Point of view - The Silk Road, Silk Belt initiative and China's image management

Ambition and vocation fuel a yearning for symmetry and a believable image. The Middle Kingdom has no interest in aggression, but don't taunt it.

There was a time when one used to say that China was close at hand, precisely as a way of actually paradoxically stressing how far removed it was from our usual perspectives.

Almost another planet, whose cultural and political foreignness turned it into an alien world, with a completely different set of rules to our own, which made it hard to fathom exactly what was going in the shadows of the Forbidden City. Today, this unfamiliarity has fortunately been overcome, even though there are still marked differences between us and the Chinese. These differences mean a considered appraisal is always needed if one is to correctly interpret the decisions reached in Beijing, decisions that are likely to have considerable repercussions on our own future, in both the short and medium term.

Indeed today, China is not only close at hand, it is much more than close! Progressively and rapidly, it has grown to become one of the essential cogs of the world in which we live. It displays an astonishing vitality that constantly puts it at the centre of the global stage and at times worries the entire international community. 

It's not by chance but rather a consequence of this vitality that in recent years no month has passed without a significant event thrusting the Middle Kingdom into the headlines.

In the economic sphere, at first we were astonished by its incredible growth, then we started to wonder whether for various reasons this progress was sooner or later destined to slow down – or even stop! More recently, we've been seriously concerned about the crisis affecting the Shanghai stock exchange, let alone the negative snowball effect this has had on all world markets.

In foreign policy matters, we've grown a little anxious over China’s disputes with Japan and other countries in the area over the contested archipelago at the centre of the so-called South China Sea. A tense situation that has given the US an excuse to revive its idea of a containment policy towards Beijing, implemented by strengthening the string of bases Washington already boasts in the Pacific as well as integrating – in an implicitly anti- Chinese manner – the series of treaties already linking Washington to all the main players in south-east Asia.

In the meantime, even the Asian colossus’ internal politics came across as anything but easy to decipher, though they do retain a certain focus centred on President Xi Jinping's attempt to consolidate his power. A power used to purge the party and the country of those who are corrupt and steal, people whom the colourful Chinese imagination has termed “flies and tigers”, depending on their hierarchical status. This approach has led to a series of high-profile purges, which have even laid low one of the ‘princes’ of the new generation and a high-ranking officer in the military secret services.

These purges serve as a reminder that no one can consider themselves beyond the reach of the law and thus untouchable. They have also helped reiterate how the Chinese ruling class is fully intent on continuing down the path of economic liberalisation, refusing to accept the idea of taking a step back to lend a hand to staterun industries, which would be tantamount to a reintroduction of the kind of economic strategy typical of the Maoist era.

Finally, where China’s internal politics are concerned, one must also not forget the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. As well as illustrating the liveliness of the former colony's youngsters, it also revealed their capacity to remain pragmatic, capable of accepting reasonable compromises between their ideal aspirations of the moment and what could be viably achieved.

Apart from the country's basic political policies, one must also consider how Beijing's image strategy, handled with constant care and attention, has managed to keep China perpetually in the collective limelight in recent years. Starting with the Olympics, followed by the Shanghai Expo, this approach recently found a new form of expression in the imposing military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in the Second World War. An event that intended to emphasise the country's new power, its readiness to embrace change and modernity yet it also transmitted hints of a bond with the past and its traditions, exemplified by the tightly buttoned Mao Zedong-style jacket worn by Xi Jinping – a style worn by him alone – gracing the ranks of the official stand.

Therefore, we are presented with the image of a great country, which in many ways could be frightening, if nothing else for its extraordinary vitality and its capacity to see and plan far into the future. One must however also consider that China has always seen itself in a very particular light: firstly, as the country at the centre of everything, which explains how and why it has come to define itself as the Middle Kingdom; secondly, as the country around which everything revolves; and thirdly, as the indispensable country no one can do without.

Central, pivotal, indispensable – terms that are hardly compatible with policies and ideas encouraging exclusion and tension. This is why, at least up to now, the most important initiatives promoted by China have always been inclusive, not exclusive, though at times they illustrate reactions to events that are not appreciated by other countries.

This is what happened with the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has undermined US hopes to straitjacket Beijing in the grasp of financial institutions and trade agreements under its own control. Instead, the Bank has opened up a swathe of prospects that were enough to convince a large number of western countries, including Italy, to sign up right away, without reservations.

The same thing is happening with the grandiose land and maritime plan to revamp the ancient silk route. The Silk Belt, Silk Road project already appears imposing as a mere concept. It could end up radically shifting the world's trade axes and flows in a relatively short space of time, with the added benefit that it would force all the countries along on the planned routes to implement policies guaranteeing the continuity and security of trade shipments.

Will China still have the strength and the necessary resources to continue such an all-encompassing and ambitious project after its economic slowdown and the Shanghai stock exchange crisis? We actually think it will because, among other things, any form of stalemate would have serious repercussions on China's current and future prospects. What’s more, if the plan were to go awry, China would lose face, a luxury no emerging power has ever been able to afford and an option Beijing probably does not even want to countenance. 

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