Although the New Silk Road is a success story from the Chinese point of view, skepticism is growing abroad.
Xi’an Bell Tower is a tourist attraction. Young Chinese people taking pictures in front of the historic building, including teacher Zhou Mengfei: “Xi’an plays an important role in Chinese history and was once the gateway to the Silk Road.”
In ancient and medieval times, the Silk Road was the most important trade route between China and Europe. With the growth of sea trade in the early modern era, this land route, and with it the city of Xi’an, lost its importance. Even ten years ago, when Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the idea of the New Silk Road.
Trade network from Asia to Africa and Europe
On September 7, 2013, during a state visit to neighboring Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke for the first time about reviving the historic trade route: “It is great to benefit the people of all countries along the Silk Road.”
In the years that followed, China began to build an extensive trade network. Various economic corridors are part of the New Silk Road, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative. These extend across Asia to Africa and Europe. When Beijing launched the project, domestic politics played an important role. Stated goal: to strengthen the structurally weak western part of China and strengthen its economy.
Today, the New Silk Road is more than just an economic and trade initiative. According to Simona Grano, a China scholar at the University of Zurich, this also served Beijing’s power politics: “People wanted to replace the United States as the most important global lender, and thus be able to present themselves as a global power, especially in developing countries.” , More than 100 countries have signed cooperation agreements with China to build railways, roads and ports along the New Silk Road.
Xi’an freight station is now an important project center. Local entrepreneurs like Zhao Yonglin are capitalizing on this: “In China, trade in coastal areas is much more developed. Xi’an is inland, and historically didn’t engage in much import or export business. But thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative, we now have more Of options.”
Zhao Yonglin and his Kyrgyz wife run several Russian-language online stores and sell kitchen accessories made in China to Central Asia and Russia. The train trip to Moscow takes from ten to twelve days. This is very fast for shipments from Xi’an.”
On the way to Moscow, the New Silk Road passes several provinces and cities, including Zhangye. The small town in Gansu Province lives mainly on agriculture. In the suburbs there are modern state-funded greenhouses. “The Belt and Road Initiative is a national policy,” taxi driver Wang Yingchao explains. “The main thing is to stimulate the local economy.”
Tourism also benefits
Not only trade benefits from the New Silk Road, but also other branches of the economy such as tourism. The region is now also marketing tourist attractions, such as the nearby Rainbow Mountains, under the Belt and Road brand.
This year alone, more than two million people have already visited these mountains. “In the past, no one came to Zhangye to invest,” Wang Yingchao recalled. “Now tourists are consuming here, and we locals are also benefiting from that.”
To the northwest, in Xinjiang province, the New Silk Road finally crosses the border into Kazakhstan. An infrastructure project is also being supported in the Chinese border city of Khorgos.
Italy threatens to get out of the new Silk Road
In March 2019, Italy became the first Western country to join the $1 billion project. However, the country did not benefit as had been hoped. The trade balance with China continued to deteriorate in a way that was not in Italy’s favor. Now the new Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, describes joining the European Union as a grave mistake.
Criticisms are also being expressed in developing and emerging countries. In Sri Lanka, for example, Buddhist monks protested. You accuse the government of selling your country to China without benefiting the population economically. Countries like Sri Lanka are getting loans from China to finance construction projects. Many of them cannot repay loans to China. As a result, China grants bailout loans and binds debtor countries more tightly to itself.
Wang Jigang from the local tourism bureau only wants to talk about the positive aspects of the New Silk Road. “When people came to Khorgos ten years ago, they saw a place with underdeveloped infrastructure, a small population, and an outdated way of thinking.” Today, Khorgos has become a new city with a promising future.
From the Chinese perspective, the New Silk Road is a success story, even if the perception in the West is increasingly different.
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