How China is building a 21st-century Silk Road

Foreign governments may welcome the country’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, but some of their citizens see it as a form of Chinese economic imperialism
By Diana Fu - Published on October 9, 2018

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One of cornerstones of President Xi Jinping’s dream for a renewed China is the Belt and Road Initiative, which has been dubbed a “21st-century Silk Road” — a reference to the historical trading route in Eurasia that catapulted imperial China into dominance. Today, the revived Silk Road has enormous reach, with a projected $900 billion in deals with 68 countries. The belt refers to a land route that connects China with much of Eurasia. The “road” is actually a maritime route that extends from China to South East Asia, the Gulf countries, North Africa, and Europe.

Instead of trading silk, the Chinese government is financing high-speed rails, dams, and gas pipelines in more than 60 countries. Will the initiative succeed? While some governments may welcome Chinese investment, not all citizens welcome what they see as a form of economic imperialism. The third episode of China: The Great Dragon, “China’s Westward March,” takes you along the contemporary Silk Road to witness the perils that Chinese businessmen and women face in Kazakhstan, Poland, and Germany.  

While China is expanding its global reach, its domestic landscape is transforming as we speak.  The fourth episode, “Exodus of 100 Million Farmers,” delves deep into the heart of China’s vanishing urban villages and the fate of migrant workers who are now being forced to leave the megacities. Urban villages were created when cities expanded so rapidly that they swallowed up rural villages overnight.  Cramped and dirty as they may be, they provide cheap housing and a source of livelihood for migrant workers who come from the rural areas to the large cities to work. 

Why does the government want to get rid of these villages?  The grand plan is to cap the size of megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which are overflowing. The government wants to redirect migrant workers and farmers to smaller cities so that they can become urban residents. This is proving to be an overwhelming task. The documentary follows the fortunes of two migrant-worker families that face a stark choice: sell their land rights in the countryside to buy an apartment in the megacity, or try to set up shop in a newly created city where the malls are still empty. 

Diana Fu, host of TVO's China: Here and Now documentary series, is an assistant professor of Asia politics at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China.

China: Here and Now is a major, multi-part documentary series that examines the cultural, economic, and political implications of China's growing global influence. It airs on TVO Tuesday nights until November 13. Or, stream it at TVO.org


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