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What China's Belt And Road Means For Europe


In a Chinese city a little bit east of here, we found a public square. An old stone column honors Marco Polo, the European who visited China more than 700 years ago. Now China is pointing in the other direction, financing railways and seaports and pipelines leading toward Europe. We are in China for today's forum, where President Xi Jinping is promoting his Belt and Road Initiative. So let's go 5,000 miles from Beijing westward across Eurasia to Paris. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley found Europeans deciding how to answer China.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Inside this Paris hub for startups, I meet one of the actors of Europe's financial tech revolution.

ANNIE GUO: My name is Annie Guo. I was born in China in 1979.

BEARDSLEY: Forty-year-old Guo created her company, Silkpay, to help French businesses interface with Chinese tourists who want to pay with their smartphones. Guo says she founded Silkpay after an epiphany during a trip home to China in 2015.

GUO: I noticed that even my mom started to use a mobile phone to make a payment. That's - I have never seen in Europe.

BEARDSLEY: Guo says French companies are now lining up for Silkpay, and she's expanding her business into Italy and Spain, the biggest countries for Chinese tourists after France.


BEARDSLEY: More than 2 million Chinese tourists visited France last year. You can hear Mandarin being spoken in Paris' grandiose Galeries Lafayette department store. Twenty-one-year-old Ji Mengyu says her compatriots love Europe.

JI MENGYU: They love Paris. They love Milan and Florence because it's the original city of Gucci.

BEARDSLEY: So it's always about shopping.

JI: Yes, it's always about shopping and about sightseeing place. It's a combination of the two, yeah.

BEARDSLEY: Europe is China's biggest trading partner, and 30% of Chinese exports are shipped to the EU. But European firms in China have not gotten the market access they've been asking for despite helping China become a master at building nuclear plants and high-speed trains. Last month, the European Commission revised its strategy toward China and called it a systemic rival. Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director of Le Monde, says Europe has finally woken up.

SYLVIE KAUFFMANN: President Macron actually said the time of naivete is over with China. We are now looking at China, from Brussels, as a competitor really. I would say this is closer to the American view of China.

BEARDSLEY: President Macron hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in Paris last month. And for the first time, the French leader invited the head of Germany and the European Commission to join him in presenting a united European front to the Chinese leader.



BEARDSLEY: Macron told Xi, China must respect European unity. The reality is far different, says venture capitalist Andre Loesekrug-Pietri, who spent a decade in China.

ANDRE LOESEKRUG-PIETRI: Everything shows that the Chinese are playing divide and conquer. Now we have Italy, who has accepted to be the first G7 country to join the Belt and Road.

BEARDSLEY: France and Germany were shocked that Italy signed onto China's massive infrastructure project when Xi swung through Rome before heading to Paris. Loesekrug-Pietri says only a united Europe will be strong enough to stand up to China's so-called Silk Road initiative, which many believe is designed to extend China's influence in Europe and beyond.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.