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Belt and Road: China’s Soft Power Solution?

2017-08-15 17:15:48 William Matthews

China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative has the potential to be the largest global infrastructure project the world has ever seen, and looks set to have a defining impact on the 21st century. President Xi Jinping’s vision of a new stage of globalisation founded on economic integration across Eurasia harks back to the Silk Road of centuries past. But the scale is grander, and if successful could bring about a new phase of global cultural exchange to rival that of its ancient forebear.

It’s a US$900 billion project aiming to entrench commercial connections from China, through central Asia, to the Middle East and Europe, relying on massive railway construction – the ‘Belt’ – combined with the development of a network of ports and maritime trade routes connecting China, southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and east Africa – the ‘Road’. It has received an enthusiastic response in central Asia given the promise of much-need infrastructure development, but it also has its detractors, notably India, and Europe has so far appeared ambivalent to the initiative. However, the opening of the Yiwu-London railway, an unbroken connection stretching from China’s east coast to the UK, earlier this year certainly presents the potential for increased overland trade between the two countries post-Brexit.

Although they acknowledge that economic motives are the driving force behind Belt and Road, some critics fear that the Initiative will foster the spread of Chinese political influence abroad. It is hard to deny that the new Silk Roads will have profound effects beyond the economic, but commentators have so far overlooked Belt and Road’s potential to develop positive cross-cultural exchange. As the BBC’s Carrie Gracie reports, in countries such as Kazakhstan and Poland, Chinese workers on the project often lead lives quite separate from local communities. This might not look like a good start, but the construction of the Belt and Road is still in its very early stages – it is far too soon to conclude that, once finished, traders using the routes will remain similarly isolated from local life.

In fact, the potential of the Initiative to stimulate far-reaching cultural change cannot be underestimated, quite apart from the shift in global economic balance that it represents. The history of Belt and Road’s spiritual ancestor, the Silk Road, shows us that cross-cultural meetings between traders from all over is one of the best ways to promote cultural exchange and tolerance. The Silk Road, a network of land-based and maritime trade routes, shaped the development of civilisations from China, through central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Persia, to the Middle-East and Europe, from the second century B.C. to the fifteenth century, and its legacy is still visible today across the continent.

Over time, the camel trains and caravans that first introduced the Romans to silks from the mysterious land of Seres (their name for an unknown China) far to the east helped the transport of far more than just trade goods. With silks, ceramics, glass and spices spread new technologies and ideas and, of course, people. Cities along the route became thriving multicultural communities. Many of China’s Hui people, ethnic Chinese practitioners of Islam, descend from Silk Road travellers who married locals and settled in China. The true scale of the impact of the Silk Road can especially be seen through the spread of Buddhism from India to inner Asia and China. Today, Chinese culture without the influence of Buddhism is unthinkable, from the religion’s tens of millions of adherents to the thousands of temples and grottoes across the country and the historical influence the religion has had over Chinese governance, philosophy, and traditions.

While it might be hard to imagine the spread of something as big as a new religion along the Belt and Road, especially in an era when the world is already connected via the Internet, we should remember that cultural exchange on the Silk Road happened largely through face-to-face interaction – and this has far greater power to spread ideas and increase tolerance. With the Brexit vote and the election of Trump, we have seen that online access to the rest of the world is not enough by itself to promote cross-cultural exchange – in fact, the Internet can amplify feelings of isolation, and it is no coincidence that those areas of the UK and USA which voted most strongly against globalism are those least touched by it through personal interaction. The Belt and Road Initiative promises to bring people across Eurasia into direct contact with global trade, and with it, each other. This kind of interaction can only promote cosmopolitanism and understanding, providing that local communities are included and also receive the benefits.

In time, as the Initiative develops and increases economic integration, it could do much more to spread a positive image of China and Chinese culture across the globe than current state-sponsored soft power efforts, which often fall flat with foreign audiences. As Carrie Gracie shows in her report, even now Belt and Road is helping the spread of culture in the other direction, as middle class Chinese consumers enthusiastically welcome British scones and jams together with the afternoon tea customs that go with them. Such exchanges will increase in both directions, between all countries on the route, and spread the flourishing cosmopolitanism that characterised the heyday of the Silk Road. The Belt and Road Initiative will undoubtedly expand China’s influence as it brings the world closer together, but at the same time, it will change China too.

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