(Yicai Global) May 13 -- On weekends, there is a book fair in front of Berlin's Humboldt University, where used books are sold for a fair price. Whenever I pass by, I get at least one book and most likely it happens to be a book about China. Since my last visit, I am the proud owner of Europe and the Chinese emperors, an essay collection on Sino-European relations from 1240 until 1816. The book under my arm, I continued walking to the Lustgarten, it was most pleasant Sunday-weather, where I sat down on a bench and took a closer look at my new treasure. It contained an essay on Sino-European trade relations between 1500 and 1800, giving detailed information on fluctuating prices, advantages through advanced technology, and cultural misunderstandings. It was a story of competition rather than cooperation. A story of greed for silver and gold. A story of merchants.
Since the announcement of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road in 2013, the concept of One Belt, One Road (OBOR) has gained increasing attention by politicians, the academia and the media, both in China and abroad. The OBOR, which has even been referred to as the "Chinese Marshall Plan", is an initiative to establish comprehensive economic corridors and aims to provide a platform for regional cooperation between China, Central Asia and Europe. Its focus is on development of infrastructure, especially pipelines, railroads and transportation networks. Furthermore, it includes the expansion of deep-sea harbors. The OBOR initiative is also connected to the founding of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which opened its doors in January 2016 and is a multilateral development bank with the goal to support the building of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region.
Being the most frequently mentioned concept on People's Daily in the year of 2016, it did not take a long time until observers split into two camps, with one enthusiastically hailing the coming of a multilateral world order and the other warning of an increasingly strong China, which will make use of its political and economic power to challenge the universal claim of Western values. The world has seen how One World, One Dream became the Chinese Dream within four years' time. Isn't it justified to worry that the One Belt, One Road will end up to be the Chinese Road?
Photo Credit: Economist / Route Map of OBOR Initiative
While most observers analyze the issue from economic, political and security aspects, my reflections on the OBOR initiative are of a different nature. I would like to examine this question from three aspects: first, the inseparability of the material and the spiritual spheres; second, the implications of increasing interdependence; and last, the nature of China's 21st century Silk Road.
The Inseparability of the Material and the Spiritual Spheres
What comes as a surprise to me is the historic connotation of the concept. Let us travel for a moment into the period, when the middle kingdom was at its economic and cultural peak. During the Tang dynasty (618–907), the Tang capital of Chang'an was the most populous city in the world.
The dynasty dominated the lucrative trade routes along the Silk Road and exerted powerful influence over neighboring states. The period is particularly famous for its poetry and innovations, such as printing techniques. Closely related to this, the most significant aspect of the Tang dynasty was its comparative openness towards cultural exchange. The journey of the Chinese monk Xuanzang, who traveled to India and devoted his later life to the translation of Buddhist texts, is perhaps the most famous example for cultural exchange during the Tang dynasty. Just like Buddhism, many other religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism travelled along the Silk Road and spread among the peoples of Europe and Asia. Bringing cultures and peoples in contact with each other might be the most lasting legacy of the Silk Road, as merchants had to learn foreign languages and customs in order to be able to conduct trade. Without the ancient Silk Road and its implications, many of the Chinese cultural achievements we regard as self-evident today, e.g. novels like The Journey to the West or even parts of Chinese language, which has also been deeply influenced by Buddhism, would not exist today. Cultural interaction was the foundation on which material exchange was made possible.
Regarding cultural exchange, as any kind of development and change, one sentence proofed to be valid throughout history: where there is light, there is shadow. In this respect, the comparison to the Marshall Plan might not be so misleading, as long time before its implementation, many Europeans perceived the influx of American popular culture as a negative phenomenon. One example is the Austrian author Stefan Zweig, who wrote in his essay The Monotonization of the World in 1925:
"The historians of the future will one day mark the page following the great European war as the beginning of the conquest of Europe by America. Or, more accurately, the conquest is already rippingly underway, and we simply fail to notice it (conquered peoples are always too-slow thinkers). The European countries still find the receipt of a credit in dollars a cause for celebration. We continue to flatter ourselves with illusions of America's philanthropic and economic goals. In reality we are becoming colonies of its life, its way of life, slaves to an idea profoundly foreign to Europe: the mechanical idea.
But our economic obedience seems to me minor compared to the spiritual danger. The colonization of Europe would not be so terrible politically; to servile souls all slavery is mild and the free always know how to preserve their freedom. The genuine danger to Europe seems to me to be a matter of the spirit, of the importation of American boredom, of that dreadful, quite specific boredom that rises over there from every stone and every house on all the numbered streets. The boredom that does not, like the earlier European variety, come from calmness, from sitting on the park bench playing dominoes and smoking a pipe—a lazy waste of time indeed, but not dangerous. American boredom is restless, nervous, and aggressive; it outruns itself in its frantic haste, seeks numbness in sports and sensations. It has lost its playfulness, scurries along instead in the rabid frenzy of an eternal flight from time. It is always inventing new artifices for itself, like cinema and radio, to feed its hungry senses with nourishment for the masses, and it transforms this common interest in enjoyment into concerns as massive as its banks and trusts."
It can be concluded that economic expansion and cultural interaction go hand in hand and that the participating regions are always exposed to a lively exchange of ideas and cultural change. With its ambitions in infrastructure development and economic expansion as brought forward in the OBOR initiative, China will not be an exception. In times of wall-building and rising inward orientation, China ventures economic expansion. The success of this initiative will depend to a large extend on its preparedness to deal with the cultural implications of this expansion. This will proof particularly crucial with the various countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, equally rich in traditions, ethnicity and religion, as well as the conflicts resulting from this multifaceted nature.
The Implications of Increasing Interdependence
The scholars of international relations Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane brought forward the idea that the fortunes of states are inextricably tied together. They argue that the increase in economic and other forms of interdependence will lead to an increase in the probability of cooperation among states. In such an international community of fate, as much as it is desirable to decrease the possibility of armed conflicts, interdependence also means high responsibility and accountability.
As most interdependencies nowadays are of an economic nature, they usually follow economic logic (it can be seen as symptomatic that cultural aspects in this context are mostly being reduced to the term of soft power, instead of having their rightful place at the center of all debates). Thus, the system created by those interdependencies appears to be rather fragile, as the underlying foundation is determined by economies of scale and scope as well as locational advantages due to differing standards of working conditions, environmental protection and civil rights. We can already observe the first cracks in this fragile construction of national and economic interest, and the financial crisis of 2008 served as a warning that not all kinds of interdependence are per se desirable. Meanwhile, the institutions we rely on for solving disputes and maintaining accountability are subject to the burden of increasing complexity and interrelation.
Maybe we should reconsider the underlying logic. Shouldn't we at least strive to work towards a world, where the living and working conditions of the common people are not subordinated to economic and politic considerations? From my own time as a student in China, I recall very clearly what many of my Chinese classmates would call this opinion: naive. However, Chinese culture is known for its long-term thinking, wisdom and focus on sustainability. And most Chinese bear the conflict between pragmatism and romanticism in their hearts, with one side prevailing over the other – as it is with most people – depending on the novels they read in their youth and the demands of the times they live in.
If there is a lesson, which can be drawn from China's development, it would be that progress never comes without disruption. In this respect, Napoleon's famous quote "China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world", which has been excessively used by advocates of the China-threat theory during the last decades, is more facetted than one would suspect. The horrifying air pollution in many Chinese cities, which is causing deaths every year and filling the waiting halls of Chinese hospitals, and other environmental as well as social problems, including rising cost of living, reveal the shadow side of China's economic rise. While not all parts of society have benefitted equally from this wealth, everybody living in China, Chinese as well as foreigners, share the cost.
China is a Rising Power
Contrary to Western countries, Chinese philosophy puts much more responsibility to the individual. In many Western countries, the moral sphere of individuals is determined by the Christian concept of guilt and atonement, while on a social level they hold the role of the citizen, with its implied duties and rights. Contrary to that, the Chinese concept of xiushen, qijia, zhiguo, pingtianxia (a concept from the Book of Rites, Great Learning, which describes how the peaceful order of the country derives from the self-improvement of its people) is an unequivocal appeal to the moral individual, combining moral and social roles to a comprehensive concept of moral conduct. In China, Aristotle's political animal becomes a moral animal. But how can a country that stresses the moral conduct, or the dao, be filled with suspicion and the unbounded fear of missing an opportunity, which any observant and sensible traveler will easily realize when coming to China? One grotesque example is a recent newspaper article on a toilet-paper machine installed in Beijing's Temple of Heaven as an attempt to tackle toilet paper theft. The machine is equipped with a face scanner to ensure that no more than 60 cm of toilet paper can be allocated to a person within a certain period of time. It seems absurd and at the same time is substantial to raise the issue of the dao in this context. To the foreign observer as well as to the Chinese themselves, there is a widening gap between the ideal of the Chinese way of life and reality. In his Letter to a Chinese Gentleman, Tolstoy writes the following lines:
"Individuals and societies are always in a transitory state from one age to another, but there are times when these transitions are especially apparent and vividly realized, both for individuals and for societies. As is happens with a man who has suddenly come to feel that he can no longer continue a childish life, so also in the life of nations there come periods when societies can no longer continue to live as they did, and they realize the necessity of changing their habits, organization, and activity."
Of course, it would be ridiculous to compare China – one of the most ancient civilizations – to an adolescent. However, there is truth in Tolstoy's statement and when a country undergoes dramatic changes, a certain degree of confusion is unavoidable. Will China, when expanding its current model of economic growth into other regions, also expand the confusion resulting from this model?
The Nature of China's 21st Century Silk Road
As mentioned above, the historic connotation of the OBOR initiative is particular. It is often stated that Eastern philosophy focuses on concentric structures, while Western thinking focuses on linear conceptions of history. But in both the East and West alike we can observe historic backward-orientation, with President Trump's "Make America Great Again" probably serving as the most recent example. In Europe, such historic references are generally mentioned with care. There is hardly a European nation, which had not been involved in hostile conflict with its neighboring countries. The book, in which the bloody history of Europe is written, consists of closed chapters and hardly anyone would want to reopen them (with the exception of Great Britain, maybe).
But the historical connotation of the OBOR leads us to travel back in our minds into the times when China was at its economic peak. Among the tangible Chinese products, for which the Europeans were striving, were exquisite silk brocade, fragrant tealeaves and finest chinaware. Their delicate nature revealed the sophistication of the Chinese civilization and the desire of foreigners for those items can be seen to a high extent as acknowledgment of this sophistication. The rise of China since the beginning of the Reform and Opening Policy in 1978 has without doubt been a materialistic one as well. And as this rise is usually being reduced to economic figures such as GDP growth, we are inclined to draw historical connections and forget to see tangible products as results of a mode of social organization and activity. In this respect, the products which filled the shipping containers of the first direct train from China's Zhejiang province to Spain's Madrid in 2015 were of a very different nature compared to the items Made in China from the heyday of the ancient Silk Road.
Let us go one step further. In the preface to The Spirit of The Chinese People, the Chinese intellectual Gu Hongming writes:
"Now in order to estimate the value of a civilization, it seems to me, the question we must finally ask is not what great cities, what magnificent houses, what fine roads it has built and is able to build; what beautiful and comfortable furniture, what clever and useful implements, tools and instruments it has made and is able to make; no, not even what institutions, what arts and sciences it has invented: the question we must ask, in order to estimate the value of a civilization, is, what type of humanity, what kind of men and women it has been able to produce."
When I think of the term humanity within the Chinese context, I cannot help but think of the Chinese idiom yingge yanwu, which literally means, "orioles sing and swallows dart" and describes a scene of spring and prosperity. This is the Chinese way of life, which I learnt living among Chinese in Beijing's Xiaojingchang hutong. I shared a public toilet with several other households and my living conditions were by far below the general standard. But when I came home from university, my neighbors greeted me with a smile on their face. The door of my apartment was often unlocked. I was surrounded by children's laughter and a walk around the neighborhood, passing by chess playing men and couples dancing in the park, allayed whatever worries I could have possibly had. Unfortunately, these oases of content are decreasing in space and number as city planners rebuild China according to a concept of modernity, which in my view has not been contested enough.
The aim of the OBOR initiative to provide a platform for regional cooperation between China, Central Asia and Europe is without doubt positive and desirable. However, this essay attempted to search for the base of such a cooperation considering three aspects – the inseparability of the material and the spiritual spheres, the implications of increasing interdependence and the nature of China's 21st century Silk Road. I believe the base will be a materialistic as well as a spiritual one, with the latter being of higher importance in the long run. The reflections of this essay on the ancient Silk Road show that ideas proofed to be much more powerful than tangible goods. Thus, it is abstruse that many debates about the OBOR initiative leave cultural aspects aside or reduce them to their function as soft power. Whether the OBOR will indeed create a platform for cooperation rather than igniting competition will to a large extend depend on the ability of the participating countries to respond to this truth by promoting mutual understanding and acceptance towards people's natural curiosity for foreign cultures and ideas.
Close to Berlin lies the city of Potsdam, home to the summer palace of Frederick the Great. Located in the palace park is the so-called Chinese House, a garden pavilion designed in the then-popular style of chinoiserie. On the outside, the pavilion is decorated with sculptures of eating, drinking and music-making Chinese figures. I recall how a Chinese classmate of mine, after visiting the Chinese House in Potsdam, expressed his astonishment. To him, the Chinese sculptures did not look genuinely Chinese. The clothes were not authentic, the features were not Asian, etc. It shows how distorted European perceptions of China were back then. European visitors laugh at this fact as well and find it entertaining. However, I wonder whether they would be able to draw a more accurate picture of the Chinese people today if asked to.
Anming has been writing on China for years and won several awards for her work. In her depictions of Chinese culture and society, she combines views from Western and Chinese thinkers to shed light on recent developments and long-lasting traditions alike, always painting a unique miniature picture of another different aspect. Before graduating from the School of International Studies of Peking University, she studied economics and sinology in Vienna. Her interests lie in the field of international relations and cooperation between China and the West, with a special focus on culture and tradition as connecting elements between the two regions. She is currently living in Berlin with her family, where she works as a writer and translator.