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On The Road Again!

The ancient Silk Road that linked China to Central Asia and the Arab world, giving access to Europe, might be back. The Chinese authorities aim to create the world’s largest platform for economic, social and cultural cooperation. Critics look at the initiative as a way to extend Chinese influence in more parts of the world.

If the Great Wall of China is the symbol of the isolationist attitude, which has characterized a relevant part of Chinese history, culture and politics, the opposite can be said of the Silk Road. This network of trade routes that linked China to Central Asia and the Arab world, giving access to Europe, was established more than 2,000 years ago and named after China’s most important export for centuries – silk, along with spices, textiles, rare jewels, and gold. 

The road itself influenced the development of the entire Asian region for hundreds of years, both economically and culturally. Technology, philosophy, language, art and ideas moved back and forth along this vast network.

The Silk Road might be back. Nearly 30 heads of state, the chiefs of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, the U.N., and delegates from around the world converged in Beijing last May for a conference promoting China’s “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR) initiative, a network of railways, roads, pipelines, and utility grids that would link China and Central Asia, West Asia, and parts of South Asia. 

More than 60 countries (which account for 62% of the world’s population and 30% of its economic output) have expressed interest in participating in the OBOR action plan. Interestingly enough, the plan fits into this bigger narrative that China is setting an example of globalization, filling the void left by the U.S. under Donald Trump’s “America First” policy. 

As one can expect, the “One Belt and One Road” project has stirred a wide spectrum of opinions. China insists that this initiative comprises more than physical connections for its own trade interests, saying that it aims to create the world’s largest platform for economic cooperation, including policy coordination, trade and financing collaboration, and social and cultural cooperation. Through open discussion, OBOR is promoted as a network which creates benefits for everyone who joins it. Speaking at the opening ceremony, Chinese President Xi Jinping underlined that "what we hope to create is a big family of harmonious coexistence."

Others, on the opposite side of the spectrum, noticed that falling exports, sluggish economic growth, both globally and in China, and a persistent need for China to structurally transform its economy from being driven by government investments and exports to a more consumer-driven model are, in essence, all at the base of China’s recent launch and acceleration of the OBOR initiative. 

In other words, OBOR would simply be the means to better channel the surplus created by Chinese heavy state industries. Also, some analysts affirm that China's plan to build ports, roads and railways in underdeveloped Eurasia and Africa is out of political motivation rather than real demand for infrastructure. “One Belt and One Road” is believed to be a way to extend Chinese influence, at the expense of the U.S., in order to fight for regional leadership in more parts of the world.

A 9-year old primary school student from Hong Kong, Jordan Chan, in 2011 wrote a poem entitled “The Past, Present and Future of the Silk Road” for The Hong Kong Young Writers Awards. In spite of his young age, he well described change of perception of what these ancient trade routes could mean in the present:

“Spurring on exhausted camels and donkeys across the desert road 
Carrying bags of treasured gold walking 
on the Silk Road 
Trading shimmering diamonds and crystal jade 
in a road show 
Exchanging Chinese antiques and colorful silk 
as soft as snow 
Curing human sickness with special herbs 
and spices for the old 
That’s the past of the Silk Road 
Fast trains that can move 1000 miles an hour on the desert road 
Flying space shuttles that can take people to different planets deserve a toast 
Amazing, tall, powerful skyscrapers can hold 
Intelligent robots can perform human jobs cold 
Millions of electronic gadgets being sold 
And that’s the future of the Silk Road”

In spite of the supremacy of economy over anything else which we are experiencing in our modern times, we hope that the future of the Silk Road may hold more than “millions of electronic gadgets being sold”: human values and solidarity do need channels and roads (especially in underdeveloped regions) which could bring this divided and unequal world a bit more together.

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