Creating Tomorrow: The Silk Road, Past and Present – Part I


The following is part one of a two-part analysis on the New Silk Road. It aims to explicate the history and theory behind the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), using historical materialism as a basis.

Many thanks to comrades Joaquin Flores, Editor-in-Chief of Fort-Russ and Saikat Bhattacharya, analyst for Regional Rapport,  for their observations and commitment to analysing the BRI.

The onus on the rising global Marxist intelligentsia is to showcase the BRI’s advantages, shape its theory via dialectical materialism, and champion the project as a radically new multipolar order. Эй, ухнем!

The Silk Road: Past to Present

In its antiquity, the The Silk Road was a massive transcontinental trade route spanning from Beijing and Shanghai all the way to Rome, connecting empires through a complex system of roads and shipping routes, which gave rise to an unprecedented era of trade, wealth, diversity and prosperity.

A University of Vermont scholar notes German explorer and geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen first coined the two terms “Silk Road” (Seidenstrasse) and “Silk Roads” (Seidenstrassen) in 1877. Richthofen used “Silk Road” to describe Marinus of Tyre’s 1st century, single-path “Land of Silk”, and “Silk Roads” to describe the 100-150 CE trade routes between Han China and Imperial Rome.

One important feature of the Silk Road was its power-agnostic characteristics, meaning that a plethora of Chinese dynasties and neighbouring empires continuously used it in times of peace and war, allowing trade to ebb and flow whilst enduring ephemeral political circumstances.

A UNESCO article explains further that,

[…] during the reign of the Emperor Wu-di (140-86 bce) [and] over the next l600 years it was to be the main rival to the Spice Routes as a channel for international trade. […] Han power dwindled during the Second Century CE [but when] the Empire reunited under the Sui Dynasty (580-618 ce), [it was] exploited on an even greater scale and [grew] further under the Tang (618-970 ce). By the Eighth Century, huge ships called at Canton laden with cargoes of [precious goods], making the port one of the greatest in the world.

The Silk Road also begat new modes of transport and construction in response to the challenges of traversing its vast and difficult expanses, both at land and sea. As Chinese trade expanded transcontinentally and intercontinentally, new means of production from prominent civilisations meant shipbuilding and freighting became inextricable from the project’s success.

An UNESCO article explains that,

Developments in ship design and construction methods came about in response to challenges encountered in trading ever further afield. Observations made and information exchanged on these journeys also brought practical knowledge. So the expansion of trade by sea was closely bound up with the evolution of shipping and navigation.

It also illustrated the various species of animals employed by merchants, who would often use handoff points to exchange goods with other traders along the road’s 6,400+ mile journey.

Bactrian (Central Asian) and Arabian camels became instrumental in Silk Road transport as they could endure days on less food and water across the formidable Taklamakan desert. China’s innovative stirrups and saddles eventually spread to Central Asia, and became instrumental in taming and riding new, stronger breeds of horses circa 6th century BCE.

Chinese, Indian, Roman, Persian and Arabic empires built massive fleets to conquer the high seas, with Arabs often borrowing Greek and Syrian engineering for their Western flanks. This produced a race for faster, more powerful ships, as well as new cartography tactics for navigation purposes.

The Great Wall of China (长城, chángchéng) was also initially constructed in the Spring and Autumn period circa 7th century BCE up to the late Qing dynasty, around 1878. The world’s longest engineering feat, it also was used to protect the Chinese from nomadic invaders in the Eurasian Steppes who raided and attacked Silk Road merchants travelling to and from China.

The Silk Roads inspired human exchanges as much as material ones, birthing a renaissance of intercultural associations. Goods such as silk, spices, and artefacts were traded throughout the Asian continent along with diverse religions, which pervade Chinese society to date.

The Asia Society notes that,

Religious beliefs of the peoples of the Silk Road changed radically over time and was largely due to the effects of travel and trade on the Silk Road itself. For over two thousand years [it] was a network of roads for the travel and dissemination of religious beliefs across Eurasia.

This activity pollinated Chinese culture with Nestorian (Assyrian) Christianity, Indian Buddhism, Persian Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, Judaism, Islam, and even Greco-Roman polytheism.

Chinese officials also kept innumerable records on merchants entering and leaving the country, documenting the complexity, traffic, origins, and goods ebbing and flowing from China’s domains.

Historian Peter Frankopan characterises China’s documentation system,

A remarkable collection of 35,000 text from the garrison town of Xuanquan, not far from Dunhuang, paints a vivid picture of the everyday goings-on in a town set at the neck of the Gansu Corridor.

He continues,

From these texts [we] learn that visitors passing into China had to stick to designated routes, were issued [written] passes and [regularly] counted by officials [so] that all who entered the country also eventually made their way home. [These] measures are to be understood not as a form of suspicious surveillance [but] to note accurately who was entering and leaving China, [what] they were doing there, and [to] record the value of the goods [brought] and sold for customs purposes.

Frankopan also notes their sophistication, offering a testament to China’s forward-thinking brand of globalisation and demonstrates that the modern world has simply reinvented the wheel.

We think of globalisation was a uniquely modern phenomenon; yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life [which] presented opportunities, created problems and prompted technological advance.

The globalisation touted today has much to learn from the Silk Road of yesteryear. In order to build a multipolar world, nations must first pour the foundation from the project’s past successes.

The Silk Road Today

The material conditions that midwifed the ancient Silk Road have also inspired its modern incarnation. In 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping unveiled the New Silk Road at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, which tasked the Asian community with shaping global trade into a multilateral framework where prosperity is institutionalised and not just envisioned.


From this initial meeting, President Xi clearly stated that China’s aims were “to uphold the friendship from generation to generation and to be harmonious good neighbours for each other” as well as “strengthen mutual support and to be good friends with sincerity and mutual trust”.

Many adduce that this form of interregional economics fosters such trust and is an integral step in creating a multipolar global order. Dr. Matteo Donato postulates Social Exchange Theory in order to argue the benefits of such reciprocal systems,

Research [shows] that [reciprocity] produces better work relationships than negotiations and allows for individuals to be more trusting of, and committed to, one another […] Furthermore, negotiated exchanges incite more unhelpful power use and less equality.

Within all undertakings of the Chinese Communist Party lie the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which Chairman Mao Zedong implemented in 1949 and establishes “mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

As before, infrastructure is the first step to achieving this. The theme of connectivity is essential to raise the means of production across Asia, transport building materials, and connect civilisations.

Comrade Joaquin Flores theorises that infrastructural connectivity ensures supply line security via symbiotic relationships and labour socialisation. Productive forces are thus evenly distributed amongst adjacent nation-states, ensuring peaceful co-development, as opposed to imperialist nations whom have historically exploited tensions between neighbours.

This is reflected in the Chinese National Development and Reform Commision’s (NDRC) Vision and Action plan, which states that,

Facilities connectivity is a priority area for implementing the [BRI and] countries along [it] should improve the connectivity of their infrastructure construction plans [to] form an infrastructure network connecting all sub-regions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe and Africa step by step.

The NDRC further stipulates that the BRI “should promote policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds” and remain “open for cooperation, harmonious and inclusive, [follow] market operation, and [seek] mutual benefit”.

The Hong Kong Trade and Development Centre (HKTDC) reiterates the NDRC’ Opportunities in 5 key areas, which follow the five elements inherent in Chinese philosophy, as Financial Integration, Trade and Investment, Facilities Connectivity, Policy Coordination, and Cultural Exchange.

BRI supply lines will utilise an expansive network of six land-based economic corridors, tentatively named the China-Mongolia-Russia, China-Central Asia-West Asia, China-Indochina Peninsula, China-Pakistan, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar, and New Eurasia Land Bridge Economic Corridors. These routes will use a constellation of ports and cities to mark critical exchange points.

Maritime routes will facilitate large freighter and container shipping via the Coastal China-South China Sea-Strait of Malacca-Indian Ocean-Europe and Coastal China-the South China Sea-the South Pacific pathways. They will connect Asia, Africa and Europe via ports in Piraeus (Greece), Gwadar (Pakistan), Mumbai, Djibouti, and Mombasa (Kenya), amongst others.

BRI exchanges will invariably entail informational and cultural ones, and are being institutionalised accordingly. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and NDRC signed a joint action plan during the inaugural Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.

The plan defines five key targets to help these sociopolitical exchanges and target Information Exchange, Projects Cooperation, Policy Coordination, Building Partnership, and Capacity Building. The UNDP has also rigorously assessed BRI sustainability in a 2017 Global Governance Report.

UNDP associate administrator Tegegnework Gettu has firmly backed the initiative, stating that he “commends the Government of China for enacting [the BRI] and acknowledges [their role] in leading by example [and will] support China in its efforts.”

UNDP administrator Dr. Helen Clark also praised the BRI’s role as a testing ground for meeting UN Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs),

“The Belt and Road Initiative represents a powerful platform for economic growth and regional co-operation, involving more than 4 billion people, many of whom live in developing countries [and] can serve as an important catalyst and accelerator for [UN] sustainable development goals.”

On May 2017, the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation unveiled a massive list of deliverables that outlined “76 items comprising more than 270 concrete results in five key areas”, including an expansive list of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) and financing agreements.

The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Silk Road Fund have been set up to finance all BRI projects. The two offer different infrastructural specialties and exploit differing partnerships.

The AIIB is capitalised at 100 bln. USD from the public sectors of 87 countries, and targets 6 categories: rural infrastructure, energy and power, environmental protection, transportation and telecommunications, water supply and sanitation, and urban development and logistics.

Working under the Company Law of the PRC, the Silk Road fund carries a capitalisation of 100 bln. RMB (40 bln. USD), using a variety of state-owned banks. It will provide “investment and financing support for trade and economic cooperation” and is “designed to promote common development and prosperity of China and other countries and regions involved in the [BRI]”.

Since its inception, the Belt and Road has moved from strength to strength, building a host of projects and proposing scores more. Although relatively young, the BRI has amassed the support of 100+ nations around the world whom are dedicated to the old spirit of trade and cooperation.

As the project comes into fruition, the world will demonstrate in practise a truly reciprocal economic order which will achieve exciting milestones that will even surpass its ancient predecessor, on a global scale, and for the benefit of all.

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