanka.
Beijing basically replicated its traditional state-owned enterprises (SOE) model in other developing nations, Hu said. These enterprises "tend to air drop the entire ecosystem, from their engineers to the construction workers to the chefs, into the countries to do the project," he said.
A McKinsey study in 2017 found that among 1,073 Chinese firms across eight African countries, only 44 percent of the managers on average were local.