My recent participation in the Silk Road Expedition 2017 was fascinating in many ways. In my four dispatches from the Silk Road for The Blade, I had reported on our travel on the Silk Road from Shanghai in the east to Kashgar in the southwest where ancient trade routes from Europe, Central Asia, and Pakistan converged.
It was an unprecedented opportunity to look at today’s China through the prism of a cumulative history spanning 2,000 years. The Silk Road was more than a desert and mountainous track on which camel caravans plied between China and distant lands.
James Millward in his 2013 book The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction said that the Silk Road “stands for an idea that humanity has thrived most when connected across its far-flung habitats by exchanges of goods, ideas, arts, and people themselves.”
And so it did for the better part of two millennia when silk, spices, gunpowder, science, technology, art, and religions traversed back and forth on the caravan routes connecting Europe, India, and China. The warriors, missionaries, nomads, emissaries, artisans, and merchants were the vehicles of that remarkable cross-fertilization.
More than anything, it was the free flow of ideas across a vast expanse that made it all happen.
The road (or roads, for there were many routes linking China with Europe and India) played a central role in Chinese history.
So did the colonial powers — Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and to some extent the United States — by carving out their areas of influence in China in the 19th century. They extracted trade as well as territorial concessions from China and controlled some of its coastal areas, such as the British-controlled Hong Kong.
The presence of foreign powers in China is best exemplified by the footprints they left in Shanghai and other coastal cities. Some of the neighborhoods in old Shanghai are still called by the name of occupying countries. French and British quarters are good examples.
On the main boulevard of Shanghai by the Bund (promenade) stands the majestic building of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. (now HSBC). At the time of the building’s inauguration in 1923 there was not a single Chinese person in the long list of the bank’s board members.
The progress China has made in the past half century is nothing short of amazing. Granted, the frenzied pace of industrialization has ignored environmental issues, but to bridge the gap between the China of Mao Zedong and the China of today was not easy.
Unannounced military exercises in Kashgar are common. For three hours the roads were cleared of traffic and police and paramilitary forces practiced emergency drills.
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It took a departure from the egalitarian principles of communism to embrace the capital economy to make the progress possible.
As Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader after Mao Zedong’s death, famously said, it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. Mr. Deng set in motion the market economy.
Today China is prosperous. It is self-confident and at times strident and is trying to carve itself a prominent role in the world order.
It has also helped that the energy-starved country has found large reservoirs of oil and gas in its western regions. New towns rising from the desert point to China’s quest to exploit every natural resource available. Some of these towns are a few decades old. Tens of thousands of wind farms in the Gobi Desert point toward the same quest. But still it needs 60 percent of its energy imported from the outside.
Three years ago China announced a $40 billion-plus investment in Pakistan to connect the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar with China’s Xinjiang region. It is an ambitious undertaking where China will build electric generating plants, build roads, and lay railroad tracks despite formidable mountains. Having direct access to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan, China will be able to cut the time by almost two weeks the ships would take to reach ports on China’s eastern seaboard.
At a recent international conference in Beijing, Chinese president Xi Jinping outlined a much bigger and more ambitious project that has implications for the entire Asian continent. Known as the Belt and Road Initiative, it is China’s effort to carve out a role for itself as a world power and shape the economies of the Asian countries.
Specifically it envisions helping a number of Asian countries develop their infrastructure. The estimated cost of the initiative is close to $1 trillion, which China plans to loan to those countries.
It is an ambitious undertaking. China already is spending approximately $150 billion a year in the 68 countries that have signed up to be part of the project. The ultimate aim is to create for Eurasia something like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership dominated by the United States.
China also has another motive. By investing in Asian countries China hopes to find a more profitable home for its vast foreign-exchange reserves. It also would make sense to find new markets for Chinese companies to export their vast capacity in construction materials.
What you find in today’s China is an economically thriving and stable country where the lives of the poor and middle class Chinese have improved in the past 40 years. The people on city streets are healthier and wealthier.
Pockets of grinding poverty still exist, but as the Economist reported, in the past 26 years the number of rural people living below the poverty line has fallen from 775 million to 43 million people. It is in itself a remarkable achievement.
But such achievements have a downside. China is a police state.
There are frequent check posts where the identity of the travelers is checked. It becomes more apparent as one travels west toward the Xinjiang region.
Xinjiang is one of the five autonomous regions of China where, at least on paper, citizens enjoy a measure of autonomy. The reality, however, is just the opposite. Xinjiang region is under the tight control of the Chinese Han majority that rule from Beijing.
The majority of the area’s population consists of ethnic Uighurs. They are Muslims and thus have a different identity from the nationwide Chinese Han majority, who practice folklore religion or Buddhism.
While China has moved away from the communism of Karl Marx and Mao Zedong, those leaders still cast a long shadow on the country. Posters of past communist leaders are for sale in a gift shop.
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While there is relative freedom of religion in most of China, in Xinjiang there is considerable suppression of religious freedom. The authorities have, in the past, prevented Uighurs below the age of 18 from attending mosques, banned unauthorized pilgrimages to Mecca, ordered students not to fast during Ramadan, and banned some Islamic dress.
These measures were not only reinforced but added to by the new Communist Party chief in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo. He has banned flowing long beards and the use of certain Muslim names for children. He has also encouraged people to spy on one another by promising monetary rewards hundreds of times the average income.
In most cities of Xinjiang there is visible presence of police on the street. There is a police station with blinking lights on every block. Armored vehicles crawl the streets in slow motion, sirens blaring.
It is common for the police to arrive on a main street in full strength. They clear the roads of traffic, order pedestrians off the street, and post sharpshooters on rooftops.
I peered out of my hotel window during one of the exercises in Kashgar, and a sharpshooter positioned on a roof below me motioned for me to get away from the window. Another member of our expedition had a gun trained on her when she tried to look outside the window. This exercise went on for three hours.
People in Xinjiang, as in other parts of China, are loath to discuss politics. I tried to engage a few people but they tactfully changed the subject.
Our team leader, KM Ali, went on his own exploring the old neighborhoods of Kashgar, where he met a teacher and his family outside their home. While they were talking, the man suddenly changed his demeanor and asked the visitor to go away. Apparently he realized he was being watched.
There is total censorship in China. The Internet is controlled, and Facebook is blocked to all but the most resourceful people.
Today’s China is a prosperous country and is planning to assert its leadership of Asia. One wonders if China is trying to re-enact its imperial past.
S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo. His column appears every other Monday in The Blade. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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