Echoes of the past: The Mingsha Shan Mountain on the edge of the Taklimakan desert, 6km south of Dunhuang. The sand that covers the mountain is said to make a musical sound when strong winds blow. Picture: 123RF
Echoes of the past: The Mingsha Shan Mountain on the edge of the Taklimakan desert, 6km south of Dunhuang. The sand that covers the mountain is said to make a musical sound when strong winds blow. Picture: 123RF

In the city of Dunhuang in western China, the Mingsha Shan Mountain is picturesque, with golden sand dunes, camels and a clear blue sky. At first glance, it’s the biggest tourist attraction. But the quiet, unassuming city’s history began as one of the most important transit points along the ancient Silk Road.

The Belt and Road is the modern day reincarnation of the Silk Road. That road was a trade route that linked the cultures and economies of the countries it connected, from east China to Kathmandu in Nepal, Aleppo in Syria and Venice in Italy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called it "the project of the century". With about $292bn in funding, the project looks set to expand even further to ensure Xi’s words ring true.

According to a report by Baker McKenzie and Silk Road Associates, projects related to the Belt and Road are estimated to be worth $350bn in the next five years. More than 50 Chinese state-owned enterprises have already invested or participated in nearly 1,700 projects.

Peak power: Roads curve beautifully along a stretch of what used to be the Silk Road in the mountains between China and Sikkim in India. Picture: 123RF
Peak power: Roads curve beautifully along a stretch of what used to be the Silk Road in the mountains between China and Sikkim in India. Picture: 123RF

Research by McKinsey shows that more than 60 countries, with a combined GDP of $21-trillion, have expressed interest in participating in the Belt and Road initiative.

Covering about 65% of the world’s population, one-third of the world’s GDP and a quarter of all the goods and services, the initiative has the potential to reshape global trade.

With China’s booming economy, it comes as no surprise that that country remains the starting point.

Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretto, deputy director of the IMF research department, says: "The size of the Chinese economy is so out of proportion with the rest of the emerging markets that its GDP is the same as the next 13 countries behind it combined.

"Every year, China adds an economy the size of Indonesia to its GDP."

To date, the initiative has already brought billions of investment dollars into infrastructure of the participating countries in central and southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and the effects are already tangible

The Belt and Road media co-operation forum at the end of September was a stark indication of how the Chinese government approaches the media. The idea behind the conference was to strengthen co-operation among domestic and international media specifically on China’s Belt and Road initiative. With 300 media outlets from 127 countries and international organisations involved, it was an ambitious task. 

But with strict censorship of Chinese media, no Google and no access to social media sites without a virtual private network that allows access to blocked sites, it’s a somewhat difficult task creating a media network spanning the US, Asia, Africa and Europe.

Editors from publications in the UK, Afghanistan and Pakistan presented a copy and paste of the same speech — "to achieve an integrated media platform and strengthen trade relations".

The idea to revitalise the Silk Road was proposed in 2013. To date, the initiative has already brought billions of investment dollars into infrastructure of the participating countries in central and southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and the effects are already tangible.

In 2016, the Belt and Road initiative launched the first train journey directly from China to the UK. The trip takes 16 days, compared with the 32 days by sea, which represents a push to create a faster trade line.

China has also signed bilateral co-operation agreements with Hungary, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan and Turkey, and various projects are already under way: a train connection between eastern China and Iran that may be expanded to Europe; new rail links with Laos and Thailand; and high-speed rail projects in Indonesia.

The Chinese government has long kept a tight rein on Chinese media to avoid not only the undermining of its authority but any risk that would cause the regime to crumble

While trade is forging on faster than the speed of a train, the idea of integrating media houses seems somewhat of a farce. As publications such as the Daily Mail boast of their statistics and rattle off numbers about daily users and page views, there’s a distinct disconnect. Most Chinese don’t have access to these sites and aren’t integrated into any global media platforms.

With such stringent controls on local media, there is at the same time a lack of control of global media houses. And the urgency to have control is palpable. Chinese officials spoke about the benefits of the Belt and Road initiative in a way not unlike a lecture at university or a stern talking to from parents.

And the expectations were made clear. There was no criticism of the event, and speeches followed the same pattern as if they had been rehearsed beforehand.

No one strayed from expectations or convention.

It may work for a five-day trip to Dunhuang, but media houses aren’t euphemisms for public relations agencies.

The Chinese government has long kept a tight rein on Chinese media to avoid not only the undermining of its authority but any risk that would cause the regime to crumble. Its tactics include strict media controls using monitoring systems and firewalls, blocking publications or websites, and jailing journalists, bloggers and activists who stray from the norm.

Google has had a continuing battle with Beijing over internet censorship, with the Chinese equivalent, Baidu, being the only available search engine. Looking up anything online, even in a plush five-star hotel on the outskirts of Dunhuang, yields disappointing results.

While strict censorship hasn’t damped investment or trade, the idea of creating a media network to mirror the Silk Road isn’t as promising and this becomes more apparent over steaming plates of dim sum as journalists from across the world glaze over and roll their eyes at being told what to do.


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