By Emre Kovacs and Murray Hunter
In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed that China and Central Asia collaborate to build a Silk Road Economic Belt, which would comprise all countries within the Eurasian region. According to Eurasian expert and China Daily columnist Liang Qiang, such a corridor would be the World’s longest economic belt, with the most potential for development, and a strategic base of energy resources in the 21st century.
In the 2014 Report on the Work of the Government, Premier Li Keqiang reaffirmed that China will intensify on its planning and building of a Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st century maritime Silk Road.
However, just as important as the economic considerations and aspects of a new Silk Road concept, is the formulation of a geo-cultural framework for the Silk Road. This is based upon the assumption that with better mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s art and culture, an environment of trust will overcome any underlying deep rooted historical and modern prejudices, doubts, suspicions, misunderstandings arising from cultural differences which would otherwise make the common ground of the Silk Road slippery and unpredictable.
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi said just recently stated publicly that mutual cultural understanding as will be paramount and fundamental to making the Silk Road development initiative work for all. He further added, that the Chinese government will strive for the vision of establishing the Silk Road Economic Belt by making further efforts to build mutual trust and overcome doubts, such as making clear the difference between China’s vision and those of Russia and the US, and stressing development and cooperation without economic integration, and by taking into consideration the different concerns of different countries and actively seeking converging economic interests with regional countries.
Thus one of the major barriers to implementing the Silk Economic Belt will be overcoming the long embedded divisions and prejudices, some justified and others unjustified, and fears of Chinese economic and demographic domination, as China reemerges as the major influential power in the region.
This requires serious discussion about what type of programs should accompany Silk Road development itself, where new policy approaches will be necessary to overcome the barriers discussed above.
At the wake of this new Eurasian economic initiative, a new paradigm to solve the problems created by fast development, and rebalance economics back inwards towards Asia once again.
There is a great historical example here, a proven Asian paradigm which was successful in promoting many diverse cultures with a mutually shared prosperity, where the peoples of the region prospered. This paradigm is the culture and economy of the ancient Silk Road.
Today the ancient Silk Road is being rebuilt in the form of a transcontinental network of bullet trains, oil and gas pipelines, highways, telecommunication lines and satellites, trade agreements and scientific cooperation. But the silk road economic belt also needs a cultural soul
The authors propose and accompanying Silk Road Cultural Belt which should be focused on the nations and cultures of countries comprising the Silk Road region. The programs should focus on the developing the indigenous cultures of those nations which once have all been connected through the Silk Road, both on land and on the seaway.
Today the ancient Silk Road is being rebuilt in the form of a transcontinental network of bullet trains, oil and gas pipelines, highways, telecommunication lines and satellites, trade agreements and scientific cooperation. But the silk road economic belt also needs a cultural soul.
In this regard, one must bear in mind that the ancient Silk Road was not only a road for commodity exchange. The burgeoning economy along the Silk Road was made possible by the mutual appreciation of each other’s culture and artifacts. Cultural understanding and interaction was the very base which sustained and enhanced the trade and economies within the Silk Road Belt and acted as a unifying force for Asia. The ancient Silk Road was the road of commodities, but it was as much as the road of ideas, art, cultures, spiritual teachings, scholarly knowledge, medicine and gastronomy.
A new scholarly understanding of the different cultures, their intricate connection and often shared roots, will bring the nations of Eurasia closer to each other.
A new, heartfelt and sincere artistic expression nurtured by the rich cultural inspiration of the Silk Road traditions will make the precious knowledge and experience of many generations available for modern thought and action.
The scholars and the artists with vision will together surely find many keys and focal points to map out the road towards an enhanced Asian cultural understanding, and mutual prosperity.
Everything that exists and created by humans has to exist first in the mind to become an idea and thought, which can be followed by action and accomplishment. Scholarship and art can conceive, create and communicate ideas and thoughts for actions and accomplishments. Imagination is the key to innovation.
Eurasian nations, we believe, will, in this way, come to recognize what is common, everlasting and beautiful within each culture of the vast Eurasian continent.
The paramount goal should be for the different cultures to be inspired by each other to find and cultivate their common roots and values, to appreciate each other’s specialties and differences..
It is envisioned that as a result, understanding and relationships will deepen between the participating people and their nations. The Eurasian Cultural Belt should become the focal point and radiating source of a new Eurasian consciousness for the reemerging New Silk Road which we believe will be a key factor in the twenty-first century coexistence.
If we want to have the blessings and opportunities that will come with a renewed Eurasian consciousness, we need to rebuild this Eurasian consciousness on solid ground, cemented by art, scholarship and culture. Surely, economics and politics will follow.
While the people of the world are often divided by political and economic interests, the authors believe that it would be possible for people to communicate more effectively with one another and to form a true brotherhood through culture exchange and mutual appreciation.
Music, dance, the fine arts, fashion and gastronomy have a strong attraction for people, and can often be easily shared and appreciated. In other words, culture can bring people together.
It is also important that through culture people can often come to know one another. The soul of a people, their innermost nature, is expressed in their fine art, music, dance and gastronomy.
It is the opinion of the authors that scholarship, art and economy go hand in hand, that they are interdependent and are able to either nurture or destroy each other. Regarded as a whole, they need to be brought into harmony. Otherwise, destructive forces can emerge to threaten the achievements of humanity.
The facilitation of cultural understanding through scholarship and art should the primary goal of The Eurasian Cultural Belt. This will make Eurasian Cultural Belt conferences and exhibitions of the New Silk Road unique events, where scholars and artists, the leaders of culture, economy and politics can find new tools and comprehensive approaches for their own work.
The engine of the above initiative should be the Eurasian Cultural Exchange Trade Posts (ECETP), domiciled in every capital and major city of the new Silk Road. These trade posts should take the form of spacious art and cultural villages, housing libraries, study rooms for scholars, art galleries, showrooms, conference and meeting facilities, cafes, restaurants and hotels along with art fashion and media studios to facilitate excitement, experience and interaction between scholars and artists and anybody else interested.
The programs should include art and research scholarships, conferences, presentations, exhibitions, media events and public culture dissemination.
The culture and history of the nations of the New Silk Road should be researched and promoted by the Eurasian Cultural Exchange Trade Post. Confidence, self esteem and generosity towards each other will than develop in an open and inclusive atmosphere.
The Eurasian Cultural Exchange Trade will work on the premise that diversity is strength and not weakness, and that cooperation evolves from the appreciation and understanding of each other’s culture.
This is the necessary new paradigm for the Eurasia of the 21st century and beyond. According to Charles Darwin, those that survive are not the strongest, or smartest, but those who are able to adapt to changing environments.
Otherwise domination, colonization, division, strife and slavery will dominate the next century within the current paradigms we know, in the midst of environmental and social deterioration.
China’s soft power and its Lunar New Year’s Culture
Authors: Liu Hui & Humprey A. Russell*
As a common practice, China has celebrated its annual Lunar new year since 1984 when the leaders of the day decided to open mysterious country in a more confident and transparent way. So far, the lunar new year gala has become a part of Chinese cultural life and beyond. The question then arises why China or its people have been so thrilled to exhibit themselves to the world, as its economy has already impressed the world by its rapid pace and tremendous capacity.
As it is well-known, in international relations, peoples from different cultural and ethnical backgrounds need to enhance their understanding which eventually leads to mutual respect and tolerance as the key to the world peace and stability. China is well-aware of this norm. As a rising power with 1.3 billion people, it is necessary for China to introduce its culture and notion of the peaceful rise to the audiences globally. Joseph Nye, Jr., the founder of the concept of the soft power, has argued: “The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. During the information age, credibility is the scarcest resource.”In light of this, China has been steadily involved in cultural promotions abroad.
China is an ancient civilization but diplomatically it is a new global player in terms of its modern involvement into the world affairs, particularly in terms of reform and openness. Yet, since China has aspired to rejuvenate itself as one of the leading powers globally, it is natural for the world en bloc to assume Beijing’s intention and approach to the power transition between the rising power like itself and the ruling powers such as the United States and the G-7 club. Consider this, China has exerted all efforts to project but not propagate its image to the world. Here culture is bound to play the vital role in convincing the countries concerned that “culturally China has no the gene of being a threat to other peoples,” as Chinese President Xi has assured. The annual lunar gala is evidently a useful instrument to demonstrate Chinese people, culture and policies as well.
Culturally speaking, the Chinese New Year celebrations can be seen as follows. In a general sense, similar themes run through all the galas with the local cultural and ethnical ingredients, for instance, Chinese opera, crosstalk and acrobatics, as well as the lion-dancing or the dragon-dancing from time to time. Yes, the galas play the role of promoting the Chinese communities over the world to identify themselves with the Chinese culture which surely strengthen the cultural bonds among the Chinese, in particular the younger generations. Moreover, the dimension of the Chinese culture can be found beyond the country since its neighbors like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Malaysia, as well as Chinese communities in many other areas also perform those arts at the holiday seasons. The message here is clear that China, although it is a rising great power, has never abandoned its cultural tradition which has emphasized the harmony among the different races and ethnics.
Recently, the lunar new year celebrations across China have invited professional and amateur artists from all over the world. Those foreign guest artists and many overseas students studying in China have been able to offer their talents in either Chinese or their mother tongues. No doubt, this is a two-way to learn from each other because Chinese performers are benefited from the contacts with their counterparts globally. In terms of public diplomacy, Beijing aims to send a powerful and sincere message to the world: China can’t be in isolation from the world because it has aspired to be a great and inclusive country as well. To that end, the rise of China is not going to challenge the status quo, but will act as one of the stakeholders.
As usual, realists have difficulties and even cultural bias to accept the rhetoric from a country like China since it has been regarded by the ruling powers of the world as an ambitious, assertive and communist-ruled country with its unique culture. To that challenge, the Chinese government and the people have done a great deal of works to successfully illustrate Chinese practice of harmony at the societal level idealized by Confucius’ doctrines. This social harmony is made possible only by the realization of the Taoist ideal of harmony with nature – in this case, harmony between humans and nature. This explains why panda and many other rare animals are now viewed as new national symbol of China. Although they are unnecessarily an indispensable part of the lunar new year gala, the viewpoint is that the rise of China would not be completed at the cost of the ecological environment like many other countries did in history.
Practically speaking, the lunar new year celebrations are being conducted in a rich variety of ways such as concerts, cuisines, folk entertainments and even forums and receptions around the world. Major global commercial centers have also served to create a Chinese holiday atmosphere, adapt to the needs of Chinese tourists, attract active participation from local residents, and provide such diversities of cultural and social events. What is worth mentioning is that some Chinese-North American non-profit, non-partisan organizations are beginning to celebrate Chinese lunar gala in partnership with other local counterparts. For instance, the Chinese Inter-cultural Association based in California, recently hosted a Chinese New Year party in a Persian restaurant in partnership with a local non-profit, non-partisan organization called the Orange County Toastmaster Club, part of Toastmaster International. Also, in another Chinese New Year celebration that was open to people of all races in Pasadena, two Americans played the guitar and sang songs in fluent Chinese! Both galas were attended by people of all racial backgrounds around the world. Given this, it is fair to say that China’s soft power supported by its annual lunar new year festival is on the rise globally with a view to promoting mutual respect and friendship among the peoples of various cultural, ethnical and racial origins.
Yet, though the impressive feats are achieved, it has noted that China still has a long way to go in terms of its twin-centennial dreams. First, as a developing country with its unique culture, it is necessary for China to promote its great ancient culture abroad, but it is also imperative to avoid “introducing” China rashly into the globe. Essentially, soft power is more the ability to attract and co-opt than to use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Thereby, it is the very ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. As cross-cultural communication is a long process, Nye admitted a few years ago, in public affairs, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”
This is the key to all the countries. In 2014,President Xi formally stated, “China should increase its soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate its messages to the world.” In light of this, Chinese lunar new year gala surely acts as soft power to project the image of China internationally.
* Humprey A. Russell (Indonesia), PhD candidate in international affairs, SIPA, Jilin University.
China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East
The Middle East has a knack for sucking external powers into its conflicts. China’s ventures into the region have shown how difficult it is to maintain its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.
China’s abandonment of non-interference is manifested by its (largely ineffective) efforts to mediate conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is even more evident in China’s trashing of its vow not to establish foreign military bases, which became apparent when it established a naval base in Djibouti and when reports surfaced that it intends to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar as a military facility.
This contradiction between China’s policy on the ground and its long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy principles means that Beijing often struggles to meet the expectations of Middle Eastern states. It also means that China risks tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Middle Eastern autocrats have tried to embrace the Chinese model of economic liberalism coupled with tight political control. They see China’s declared principle of non-interference in the affairs of others for what it is: support for authoritarian rule. The principle of this policy is in effect the same as the decades-old US policy of opting for stability over democracy in the Middle East.
It is now a risky policy for the United States and China to engage in given the region’s post-Arab Spring history with brutal and often violent transitions. If anything, instead of having been ‘stabilised’ by US and Chinese policies, the region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to resolve. There is no guarantee that autocrats will emerge as the winners.
China currently appears to have the upper hand against the United States for influence across the greater Middle East, but Chinese policies threaten to make that advantage short-term at best.
Belt and Road Initiative-related projects funded by China have proven to be a double-edged sword. Concerns are mounting in countries like Pakistan that massive Chinese investment could prove to be a debt trap similar to Sri Lanka’s experience.
Chinese back-peddling on several Pakistani infrastructure projects suggests that China is tweaking its approach to the US$50 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese rethink was sparked by political volatility caused by Pakistan’s self-serving politics and continued political violence — particularly in the Balochistan province, which is at the heart of CPEC.
China decided to redevelop its criteria for the funding of CPEC’s infrastructure projects in November 2017. This move seemingly amounted to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time when they were flexing their muscles in response to political volatility. The decision suggests that China is not averse to shaping the political environment of key countries in its own authoritarian mould.
Similarly, China has been willing to manipulate Pakistan against its adversaries for its own gain. China continues to shield Masoud Azhar (who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and military forces) from UN designation as a global terrorist. China does so while Pakistan cracks down on militants in response to a US suspension of aid and a UN Security Council monitoring visit.
Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves China’s interest in keeping India off balance — a goal which Beijing sees as worthy despite the fact that Chinese personnel and assets have been the targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan. Saudi Arabia is also considering the use of Balochistan as a launching pad to destabilise Iran. By stirring ethnic unrest in Iran, Saudi Arabia will inevitably suck China into the Saudi–Iranian rivalry and sharpen its competition with the United States. Washington backs the Indian-supported port of Chabahar in Iran — a mere 70 kilometres from Gwadar.
China is discovering that it will prove impossible to avoid the pitfalls of the greater Middle East. This is despite the fact that US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seem singularly focussed on countering Iran and Islamic militants.
As it navigates the region’s numerous landmines, China is likely to find itself at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will at least have a common interest in pursuing political stability at the expense of political change — however much this may violate its stated commitment to non-interference.
Chinese extradition request puts crackdown on Uyghurs in the spotlight
A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.
The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.
The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.
The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.
Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.
China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.
The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.
The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.
Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.
The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan
China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets
China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.
To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.
The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends,” according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.
Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies,” in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people,” the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.
The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.
Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.
The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”
A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”
The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”
The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.
At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.
Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.
The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.
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