XI'AN, China: The New Silk Road, also known as the “One Belt One Road Initiative” is China’s current foreign policy priority. Beijing has pledged to invest more than US$200 billion in Silk Road projects across the globe. This includes road, rails, oil and gas pipelines, ports and other infrastructure projects.
Countries like Russia, Hungary, Iran, and Pakistan have already signed up to this world changing plan. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also said that Singapore can leverage a revived Silk Road.
But the New Silk Road is not just about diplomacy and exercising global leadership. It is also China’s economic lifeline. As growth slows, this strategy will keep the economy humming along – particularly by jump-starting growth in underdeveloped western and central regions.
The ancient Silk Road stretched across the Gobi desert. This was the trade superhighway 2000 years ago. It was through this route that China exported silk and ceramics to Rome, and imported Islam from Persia and Buddhism from India.
Many traders and pilgrims died on the ancient Silk Road. The main mode of transportation at the time was camels.
Anthony Morse, host of The New Silk Road takes in the scenery at Yuxinou railway station. China’s modern day Silk Road is a network of railways connecting Beijing to Europe. From this station, cargo trains will speed through China to Kazakhstan, Russia, and Eastern Europe before arriving in Duisburg, Germany.
More than US$3 billion worth of goods was transported on the Yuxinou rail line last year. It takes 15 days to send the goods to Europe, half the time that ocean freight requires.
The rail line has led to spectacular economic growth for cities along the New Silk Road. One of the key exports is cars to markets in Russia and Central Asia. This is the Ford factory in Chongqing.
In 2014, 2.63 million cars were made in the city of Chongqing. The city produces close to half of the number of cars that Germany produces in a year. And it could not have been achieved without the New Silk Road providing the logistics support.
Ford, Volvo and Volkswagen all have car manufacturing plants in Chongqing. In the past, workers in inland cities like Chongqing had to migrate to coastal cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou to look for work. Now, the Silk Road plan has eased migration flows.
While the rest of the Chinese economy chugged along with a growth rate of about 7 per cent, Chongqing registered 10.7 per cent GDP growth in the first six months of 2015. That is the highest growth rate of all of China’s provinces. The city government says the New Silk Road is critical to economic growth here.
But China’s new silk road masterplan is not only about railways, industrial parks, and trade. It is also about what the Chinese government calls “people-to-people bonds”. The Chinese State Tourism office has declared 2015 as “The Year of Silk Road.” More than US$800 million will be spent on an international tourism promotion plan.
This is the Famen temple, a Buddhism tourism site along the ancient Silk Road that was recently built.
Millions of dollars has been spent on building new tourism sites along the New Silk Road. According to local Chinese officials, this temple houses the finger bone relics of Buddha. It was brought here to Xi’an from India 2000 years ago.
Xi’an was once the ancient capital of China 2000 years ago, when the old Silk Road was flourishing. Xi’an was the end point for traders and pilgrims from Persia, India and even Rome. It was the multicultural metropolis of its time, and one of the world’s most important cities. Today, it wants to be the cultural capital of the New Silk Road. They are staging many theatrical productions on the theme of the Silk Road.
For more on China’s soft power plan, tune in to The New Silk Road, Wednesday Oct 7, 8pm on Channel NewsAsia.