Understanding China’s New Silk Road: The New Normal pivots to Asia

Students participating in the Strelka's 2017/18 “The New Normal” education program will travel to China to explore the role that special political and economic zones will play in the audacious New Silk Road infrastructure project.

Hong Kong / photo: Istockphoto.com

Think of the Belt and Road Initiative as a stimulus package to transform the fabled Silk Road into a new technological and infrastructural corridor. The Chinese-led development program proposes an investment of up to $900 billion in high-speed rail systems, energy pipelines, coastal harbors, and ports throughout the Asian, European, and African continents. There are two grand routes based on the original Silk Road: an overland “Silk Road Economic Belt,” which connects Eastern China with Europe via Central Asia and Russia; and the “21st-Century Maritime Silk Road,” which will link the Mediterranean Sea to Africa, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and, finally, southeast China.

Originally called One Belt One Road in English, the project was officially renamed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016.

Networks of trade across Central Asia stretch back to the invention of silk in the year 2700 BC. This soft, luxurious product was introduced to the Roman Empire in the 1st century BC, and then has paved the way for trade in other goods—vegetables, fruits, hides, metalwork—which catalyzed the expansion of roads and infrastructure between the East and West. The Silk Road stretched more than 15,000 kilometers from the west coast of Japan, along the Chinese coast, through southeast Asia, along India’s coastline, and then to the Middle East and finally the Mediterranean. Coastal cities like Muscat, Alexandria, and Goa flourished as they developed into buzzing ports, and the dissemination of religion, customs, and technological knowledge led to cultural hybridity and new scientific breakthroughs in navigation, astronomy, and ship-building. The Silk Road can be thought of as the progenitor of Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

How will the Belt and Road Initiative revive the legendary concept of the Silk Road?

Plans include the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a rhizomatic network of waterways, highways, wind farms, and power plants which will begin in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in Western China, and end with the deepwater Port of Gwadar in the province of Baluchistan, Pakistan. In addition, $1.1 billion will be invested to develop harbors and ports in Sri Lanka; a Chinese contract is underway for the 142-kilometer Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Railway in Indonesia, connecting the capital with Banding in West Java; and a $6 billion project to build a 418-kilometer railway, consisting largely of mountainous bridges and tunnels, from northern Laos to the capital city of Vientiane, has recently broken ground.

Belt and Road Initiative / Image source: Wikipedia.org

In Russia, upgrades to maritime, railway, and road infrastructure, specifically the Baikal-Amur Mainline and the Trans-Siberian Railway, are part of a vision to transform the country into a “global competitive transport artery,” linking China and Central Asia with Europe through freight and commercial trains.


The Belt and Road Initiative isn’t a single project, but rather a distributed economic platform and geopolitical strategy: to forge—and even strong-arm—financial and cultural cooperation between the Asian, European, and African continents and their seas. It’s also a strategy to deal with surplus: China hopes it can export its excess cement, steel, and machinery to poorer, neighboring countries, while developing higher, more lucrative technical standards in construction, engineering, and telecommunication. A driving social force behind the initiative is to address the growing wealth disparity between mega-metropolises like Moscow and Shanghai and the poverty-stricken rust belts or “hinterlands” of agrarian Eurasia.


Less explicit is the power and gamesmanship underlying this geographically-expansive initiative, including the desire to attain ‘superpower’ status and access to strategic ports, which can be used as naval bases by the Chinese military for its missions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.


The focus of the Strelka Institute’s "The New Normal" program in 2017/18 will shift its attention eastward and towards emergent systems of value—ecology, logistics, governance, transportation, and infrastructure. From deep learning to urban-scale AI, from blockchain technology to trans-continental economic zones, from privatized micro-utopias to multi-city agglomerations, new worlds are developing at a pace that is unprecedented.


The second year of "The New Normal"will take the Belt and Road Initiative as a geopolitical, economic, and speculative model and starting point: what kinds of urban systems and prototypes will result from The New Silk Road? How can we fathom megastructures or total systems when they are no longer contained in a single building envelope but are rather discontiguous? To quote the director of "The New Normal," Benjamin Bratton, “How will logistical infrastructures become zones of exception, and how can we bend this toward more interesting outcomes?”

Shenzhen, China / photo: Istockphoto.com

Let us imagine one fictional scenario: a new status is given to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, now a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Flexible borders absorb trade, commerce, and human labor, shortening truck and shipping routes through real-time optimization sensors and “single-window” customs clearance. 4K facial recognition technology is integrated into Chinese telecom manufacturer Huawei’s newest tablet phone, the Huawei Mate 12, generating new forms of e-citizenship. The Great Wall of China is no longer the only planetary landmark visible from space; instead, a pulsing swarm of electromagnetic frequencies circles from Xi’an to Moscow to Rotterdam and back, forming a glowing, red swathe on Google Earth. New aesthetics will emerge to portray and narrativize the strange and new lived experience of this Eastern, Hemispherical Stack.


Participants in "The New Normal" 2017/18 will have the opportunity to travel to and learn from Hong Kong and Shenzhen, a special administrative and special economic area, which are being discussed as potential hubs along the New Silk Road.


Boasting substantial infrastructure expertise, Hong Kong-based companies can potentially contribute to the initiative. One of the most important financial centers in the world, Hong Kong hosts more than 200 international banks and has a comprehensive legal system. It can also share its experience of international integration with the rest of China.


Shenzhen, on the other hand, links Hong Kong to mainland China, and was the country’s first special economic zone. As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, it aims to establish itself as the urban epicenter of South China’s marine economy and a strategic highland of the project.


Applications to the program are accepted from students around the world until November 1. Learn how to apply here.

Text: Yusef Audeh