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.
Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West
Over three hundred and fifty years ago, when the West lost its first war with China over Taiwan, the technological level between the two sides was fairly even. But the Dutch, then the most dynamic colonial power, paid a heavy price for misbelieving “China might have invented gunpowder but we possess superior guns.” Today, the world is witnessing China’s rapid rise and the US is in decline. The question is, will Taiwan once again bust the Western (aka US) superiority myth?
In 1662, the West fought its first war with China and lost. The Sino-Dutch War, as it is called now, was fought when a Chinese admiral dared the Dutch East India Company to give up its little under half century ‘rule’ over Taiwan. The defeat resulted in the island falling under Chinese rule for the first time in history. It is not so important to know it was China’s first great victory over Europe’s most dynamic colonial power. In the words of the Dutch historian, Tonio Andrade, what is more significant is the first Chinese victory over the West broke the myth of Western superiority as it had been achieved on the basis of “Chinese advantage in strategic and tactical culture.” (Emphasis added) The Chinese victory also broke another myth which the Western historians held on to until as recently as in 1970s, i.e., the Chinese might have invented the gunpowder but didn’t know how to use it as weapon, Andrade, the author went on to add.
Fast forward to the present-day tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As China embarked on the path of Reform and Opening-up, relations between Beijing and Taipei too started improving in the early 1980s. Seen as a remarkable political development on both sides of the Taiwan Strait in 45 years, the KMT government in Taipei declared in 1991 “an end to the war with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.” However, since the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, political headwinds in Taiwan have been moving in the opposite direction to Beijing. Alarmed by Chen’s backing of demands for Taiwan’s independence, Beijing was quick to pass anti-secession law a year after Chen was reelected in 2004.
In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory in US and the victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president respectively, Beijing’s fear of Taiwan declaring itself an independent country has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, Beijing is feeling seriously threatened by the US role in creating conditions for Taiwan to declare independence. Immediately upon assuming office, President Trump held telephone conversation with the Taiwan president – something which no other US had done in the preceding forty years. This was the beginning of a new trend in US-China relations and which grossly undermined the “One China” policy.
During the past decade (between 2007 and 2019), the US warships made over one hundred trips through the Taiwan Strait. No wonder Beijing has been describing Taiwan as “the most important sensitive issue in Sino-US relations.” According to New Strait Times, in 2020, the year of Coronavirus pandemic, the cross-strait faced its worst crisis in the past two decades. Without denying that the PLA fighter planes crossed maritime border with Taiwan, China however dismissed Taipei’s claims of “incursions” by the mainland. Beijing even maintained its warplanes, bombers and anti-submarine aircrafts “conducted normal exercises on September 18 and 19 respectively and that the median line never existed.”
However, according to experts, the median line is the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and China, and was demarcated by US Air Force General Benjamin Davis Jr. in 1955, before the US pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it. Media reports originating from Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore claimed the forty or more PLA incursions last October, were prompted by two US top officials visiting Taipei during August-September period last year. “U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taiwan on Thursday for the second visit by a high-level American official in two months. The first visit was by the US Health Secretary Alex Azar in August 2020.” The visits by Krach and Azar respectively were first highest-level US Cabinet visits to Taiwan – in gross violation of the US commitments to China – since the US switched formal relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979.
This year, especially within hours following President entered the White House, the new US administration lost no time in announcing “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” Two days earlier, the State Department invited and officially received Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador in Washington to Biden’s inauguration – the first envoy from the island present at a presidential swearing-in since 1979. Both the statement of commitment to Taiwan and the presence of Taiwanese envoy at the presidential inauguration respectively were interpreted by strategic affairs experts in Washington and Beijing as moves to provoke China towards making a strategic mistake leading to military conflict.
Further, Taiwan has returned as “thorniest” issue in US-China relations under President Biden – since perhaps it is easier to violate “One China” policy than to either rally European allies against China or to announce a decisive Washington position toward Beijing. As President Biden gears up to embark on his maiden in-person visit to shake hands or bump elbows with his European allies, the US administration has further escalated tensions over Taiwan. Last Sunday, a bipartisan contingent of three US Senators – Tammy Duckworth and Christopher Coons, both Democrats, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican – briefly visited Taiwan on a US military aircraft. According to media reports, the Chinese Defense Ministry described the visit as “extremely vile provocation.” Reuters citing Chinese sources said China believes that “Biden administration is challenging one-China principle and trying to achieve the so-called goal of ‘using Taiwan to control’ China.”
Experts in Beijing point out, Biden is accelerating the pitch of what started under Obama and was intensified by Trump, i.e., to use “the US economic and military might to pressure Beijing and force it to accept US hegemony in the region.” Elsewhere, first the joint statement following Biden-Suga summit in April and then in late May the statement released after the summit meeting between European leaders and Japan’s Prime Minister Suga, are being interpreted as “belligerent stances towards Beijing initiated and encouraged by President Biden.” The EU-Japan post-summit statement called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Similar to several moves initiated by Trump and Biden challenging one-China policy, the EU-Suga joint statement too is the first time that Taiwan has been included in such a statement.
A scholar in Tianjin, who writes a column for ftchinese.com, the daily online Mandarin version of the Financial Times, thinks Biden has intensified the so-called Thucydides trap. In a recent article, he has actually put forward a solution for Beijing to not only avoid falling into the trap, but also steer clear of having to choose between using force to reunify with Taiwan and being forced into military conflict with the US by striking first. To sum up Li Yongning’s rather long thesis, he prescribes that China fight out Thucydides trap with economic growth and people’s prosperity. To prove his point, Li flashes the example of de-escalation of hostility between China and Japan. Remember until a few years ago, heightened tensions between the two over Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. Of late, especially since the middle of Xi Jinping’s first five year tenure, belligerent provocations between Beijing and Tokyo have almost ceased.
How did China under Xi achieve this? According to Li, Xi’s strategy to strike peace and tranquility with Japan was simple and practical. “China’s GDP exceeded Japan’s in 2010 and by 2019 it became 2.8 times more than Japan’s, which put an end to Sino-Japan competitiveness. Likewise, once China achieves one and a half times or twice bigger GDP of the USA, the China-US competitiveness will be rendered as joke,” Li contended. In 2017, in PPP terms China had already exceeded the US economy. Li cited a Brookings Institution report which predicted China’s GDP will cross America’s in 2028. “Once China reaches there, higher GDP will act as shock absorber for all Sino-US conflicts,” Li wrote.
China’s know-how on becoming the oldest society in the world
For decades, China had a “one-child policy” that permitted families to have only one child. A few years ago, this restriction was changed to a “two-child policy”, and now the Chinese government has allowed the Chinese people to give birth to three children.
The main reason for this is the concerningly low birth rate and the impending demographic crisis. China is still the country with the largest population (1.41 billion), but UN forecasts indicate that India will soon surpass it, since India has a much higher birth rate.
Statistics show that last year approximately 12 million babies were born in China, which is the lowest birth rate China has had in many years. For instance, in 2016 when the “two-child policy” was implemented, the number of newborns reached 18 million.
Chinese demographers argue that it will be difficult for China to boost birth rate in the near future because the number of women in the reproductive age is decreasing. This was caused by China’s “one-child policy” that was in force from 1979 to 2015.
Chinese families could give birth only to one child, and many families chose to “spend” this quota on a boy, since in China boys have traditionally been valued more than girls. If a family were told they were expecting a girl, the mother would often decide to have an abortion.
This caused an unexpected outcome – the number of men exceeded the number of women. Although it was not allowed to find out the sex of the baby during pregnancy, there were several ways to do so which lead to numerous late abortions. That is why currently there is a disproportion between the number of men and women in the Chinese society.
As a result, modern China is overproducing men and is in a grave lack of women. Statistics indicate that there are 35 million more men than women – leaving many men with no chances of finding a spouse.
Moreover, the beliefs and values of the Chinese people have also changed over the years, i.e. many women wish to pursue a career first and only then to establish a family. The recent years have seen a rapid decline in marriages in China.
These trends are particularly prevalent in Chinese cities, leading demographers to predict that the gap between the situation in cities and the situation in the countryside will only widen in the future – people in the countryside still prefer larger families, while city dwellers have a hard time giving birth to a single child.
“Now, we are allowed to have three children. The problem, however, is that I don’t even want one child,” a user of the Chinese social media network Weibo wrote in his account.
Many are asking the question – will the “three-child policy” change anything if the “two-child policy” wasn’t able to do so? That’s why people are happy about the government’s decision to provide other incentives and motivations in this regard.
For example, education costs – which were twice as high in two-children families – will be cut, people will see additional support on tax and housing issues and working women will be granted more rights. In addition, the government also has plans to educate young Chinese people on the issues of marriage and love – now, state propaganda will not only deal with shaming the West, but also teach people how to love correctly and “make children”.
This leads to believe that the Chinese government has taken quite a peculiar approach to identifying mistakes in their previous policies, but it isn’t truly admitting these mistakes – as is the case in all authoritarian regimes. If the previous plan fails, simply improve it a bit and relaunch it anew.
The “one-child policy” has led to one-and-a-half generation where there are six people from the non-working population for each person in the working population, i.e. the person’s parents and two sets of grandparents. This is the Chinese Communist Party’s know-how.
Global Health & Health Silk Road: The Other Side Of Picture
The new world order is a twisted maze of political, economic and cultural ambitions. China’s obscure political economy presents an unparalleled challenge to those unfamiliar with the cultural and historical undercurrents driving Beijing’s global movements. Following the onset of the CoVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the global society observed one of the hasty economic convulsion since World War II. Nearly all nation states sealed their borders and placed global supply chain and trade in limbo as the spread of the virus continued unabated. As Beijing’s flagship investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was similarly disrupted. The BRI initiative has formed the cornerstone of President Xi’s approach to strategic diplomacy and challenged the traditional concept of development. Key rhetoric underlying the initiative, such as “the community of common destiny for mankind”.
Nevertheless, there is a “Digital Silk Road”, and “Space Silk Road”, so it should come as no bombshell that China is also building a “Health Silk Road”. China’s HSR first appeared in a speech given by President Xi in 2016. At the first BRI Forum 2017, a Beijing Communique of Belt and Road Health Cooperation and Health Silk Road was signed by China, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, OECD, GAVI and other participating countries. Since then, China made a significant move towards the consolidation of its role as a major player in global health. Similarly, it is no secret that China is making a boost for global health leadership during CoVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic spread across the world, China sought to provide aid packages and medical assistance to partner states within the BRI under the name of “Health Silk Road”. The ongoing CoVID-19 pandemic is not only going to fundamentally transform the global politics, but also the foreign policy priorities of many countries. Since the outbreak, the CoVID-19 pandemic has exposed the significant weakness of public health infrastructure of developed and developing countries alike.
There is widespread understanding among scientists, heritage and history writers that one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, black death, originated in China and spread along the old silk road to central Asia, northern India and Europe. It exhibited a blueprint that is as old as human history, – when people and goods travel, so do viruses and bacteria. Today, there is some speculation about whether CoVID-19 circulated along the “new silk road”, and it has been criticized that the BRI contributed to the spread of the virus. These kinds of debates are pointless because, even without modern means of transport like trains, cargo-ships, and planes, the plague can reach the most remote places in the world and kill a large portion of the global population. Highly criticized for covering up and not preventing the virus from turning into a global pandemic, China is making an efforts to reinstate its persona as a symbol of support, strength and leadership. Opponents have also alleged that Beijing rationalized itself as a global health champion at a time when Washington had abdicated its responsibilities.
Regardless of misgivings, China has been promoting the institutionalization of health cooperation within HSR framework by organizing and sponsoring a number of health-themed forums. For example, the Silk Road Health Forum, China-Central and Eastern European Countries Health Ministers Forum, China-ASEAN Health Forum, and the China-Arab States Health Forum. Beijing also initiated a series of supportive programs on disease control and prevention in alliance with its neighbors in Central Asia. All these efforts were made as part of China’s broader global health diplomacy and leadership before the CoVID-19 pandemic hit the world. With the spread of CoVID-19 across the world, the Chinese government extended support to countries from East Asia to Europe. It has given 20 million dollars to the World Health Organization (WHO) for assisting developing countries in coping with the pandemic, build up their epidemic-prevention abilities, and building a stronger public health system. China also handed out concessionary loans and played a coordinating role in multilaterals like G-20, ASEAN, the SCO and the African Union, established itself in a leadership position by promptly responding to the crises and catering to the needs of the countries all over.
In contrast with the advance economics, what China has contributed to the global pandemic combat becomes even more admirable. Statistics show that China has provided considerable amount of medical assistance to the rest of world, including approximately 70.6 billion face masks, 225 million test kits, 115 million pairs of goggles, 340 million protective suits, 96,700 ventilators, and 40.29 million infrared thermometers to 200 countries and regions in 2020. China’s medical professionals have also played a vital role in the global pandemic battle by contributing their knowledge and experience on the frontlines in many virus-impacted countries. China has shared medical best practices with a multitude of international organizations, including the ASEAN, EU, African Union, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Caribbean, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as some of the hardest-hit countries such as South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States, and Germany.
Concisely, with all these notable endeavors and substantial contributions, is it still premature to presume that China has taken over the leadership role in terms of global health? China’s engagement in global health, especially during CoVID-19, has positioned itself as a johnny on the spot in global health leadership. The HSR undoubtedly will allow China to re-establish its national repute on the international stage, in particular by contrasting it with the inelegant responses of the United States and other European nations. China’s global aspirations, efforts to present itself as a global health leader should not be considered as surprise. It is still too early to tell the magnitude to which China’s global health sprint will transform its international profile, but there is no reason to be cynical that it will be revolutionary. As an old Chinese saying goes, it takes a good blacksmith to make good steel.
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