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‘One Belt, One Road’: Addressing Development “Pain Points with An Eye on Cultural Pinnacle

By Zhao Lei

As the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative makes headway, the international community is beginning to get acquainted with the phrase. Yet people haven’t fully grasped its underlying significance or the historical trend behind it. In my view, there are two levels to the implementation of the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative. One is to identify the ‘pain points’ and have them remedied by forming a community of common interests so that people from different countries along the “Belt and Road” truly enjoy the practical benefits it brings. This is the starting point. Call it “pain points economics” if you like. The other level is “to showcase culture and civilisation”, creating a community of common responsibility and community of common destiny, to make sure that the ”Belt and Road” initiative wins people’s hearts and minds. It’s “cultural economics” at play, the life blood and soul that will sustain the development of the “Belt and Road”.

Essentially, the “Belt and Road” is about “interconnectivity”. Interconnectivity has pinned down the biggest pain point for China and countries along the “Belt and Road”.

“Pain Points Economics” means that the points where people feel painful are exactly where the payoff points are in the markets and where the systems and mechanisms can be improved. The pain points for Silk-Road cities in China lie in under-developed transportation and logistics, medium- andlow-end industry (mainly in mining industry and resources processing industries), relatively low reliance on international trade, and heavy dependence on transit trade; that the more than a dozen regular China-Europe freight trains ( which are empty on their way back, resulting in high transportation costs) remain largely one-way is an obvious pain point; that Chinese companies are doing well in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but have difficulty entering the high-end markets of Europe, Australia and the US is also a pain point; not to mention that China lacks cultural products of global impacts despite its rich, unique cultural resources, having no Kung Fu Panda in spite of its claim to both Kung Fu and Panda, so to speak. Pain points are where we should move into full gear, it is also where profit-making potential lie.

To treat such pain points, we need to start from policy coordination, road connectivity, unimpeded trade, currency circulation, people-to-people bonds. In order to achieve these, we need to truly understand our cooperation partners along the “Belt and Road”, and their different pain points, based on which to provide them with tailored products. For example, Tadzhikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia feature fragile economic foundations and monotonous economic structures, and abundant yet largely untapped water resources. Aiming at these pain points, the Chinese government and enterprises make exploiting water resources and international tourism joint development their primary cooperation projects with these two countries, so as to truly benefit the people in these two countries. Another example is Pakistan where electricity has been in short supply for long. Since the launch of ”Belt and Road” in 2013, a series of power and energy projects undertaken by Chinese companies are either under way or finished and put into use. These projects by Chinese companies, featuring short construction cycle and quick effects, help meet local people’s pressing needs, therefore are well-received by people from all walks of life in Pakistan.

For the mid- and long-term, to treat these pain points we need to combine hard connectivity with soft connectivity. That is to say, we need to refine our list of “asset-light” products as soon as possible. Most Chinese projects that have ‘gone abroad’ are “asset-heavy” ones such as ports, high-speed railway, nuclear power, and dams , like the Gadara Port, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, BCIM Economic Corridor, Sino-Russian West Line Natural Gas Pipeline Project, and the Nicaragua Canal which share huge investments, long construction cycles, and high risks.We should launch a series of asset-light products of high brand recognition and added values, like projects related to catering, folk customs, culture, education and Chinese traditional medicine, etc. These asset-light projects will serve as ‘lubricants’ and ‘adhesives’ when they go into people’s everyday life.

Many domestic and international scholars often use tools of geopolitics or political economy to analyse ”Belt and Road”. I would rather see the “Belt and Road” as a typical case in ”cultural economics”. Ideally, products generated from ”Belt and Road” should realise economic profits and cultural benefits at the same time. ”Belt and Road” is welcomed not only because it is an economic event closely connected to each country’s interests, but also because it may become a cultural event that will attract broad attention and resonate with people of different countries.

“Belt and Road” transcends traditional thinking on global political pattern. It reshapes a country’s say in international politics. In the international community, there long exists the ”center-periphery order”, which has the following features. In terms of international politics, this order considers nation-state as the core, using the sovereign states framework of the “Typical European Paradigm” to regulate different political subjects in the world. In terms of global economy, this “center-periphery order“ centers around globalization, and use ”center-periphery” framework of “capitalism paradigm” to restrict different economies in the world, with the underlying logic of “the center eroding the periphery” and “the periphery relying on the center”. The central countries are those who are in dominant roles in the global system, and control and override other countries taking advantage of their advanced technologies and industrial products. The peripheral countries are those who mainly export natural resources and primary products, and are subject to manipulation by those central countries. Nowadays, the European refugee crisis explicitly indicates that people in peripheral countries might easily undermine the security of the central countries.

The vitality of this “Belt and Road” initiative is directly reflected in such “de-centralized” Chinese emphasis on road, belt, corridor, bridge. The expressions essentially underline equality and inclusiveness, representing the trends of ”depolarization” and “de-marginalization” in the international community. There is no doubt that “interconnectivity” is beginning to become a fashion. The Chinese culture and philosophy, which holds “pain originates from stoppage; no stoppage, no pain”, have started to draw attention.

From the perspective of “cultural economics”, building “Belt and Road” is a process of reading people’s hearts, warming people’s hearts and opening our hearts to them. It is also a process of creating both economic and cultural masterpieces. Fulfilling the “Belt and Road” dream relies on our efforts for formulating a cultural pattern along the “Belt and Road” in which people admire, understand and respect each other. The most fascinating aspect of “Belt and Road” may lie in its potential to arouse people’s desire to share Chinese culture. Such desire can inject fresh vitality into Chinese culture, and further energise and enrich the “Belt and Road”. In order to achieve this, we need to be open, humble, and cooperative to get rid of the “pain points” in development, and eventually arrive at the pinnacle of broader exchanges.

(Author: Zhao Lei is a professor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies of the Central Party School)

[ Editor: meng ]