The Belt and Road Initiative (or BRI), describes the overland corridors that connect Western China with Europe via Central and South Asia. Initiated in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the BRI idea also includes the maritime routes that link China’s southern provinces to Southeast Asia and beyond. The symbolic legacy of this ‘initiative’ is the Silk Roads, a concept that emerged in the modern era to account for pre-modern forms of long-distance connectivity, trade and cultural change across Eurasia.
In 2016, the term Digital Silk Roads was added to the policy development mix, heightening the stakes and to some extent mystifying the idea. Unsurprisingly, the Digital Silk Roads has received the support of China’s tech community. In order to understand, or perhaps demystify the thinking behind this latest iteration, we need to look it through three optics: connectivity, empire and civilisation.
Connectivity is the most obvious manifestation of the idea. China is connecting, and in many cases reconnecting with territories that are strategically important. Connecting means more than bridges, tunnels and highways; it includes fibre optic cable, telecommunications, and satellite networks. The strategist Parag Khanna uses the term ‘competitive connectivity’. He says that competing over connectivity plays out as a tug-of-war over global supply chains, energy markets and resources.
China’s digital advantage is the subject of a recent offering by Lee Kai-fu called AI Superpowers, China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order. The view proposed by Lee is that China will dominate the region because it has harnessed the power of algorithms. Aside from the US’s Silicon Valley, China is home to the top AI talent in the world.
Connectivity allows China’s digital champions like Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, Alibaba and Tencent to extend their influence. For instance, Alibaba is offering its ‘City-Brain’ cloud platform technologies to Kuala Lumpur. The City Brain is already in use in Hangzhou and provides information to city planners about optimal use of transport facilities.
Also, in Zhejiang we can identify how the material layers are supplemented by the virtual. While Alibaba.com is an e-commerce titan, it needs physical infrastructure. The transport hubs of Yiwu, the direct rail to Europe, and Ningbo, the deep-water port, allow it to transport its commodities.
Empire conjures up the idea of something arguably more sinister. Political scientists have engaged with China’s strategic ambitions in the South China Seas, and its aspirations in central Asia. However, it is possible to frame empire as something more intrinsic to Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream. The key idea here is a ‘community of shared future’ (CSF), proposed by Xi Jinping in 2017 as a solution to the west-dominated narrative of development. In the CSF, voices from the global south can be blended into a contemporary version of ‘all under heaven’ (tianxia), the ancient Chinese philosophy of an ordered world.
Civilisation is thus the third layer. Herein China is referenced as a civilizational state. The idea is proposed by Chinese intellectuals and is articulated by the British Marxist Martin Jacques as a more advanced ethical model than capitalism. Chinese civilisation, however, does not register in many nation-states in the BRI. One of China’s core problems therefore is its lack of ‘soft power’.
According to global indices of soft power, a term devised by Joseph Nye in 1990, the attractiveness of China’s values, norms and institutions and inter alia its culture, ranks far lower than developed western nations, particularly the other dominant power in the region, the US. In fact, the 2018 Portland soft power ranking, considered by many to the most authoritative, placed China in 27th place.
The expansion of Chinese culture, and civilisation, into the region is at best a soft power work-in-progress. Tim Winter has shown how cultural heritage diplomacy in the region is attempting to reconcile cultural differences and literally build new bridges. Upping the diplomacy ante is the participation of technology companies, for instance Mysterious Dunhuang is an immersive digital exhibition created by Shenzhen BloomingCulture Investment Co., Ltd. Not to be outdone, Shenzhen-based Tencent have launched Digital Silk Road projects embedded in video games. In this way these tech companies are keeping the faith, and making a commitment to China’s digital future in Asia.
China’s expansion into South-east and Central Asia is now cast within the Community of Shared Future narrative, along with a renovated image of China, now a technologically advanced nation. TV drama serials have been produced such as Legends of the Silk Road, showing a history of harmonious relationships in the region. In this context, The BRI can be seen as an attempt to expand China’s territorial footprint under the guise of a benevolent responsible power.
While Xi’s speech to the UN created little attention globally, an earlier speech in December 2016 to the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China, called for a ‘community of shared future in cyberspace.’ China’s approach to managing its cyber communities is far removed from the idealism of internet pioneers, and many of their brethren in Silicon Valley.
In effect connectivity, empire and civilisation are the interlinking elements of the Digital Silk Roads. How modern communication technologies, borderless online platforms, and artificial intelligence are transforming China, and how rapidly China is morphing into a ‘digital superpower’, remains to be seen.