All four parts of the United Kingdom, all nine English regions, and each and all of the British Overseas Territories and the Crown Dependencies, need to be integrated into the Belt and Road Initiative, of which Bruno Maçães writes:
The world’s lost cities have all been unearthed. The modern-day equivalent – fulfilling an age-old desire to stand in a place wholly unknown to others – is a city built so recently that few have even heard of it.
The Chinese town of Khorgas, on the border with Kazakhstan, can’t be found on most maps. Built from scratch over the past three years, it has quickly become a sprawling grid of broad avenues with the feel of a Californian town. Tree-lined streets have wide, pristine pavements. Construction crews are busy at work. Seen from a distance – better from the Kazakh border – there is a nascent line of skyscrapers.
Most traffic lights are not yet operational, but large video screens on some street corners project maps of the new infrastructure planned to connect Eurasia, bright arrows criss-crossing the steppes like comets. As the city’s amenities are installed, the population is already hovering around 200,000.
The Chinese conceive of Khorgas as a city linking east and west and a first taste of their global economic project, the Belt and Road, which seeks to link China with central Asia and Europe by means of fast transport infrastructure, trade, finance and cultural exchange. Young people have been flocking here, not only from the western Chinese province of Xinjiang but from further afield. On a commercial side street, a shop selling Georgian wine has signs in five different scripts: Chinese, Cyrillic, Roman, Georgian and Arabic – used for Uighur, the language of the province’s dominant ethnic group. This must be something of a world record.
I have dinner at Fuyun, a busy new restaurant that serves expensive fish and seafood. When a Chinese city gets its first seafood restaurant, you know it is taking off. Businessmen meet in private booths to conclude deals. The staff use my visit as an opportunity to learn a few English words and I order by clicking the images on an electronic menu. The place is buzzing, mirroring the feeling in the town. Everyone is too busy making a fortune to care about following the rules too strictly: perhaps the traffic lights will never be turned on.
This is the new Wild West for the many young people flocking to Khorgas from the big Chinese mega-cities to the east. When you cross the border to the Kazakh side, things are more subdued. The Kazakh Khorgos (the name for the town is the same, but there is a difference in pronunciation) is still more or less what it has always been: a couple of dozen old houses congregated around a pretty mosque and a road running down to the border post.
But you should not be fooled. On a later visit, when I step off the night train at the new Altynkol station, the feeling of being in the Wild West returns. The 20 or 30 passengers quickly disappear and I am left alone in the middle of inhospitable dunes and a flock of grazing sheep. This is the middle of nowhere, but why, then, am I standing by a new, imposing train station and why the two-lane highway, in its final construction stages?
After a turn on the road leaving the station, you suddenly see them: three giant yellow cranes, shining in the morning sunlight.
This is the new Khorgos dry port, an ambitious project to build one of the world’s greatest ports in what is probably the place on Earth furthest from any ocean. Such are the ironies of globalisation.
At the end of 2015, I embarked on what was to become a six-month journey along the historical and cultural borders between Europe and Asia.
We live in one of those rare moments in history when the political and economic axis of the world is shifting. Four or five centuries ago, it shifted towards the west. Europe, for so much of its history a quiet backwater, came to rule practically the whole globe.
Now this axis is shifting east. We know what this means for Asia. We have seen the new majestic skylines and the bullet trains and stations quickly replacing the old camel routes and caravanserai. But what does it mean for the west? Might the colossus used to bringing change upon others now be forced to change, in response to the new political and economic winds blowing from the east?
Suddenly, what happens in east or south Asia, in Russia or the Middle East, affects everyone in Europe and the United States more profoundly than Europeans or Americans would like to think, especially since they now feel these influences are in some important respect beyond their control. Their world has expanded, but expansion of this sort is not always welcome. It is now almost a truism to say that our century will be an Asian century. In just a decade or two, at least three of the five largest economies in the world will be in Asia: China, Japan and India. The only uncertain point about this metric is which country will occupy the fifth position. Will it be Germany, Indonesia, Russia or Brazil? My guess, if we are talking about the global economy in 20 years’ time, is that it will be Indonesia.
It takes a remarkable lack of imagination to think that the world will be more or less the same when Asian economic power becomes so visibly dominant.
The new swing of the pendulum, as the political scientist Charles Kupchan has argued, is going to lead to a world where no one will be dominant. In some respects, this is a return to the past. We have had periods in history in which power was broadly diffused across different zones and different visions of political order lived side by side.
But the fact that the Qing and the Mughals and the Hapsburgs had very different views about religion, commerce, hierarchy and markets was not very significant, because they lived their own lives in relative isolation. What is different about our time is that globalisation forces us to live all jumbled together and yet we all have very different visions of what this common world should look like.
Kupchan writes: “The next world will hardly be the first one in which different great powers operate according to different conceptions of order. But, due to the onset of global interdependence, it will be the first time that such a diverse set of orders intensely and continuously interact with each other.”
Let us forgo the more spectacular pronouncements and settle on a compromise: this century will not be Asian, but neither will it be European or American, as the previous 300 or 400 years so clearly were. I suggest the alternative of “Eurasian” as a way of signalling this new balance between the two poles. It is increasingly a composite world – as Eurasia itself is a composite word – where very different visions of political order are intermixed and forced to live together.
‘Hello passenger! Welcome to Yiwu International Trade City.’ This time, I’m at the other – eastern – extreme of China.
As I sit in the back seat of the taxi, welcomed by a recorded English message, the image on my mind is that of the passenger who got out as I opened the door. In his hand he casually carried a large plastic bag full with green dollar bills. Everything in this increasingly famous city – two hours by train from Shanghai – is rather rough at the edges. The traders coming to Yiwu are mostly from Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa. Some still prefer to deal in hard cash and avoid banks. Others do not have a bank account at all.
There is an Arab district and a Turkish district and an Indian district in Yiwu. With so many businessmen arriving all the time, a fixed population gradually set in, catering to their needs for accommodation and food and some essential services like translation and insurance. A handful of luxury hotels have recently opened, but these are for the Chinese industrialists coming here to sell their wares, not the foreigners, who stay at cheaper places, surrounded by their kin and countrymen.
Globalization as defined and led by the West may well have seen better days, but Yiwu is a striking example of a city, small by Chinese standards, so intimately connected to the rest of the world that every disturbance produced a continent away is immediately registered here, the central nervous system integrating information from endless locations everywhere.
In December 2014 a new direct train connection between Yiwu and Madrid was established. Its claim to fame rests on the fact that it is now the longest train route in the world, covering a distance of roughly 13,000 kilometres, more than the Trans-Siberian railway. When the Yiwu mayor takes me on a tour of the train terminal, there are a number of boxes being unloaded. We open two or three. Inside, there are bottles of Rioja, Spanish sunflower oil and mineral water. Appropriately, the first train carried Christmas decorations to Spain.
District One, the oldest section of the market, is largely devoted to toys. I am told that about one-quarter of toys and two-thirds of Christmas decorations sold worldwide come from Yiwu. Toys are special because they are manufactured in the Yiwu region, guaranteeing that you can get the lowest prices in China – and therefore the world – at the Futian market. There are certainly a few thousand stores entirely devoted to toys, phantasmagoria of colours, catchy tunes, animatronics and recorded doll voices. As you walk through the brightly lit corridors, all sense of time and space disappears.
The faces of the employees, confined to their garish cubicles for the full day, look haunted, sometimes frozen and vaguely insane, at first indistinguishable from a crowd of other faces peeping out: clowns, panda bears and yellow smileys. Every now and then, there is a completely different store, specializing in tourist souvenirs sold to Egyptian traders, for example, so that it is full of miniature plastic pyramids, the sort you will find at Cairo airport. One store may be full with baby dolls that say ‘mama’, the next with dolls that say ‘papa’. Perhaps the Yiwu market is meant to be a dramatized model of life in the new millennium: the organization of excess.
When I had asked for recommendations, two or three people told me to try a restaurant on Chouzhou Bei Lu mentioned in speeches by President Xi Jinping. It seems odd to me that a restaurant would be singled out in those highly contrived speeches and at first I cannot even try to imagine what the reason might be.
When I visit in the early evening, the restaurant is empty. I am welcomed by two young men, Abdul and Mohammed. They are from Syria. Mohammed arrived only three or four years ago and is a refugee from the Syrian war. Abdul arrived earlier. They seem to be in charge of the restaurant, helped by a number of veiled Hui Muslim women. One of the most striking things about Yiwu is the way Chinese Muslims meet here with the trading Arab and Central Asian community, a replica of the movement of people and beliefs at the very beginning of Islam.
Facing the street there is a large picture of Xi Jinping, together with an excerpt from one of his speeches: There is a Jordanian, Muhannad, in Yiwu where Arab businesspeople congregate. He set up an Arab restaurant, and prospered along with the city. He has since married a Chinese woman and settled in China. An ordinary young Arab, weaving his dream of life into the Chinese Dream of pursuing happiness, eventually reached success through hard work.
Muhannad is not at the restaurant the day I visit, so I make a point of returning the next day, but even then I am perhaps too early. Abdul points me to the car parked outside, where his boss is fast asleep.
Eventually, as the restaurant starts to fill up, we decide to wake him up and sit down to have a cup of strong Turkish coffee. Muhannad tells me the story of how he ended up in Yiwu. It is a story of growing Chinese presence and soft power. He followed an uncle to Thailand where they opened a restaurant, but so many of the visitors, both tourists and businessmen, were Chinese and so wondrous were the tales of money and success they brought with them that Muhannad soon moved to Guangzhou and from Guangzhou to Yiwu, with its deep Arab links.
I ask him how Xi found out about the restaurant. Had he ever eaten here? Muhannad does not confirm it, but he certainly wants me to believe it. The Chinese Dream is good for business.
Then, after the first lull in the conversation, we both turn to the tragedy in Syria. Businessmen from Syria have been coming to Yiwu since the city first became a modern trade centre fifty years ago, but now the influx is young people escaping the war, even if officially they still arrive with business visas – like everyone here – rather than as asylum seekers. Muhannad shows me the pictures of recent meetings of the community in a large room decorated with red, white and black balloons, the colours of the Syrian flag. I cannot help thinking that all these balloons must come from the market.
There are now close to one thousand Syrians in Yiwu. With its large mosque and its endless market, a space-age bazaar, the city offers itself, in the hearts of these men and women, as an industrial reproduction of the cities they left behind.
China has embarked on a giant project of international political engineering. The rewards are potentially very great, but so are the risks – affecting everyone – and this raises the question of why the European Union has so far been left on the sidelines. One would think that the historic project of reviving the land routes between Europe and Asia is one in which Europe should play an active role.
Though the initial focus of the Belt and Road is naturally on China’s immediate periphery, Europe lies as its final goal and main justification. That has been conjured by repeated references to the Silk Road, whose associations take us to old trade networks linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. Among those making this point, most emphatic has been Wang Yiwei, of Beijing’s Renmin University.
He argues that the Belt and Road is just as significant for Europe as it is for China, offering a timely opportunity to address challenges that might otherwise continue to haunt Europeans for a long time. Two examples stand out. First, with the Ukraine crisis taking Europe by surprise, Wang writes: “It seems that in order to strengthen European integration, actions can no longer be confined to the present union.” In this context, he could also mention Syria, a second reminder that Europe needs to look east if it is to survive and prosper.
Second, the Belt and Road offers the European Union an evident opportunity to engage in its own “pivot to Asia”, made urgent by the ongoing American efforts in this area.
Recently, a number of historians have made the case that the ancient Silk Road was less about trade in goods than about cultural exchange, the movement of ideas, religions and people. The former was always limited in size and mostly local. The latter changed the course of world history, not once but many times over.
That, in the end, will also be the case with the Belt and Road. The spillovers from infrastructure and trade into politics, culture and security are not a bug in the project, but its most fundamental feature.
Under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, China realised that it ran the risk of becoming a giant Singapore or Hong Kong, an economic powerhouse linked to the rest of the world by trade links, but otherwise a political island, incapable of offering the outside world its own vision of a universal culture and universal values and, ultimately, dependent on a global system it did not create and cannot control.
Now that China is, according to most estimates, already the largest economy in the world, it feels that its political and cultural influence needs to grow proportionately, starting with its periphery in south-east and central Asia. With the Belt and Road, the Chinese authorities intend to move the country from the image of a willing participant in the global economy into a new phase, as a state with responsibilities for organising and shaping it. By expanding its influence outside its borders, China will be called upon to develop new political concepts to rival the western abstractions of human rights and liberal democracy.
Zhang Yansheng, of the National Development and Reform Commission, the government body in charge of the initiative, told me that the project is meant “to connect the minds of our peoples”. When a country takes upon itself the task of bringing the whole world together, you can be sure that it is aware of the difficulties, but also that it has decided to embrace them.
In the past, the steppes of central Asia were the place where new civilisations were born and where old ones would sometimes come to die. There’s a lot of history in Khorgas. But no past. There are no ruins, no mazars or old minarets. What you’ll see there is the future.