China Heads West Beijing's New Silk Road to Europe

China is building new roads, railroads and pipelines from Central Asia to Europe in an effort to build new connections to the rest of the world. The results may be good for the Chinese -- but less so for the other countries involved.

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By Erich Follath


In Kashgar, on the western edge of the Peoples' Republic of China, the view is reminiscent of the Bible and the days when the ancient Silk Road began to take shape here in the 1st century B.C. Today, the government plans to use Kashgar as the starting point for a new, global trade route -- but at this point, there is still little evidence of it.

"Posh, Posh," the men shout on their horse-drawn carts, as they make their way to the meadow where drivers are selling camels. Potential buyers expertly reach into the animals' mouths to examine their health. The air is dusty and filed with the sounds of animals neighing, braying and bleating, as if the horses, donkeys and goats know that they won't stay tied up for long. Women, only a few of them wearing veils, walk through the chaos carrying sacks of apricots and raisins.

The Sunday market in Kashgar, one of the world's largest, attracts several thousand livestock owners and traders to the oasis city on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, near the high mountains of the Pamir and the Hindu Kush. It is a fascinating mix of ethnicities. Uighurs, wiry men with knives in their belts, are in the majority. There are Nomadic Kyrgyz wearing felt hats, and occasional light-skinned, green-eyed boys who look like descendants of Alexander the Great. The market is policed by the region's true rulers, the Han Chinese.

Here, people can still taste and feel the myth of the old Silk Road.

On the edge of the market, an artist captures the past on old silk paper. He paints images of the ancient caravans that struggled through deserts and across high mountains beyond the Jade Gate Pass, passing through the Kashgar oasis on their way to cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, Tehran and Baghdad, or transferring their precious goods, in a relay race of sorts, to other caravans that continued to the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire. The caravans introduced silk and jade, ceramics, paper and tea to the Western world, and brought garlic and castor oil to the Far East. The Silk Road was a meeting place of world cultures and a missionary route for religions, first for Buddhism and later for Islam. When Mongolian dominance collapsed in the 14th century, the trade routes petered out.

Massive New Project

Xi Jinping, 63, the president of China and general secretary of the Communist Party, wants to revive the myth and build a New Silk Road, in large parts along the old trade route. It would mark the return of a legend. For some time now, many of his speeches have included references to "yi dai yi lu," or "a belt, a road." It is a gigantic project, and China envisions about 60 countries being involved, or about half of humanity.

China wants to expand trade along the route and develop infrastructure. Beijing has earmarked $40 billion (€36 billion euros) for the project, to be invested in building new roads, and in railroads, pipelines and ports from Lithuanian to the Horn of Africa, Sri Lanka to Israel, and Pakistan to Iran. Two railroad lines lead to Germany, one from Zhengzhou to Hamburg and the other from Chongqing to Duisburg.

In order to finance the massive project, the Peoples' Republic initiated the establishment of a financial institution: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). For years, Xi Jinping was displeased by the fact that Washington provided his country with little say in organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In June 2015, 57 countries signed the charter of the AIIB, against the will of the United States. They included France, Great Britain and Germany. Everyone wants to be involved when the Chinese are planning big things.

But what is Beijing trying to achieve with its Silk Road plan? Does the Chinese leadership want to promote economic development in nearby and faraway countries and "bring together" the world, as it insists in its government propaganda? Is it because Chinese companies need globalization to bolster their stuttering economy and create new export routes for surplus production of goods, as well as routes for importing oil? Or is the real goal to break the West's political dominance -- a plan, in a sense, to conquer the world?

Beijing has deployed officials to work on the major project in Kashgar, where it is developing a new economic corridor. The high mountain road to Pakistan is being expanded, and when it is finished it will lead across the Khunjerab Pass to Gwadar, a port the Chinese are building from scratch on the Arabian Sea. Feasibility studies for ambitious new railroad lines to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are stacked on the engineers' desks. And although the proposed lines present enormous technical challenges, everything seems possible since the Chinese built a railroad line to Tibet, at altitudes above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet).

Completed and planned projects of China's New Silk Road initiative
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Completed and planned projects of China's New Silk Road initiative

It's clear that China's Communist Party is investing enormous amounts of money in its transit routes toward Central Asia and in new economic zones. The standard of living among Kashgar residents is rising, and tax-advantaged high-tech parks have created new jobs in the provincial capital of Ürümqi. The economy is growing at 9 percent in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, outpacing growth in many other parts of the country.

In return, Beijing expects gratitude and compliance -- mistakenly. For most Uighurs, there is something far more important than having a better choice of goods to buy: respect for their people and their religion, Islam. Instead, they often experience the opposite. Mosques are placed under video surveillance, Muslim men are no longer permitted to wear long beards, and Chinese officials force their children to break the fast during Ramadan.

Economic and political elites welcome the opportunities brought by Beijing's financial injections, but the local population in Xinjiang view the new Silk Road, and the domination by Han Chinese that comes with it, with considerable skepticism. This is a recurring pattern, with concerns becoming even greater immediately beyond China's borders.

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bicester55 09/01/2016
1. Perhaps China's method is better than the West's
Perhaps China's method is better than the West's? Most Western donated government Aid just seems to fuel corruption and probably widens the gap between the Elite and the masses. Perhaps China's less altruistic aid is better. It must be better building infrastructure rather than handing money to government officials. It surely again makes corruption less of a problem if there are lots of there own trying to benefit as it means that it will be more closely monitored.
broremann 09/01/2016
2. the far east
excellent article and when I read this it strikes me how small Europe is and so self-regarding our outlook on other nations
johan_stavers 09/01/2016
3. how can these countries be so stupid?
'privilegded privilegded'...all that happens is that these countries get to compete against each other in offering a better deal for the Chinese and a worse deal for themselves. If all these tiny European countries don't band together in the face of china then they will all end up like the uyghurs...and how on Earth is it possible that these developments are not dealt with by the EU...I mean that is exactly the purpose of that EU, if it is not used for that we might as well end it.
suchindranath 09/02/2016
4. China's OBOR
Islam is a real and present danger to the World. Those who think otherwise have never read History, the Quran, the Hadiths and avoid current affairs. China is also a threat. Localized for now. One Belt One Road. (OBOR) is the revival of a Historical trade route that was carved by daring entrepreneurs for profit into a latter day concept that positions the Middle Kingdom at the center of the emerging World. Legitimate? Perhaps. If it were not for China's territorial ambitions that are explicit and based on a peculiar notion of History derived from a time where there were no real borders and large tracts of Chinese History knew little outside China and considered China to be the World. Witness Tibet, Leh, Ladakh, Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and so on. Harmless? Perhaps. But China has never made a secret of its intentions to take revenge for past "humiliations". Witness Japan and India (as a British proxy during the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and so on). This is serious demand. Desire backed by adequate military power. The US, as China rightly reflects, was driven largely by the impulse to derive profits to the benefit of a small minority of its ruling class. China is driven by the desire to benefit its ruling "proletariat", But, while the US has surplus of land that it can easily share with, for example, the Moslems that it has displaced in the Middle East with its War Crimes, China has territorial ambitions. While the US has turned every defeat into victory by using Hollywood effectively to erase all humiliation, China nurses grudges. OBOR is not just about trade. It is about Empire. It is the opposite, if such is conceivable, of the good Admiral Zheng He of yore:
spon-facebook-1170044145 09/07/2016
5. silk road
good article - perhaps more analysis about impacts would be helpful though I'd note the US built infrastructure too - thinking it would turn 3rd world countries into modern democracies. Effort did not work so well - dams, bridges, roads, all built from the 50 through the 80's. Culture is stronger than we like to admit there is reason for the locals to resist modernization. And corruption and tribal disputes have destroyed many a good intention. Look at what at happened re: the dams, airport, model towns and soccer stadiums built by the US in the 50's in Afghanistan. Worth reading up on - idealistic effort - compete failure. Futile effort. Perhaps China will get the same results the US got - wasted money and loss of illusions. Chinese belief that their rightful place is at the head - Middle Kingdom refers to a myth - the rest of us are in the mud - lower kingdoms - and then there is heaven of a sort which is the high kingdom - China is between heaven and the mud divinely placed there to rule us lower kingdom types. Also the belief - taught in their schools - that the West deprived China of her rightful place and so China must be restored to that place and vengeance for that humiliation. Of course - this is propaganda to keep the peasants in line - but - if it plays out? Could be very unpleasant.
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