I have been in China for five days and my brain is on fire. Perceptions, discussions, confrontations crowd my mind, jostling for space, demanding attention. My Chinese colleagues have so much to tell me about their country’s new priorities and they want to know so much about the future of Europe. We discuss. We argue.
The debates go on and on at the round-table meeting in Changsha in Hunan province that we are attending. As day turns into night, the debates not only dominate my waking hours, they enter my dreams.
Europe and China have much to talk about. We are so different and yet we have much in common. There is the shared challenge of encouraging sustainable growth, tackling problems in our respective neighbourhoods, dealing with an ageing population, making sure we eliminate inequalities.
But much also separates us. Europe believes in democracy, elections and human rights. China wants western countries to stop pontificating and giving Beijing lessons on democracy. The focus should be on governance, not on elections and other the rituals of democracy, one Chinese academic tells us.
“We have to treat each other equally … the West should stop looking down on us,” another Chinese colleague insists at the round-table discussion between European and Chinese think tanks.
Indeed, much has changed — and is changing — in Beijing. President Xi Jinping has embarked on an unprecedented national reform drive, demanding an end to corruption, stronger implementation of the rule of law, a rebalancing of the economy from investments and exports to domestic consumption.
And for the last year, President Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang have been promoting the ambitious idea of a Silk Road which would connect China to Europe, weaving its way across Central Asia and Central and Eastern Europe on the one hand while also building connections through a maritime route which would include the Maldives and Sri Lanka and many South-East Asian states.
Full disclosure: I confess that I am completely fascinated, intrigued by the initiative. As a young girl growing up in Pakistan, I spent hours reading of the adventures of the intrepid men and women who plyed the Silk Road, connecting towns, industries and people.
Exotic looking Chinese traders, with their bundles of silk, satins and brocades, made their way to Islamabad, persuading my mother and aunts to buy their goods. I watched from the sidelines, amused by the good-natured bargaining, the chuckles resulting in mutually satisfactory transactions.
Years later, I went up the Silk Road — or rather the silk track — to Hunza and Gilgit and felt my heart almost break at the exquisite beauty of the landscape. Many hundreds of Chinese and Pakistani workers died while building the road in such a hostile land. Their sacrifice was enormous, their memories preserved in plaques along the route.
That was then. The Road was about romance and adventure. Today it’s about commerce. China’s new concept of the Silk Road has little to do with romance — and a lot to do with business.
Still it is a visionary idea which is getting much attention in Asia and Europe. And so it should. As they did when they came out with their ‘China Dream’ concept a year or so ago, the ‘Silk Road’ initiative is a work in progress.
Beijing has yet to articulate its ambitions in detail. “We are not yet talking about a strategy,” says a Chinese colleague.
Clearly, China wants to use the Road to increase its trade relations with countries along the route. Beijing is interested in Central Asia’s energy resources. It wants to counterbalance Russia’s political influence in the region.
Also, the Silk Road provides a strong counter move to America’s much-touted ‘pivot’ to Asia and to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that the US wants to negotiate with countries in the region but without China.
As I listen to the discussion, I am convinced that this is an idea whose time has come — again. China has the political clout to make it happen. And it has the money to finance many of the projects.
Still, it won’t be easy. The 21st century Silk Road will not only allow goods to be trade freely across borders, it could also facilitate the cross-frontier movement of drugs, arms and terrorists.
As such, the proposal needs to be developed with care and caution.
As I prepare to leave Changsha, my head is still spinning with new information and ideas. I dream of ancient bazaars and long, winding roads through mountains and plains. The Silk Road as envisioned by Beijing may be based on national self interest and, given the challenges, may never see the light of day.
But the vision of an interconnected world it articulates is worth preserving — and developing.