China Made Brief #8

The BRI as an Exercise in Infrastructural Thinking

Tim Oakes

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Gui’an New Area, Guizhou, 2018 (Image credit: Tim Oakes)

It’s difficult to understand how a project with a name like “One Belt, One Road” (yidai yilü一带一路) could spark much excitement. And while the translation upgrade “Belt & Road Initiative” suggests something a little less haphazard – something with goals and frameworks and plans – the name still fails to stimulate the degree of reverie and unabashed obsession that China’s “project of the century” has in fact garnered. Seven years into the initiative, enough has already been written about the BRI to probably fill several libraries. The attention-grabbing magnetism of the “Belt & Road” has always confused me. The willingness on the part of many scholars, journalists, commentators, and analysts to write about the BRI as if its hyperbolic aspirations of vast connectivity were already set in concrete on the ground made me think I was missing something. I became convinced that what Hillman (2020) calls “The Emperor’s New Road” was a spectacular case of “the emperor’s new clothes.”

It turns out, I was indeed missing something. And that was the whole point. It wasn’t that there were facts-on-the ground that had somehow escaped me, or that a high-level policy document had finally been drafted. The hole in the middle of the Belt and Road – a hole where there should have been plans and policies – was intentional. Where actual content might be expected to be clarified and laid-out, there was instead a sort-of “fill in the blank” space. The Belt & Road was only ever meant to be a vague idea, a notion, a gesture, the beginning of a sentence waiting to be completed by someone else. It was an invitation. And perhaps this is why it has generated such an exuberant response.  Many of us can’t resist filling in the blank.

The BRI is not a policy. It’s not even a ‘soft policy’ (Holbig 2004), that is, a policy written with enough vagueness to accommodate the highly diverse, and often competing, agendas and instruments that will drive its implementation. It’s barely even a framework. Instead, it’s an aspirational statement of evolutionary principles that invite imaginary cartographies of lines and corridors. Rather than viewing the BRI as a grand scheme formulated by Xi Jinping – a view that continues to dominate most popular media and commentaries from the punditariat – we are on safer ground approaching it as an evolutionary discourse, perhaps even a performance, a kind of ‘development theater.’ I don’t mean dismiss the BRI as a charade but rather to emphasize the point that to look for a concrete scheme or policy in the BRI is to be looking for the wrong thing. And yet, concrete is indeed what we should be looking for.

As Tang Xiaoyang (2020) has argued, China does not pursue a linear approach to policy-implementation. Initiatives are offered on a gradual and experimental basis, and (importantly) in a way that will generate competition, inviting local governments and collectives to imagine themselves as the model everyone else will follow. Each locality hopes to implement the initiative in a spectacular way, getting noticed and hopefully rising to the level of model status. To look for the grand scheme underlying the BRI misses the point of such initiatives as they emerge in China. It seems to me that the key questions to ask are these: how will the BRI evolve and change in response to developments and outcomes along the way? How does the BRI ecosystem adapt to specific conditions that it encounters and creates? How does it get shaped by the on-the-ground experiences as it moves along?

Addressing these questions, in turn, requires a focus on the actual projects and spaces where ‘global China’ is materialized. This means a focus on infrastructure, the most prevalent material form that the BRI comes in. There are at least a couple ways of conceptualizing a focus on infrastructure. The first is scale. The BRI needs to be studied locally, on the ground, and qualitatively. The Beijing-centric view that has dominated the BRI library misses the fact that the BRI was never anything more than the collective efforts of all those locally-situated actors “filling in the blanks.” Local improvisation and bargaining has always been the central story of the BRI. There has been no shortage of ink spilled on the broader-scale geopolitical and geoeconomic implications. But the concreteness of China’s actual projects need to be the focus and, importantly, the contestedness (Lee 2018) of those projects. Tina Harris (2013) has found that the nuance generated through ethnographic approaches to understanding transboundary infrastructure development almost always contradicts the hegemonic narratives that drive those projects in the first place. Those hegemonic narratives tell a story of connectivity as a realm of expansion, opening, and unfolding. And yet on the ground, as Alessandro Rippa (2020) has found, spatial patterns and practices are displaced, demolished, and buried as often as they’re enhanced and smoothed out. Meanwhile, Liu and Lim (2019) have noted the lack of studies on how smaller states have engaged with and reacted to the BRI and the fact that most studies emphasize the perspectives of Chinese actors. Indeed, most studies default to Beijing as the primary actor.

Bridge construction on the Mekong in Luang Prabang Province. The bridge will be a part of the BRI Vientiane–Boten railway. (Image Source: Wikimedia)

Studying the BRI locally also means that it needs to be studied locally within China. While considering the unique roles of policy banks and state-owned enterprises is an important part of this approach, we also need to consider the role that provincial governments and municipalities – and, in particular, the rivalries among these governments and municipalities – have played in steering the BRI in directions that had not been anticipated. Much of this is the result of the local and regional rivalries that have always driven policy implementation in China. But it is also the result of competing priorities at the local level. Xinjiang, for instance, has played a less significant role than might be expected given its pivotal location facing central Asia. While some Xinjiang companies (e.g. the Yema Group) have played a major role in building BRI-related infrastructures, the government has remained preoccupied with the surveillance and encampment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Meanwhile wealthier coastal provinces have played a large role even though the impetus for the BRI was initially to consolidate economic development in China’s interior borderland provinces and to restart the slumping Open Up the West initiative. He Baogang (2019, 187) has for instance observed that, “Guangdong’s existing infrastructure, and its prior experience as an engine of Chinese growth, has enabled it to adeptly exploit the opportunities afforded by the BRI.”

In addition, studying the BRI from withinChina draws our attention to the BRI as itself an effect of the ‘infrastructure machine’ of the Chinese state (or, the ‘infrastructure maniac’, jijian kuangmo 基建狂魔 as many of my interlocutors in China have wryly referred to the their government). Infrastructure construction is a bi-product of the political economy of Chinese statecraft (Oakes 2019). The BRI brings our attention to the fact that this bi-product is now exceeding China’s borders. But it also brings our attention to the peculiar legacies of state socialism in China (Bach 2019). Xi Jinping did not create this infrastructure machine. However, an argument can be made that Mao Zedong did not create it either. In some ways, it derives from the technocratic nature of reformist visions in China that date to the late 19th century.

A second way of conceptualizing an infrastructural focus for studying the BRI is to consider infrastructure not only as an object but as a unit of analysis and, indeed, as an analytical strategy. Brian Larkin (2013, 329) has noted this “peculiar ontology” of infrastructures:

Infrastructures are matter that enable the movement of other matter. Their peculiar ontology lies in the facts that they are things and also the relation between things…Yet the duality of infrastructures indicates that when they operate systematically they cannot be theorized in terms of the object alone.

This relational approach to theorizing infrastructures suggests that when we consider infrastructure as a unit of analysis, we develop a set of systemic connections that transcend scale and enable an emphasis on both the effects of these projects and the ways those effects in turn feed back into subsequent decisions, practices, and discourses about development and change at broader scales. That is, an infrastructural approach remains attuned to the evolutionary nature of the BRI. Effects might be constituted in techno-political forms (i.e. new political formations contesting everything from a new dam or high speed rail line to new forms of surveillance and data mining), or they might be constituted in merely material forms (i.e. a new highway renders older transport networks obsolete, producing remoteness for once-connected places and connection for once-remote places).

An AliExpress Station in Moscow linking Russian buyers to sellers in China. (Image source: Wikimedia)

Considering infrastructure as a unit of analysis also draws our attention to project temporalities in alternative ways to those focused on short-term debts as opposed to long-term payoffs. There are two conventional infrastructural timelines. Both are linear and idealistic. One draws a line from project design to construction to completion. The other connects early debts with later payoffs. Neither accounts for the temporalities of infrastructural materials themselves (that is, their decay, obsolescence, suspension), or on the unanticipated outcomes, or dispositions, of infrastructures, their appropriations by those for whom they were never intended, their repurposings, and even their symbolic seizures for better or worse. These temporalities are of course essential to any scaled-up understanding of the BRI as an evolutionary process.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that an infrastructural approach does not necessarily mean a focus on megaprojects. Indeed, in some ways, megaprojects have mostly been ephemeral, trotted out in the form of fanciful birds-eye-view renderings, or as lines and symbols populating the cartographic answer to the BRI as an invitation to “fill in the blanks.” But considering infrastructure as a unit of analysis and analytical lens can also suggest a focus on the everyday and the mundane. Here infrastructures may be surveillance cameras running facial recognition software, or smart phones feeding data into algorithm-driven processes of social ordering. These ‘soft’ infrastructures are arguably more profit-driven than the ‘hard’ infrastructures of highways, trains, and pipelines. And they have also emerged as a key platform for rural development.  Everyday infrastructures may thus constitute the workaday lives of villagers who process e-commerce orders in 12 hour shifts for Alibaba. Much of rural China has in fact become the human infrastructure supporting China’s global technology reach. In some cases, most notably in Xinjiang, that human infrastructure is incarcerated as both labor and data resource. But in most cases, providing digital infrastructure support services has simply become a way of life for hundreds of millions of rural laborers who have responded to the government’s call to return home and participate in ‘Rural Revitalization.’ Over 3,000 ‘Taobao villages’ now dot the Chinese countryside, and Alibaba’s rural e-commerce model (officially labeled the Electronic World Trade Platform or eWTP) has joined the BRI with new hubs established in Malaysia, Rwanda, and South Africa (Wang 2020).

As an invitation to “fill in the blank,” the BRI pairs well with Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” Both are like ghost cities waiting to be populated. Both are “pregnant with desires, frustrated frenzies, unrealized possibilities,” as Henri Lefebvre (1995) put it, writing about the boredom of life in the New Town. But as an exercise in infrastructural thinking, the BRI is all concrete and steel and wire, the empty buildings of the dreamy New Town. What it turns into depends not on the plan, but on the people who move in.

This essay first appeared in the University of Toronto, Munk School’s “Belt & Road in Global Perspective” project.


我很难理解一个以“一带一路” (One Belt, One Road)命名的项目怎么会引起如此大的轰动。虽然其升级后的名字(Belt & Road Initiative) 暗示该项目不再那么随意,而是有目标、框架和计划的,但是这个名字仍然无法解释中国“世纪工程”实际上所获得的无限遐想和痴迷。项目倡议实施七年以来,关于“一带一路”的文章多到可能会填满几个图书馆。 “一带一路”对外界的吸引力一直让我感到困惑。尤其是当许多学者、记者、评论员和分析家将“一带一路”看做一个其夸张愿景 – 广泛连通性 – 已经成功落地的项目来写作的愿意度让我觉得我忽略了一些东西。我开始确信希尔曼(2020)所谓的“皇帝的新路”实质上是一个“皇帝的新装”的惊奇案例。

事实证明,我确实忽略了一些东西。而被忽略的东西恰好是重点。其实并不是我遗漏了现实中的事实真相,或是那份最终起草的高层政策文件。 “一带一路”中间的洞 – 一个应该有计划和政策的洞 – 是故意为之的。在实际内容可能需要被提出来澄清的地方,取而代之的是一种“填补空白”的空间。 “一带一路”注定是一个模糊的想法、一个概念、一个姿态,一个等待别人完成的句子的开始。这是一个邀请。也许这就是为什么它会产生如此热烈的反应。我们中的许多人都无法抗拒填补空白的邀请。

BRI 不是一项政策。它甚至不是一个“软政策”(Holbig 2004),一个可以通过容纳高度多样且经常相互竞争的议程和工具来推动其实施的足够模糊的政策。它甚至谈不上是一个框架。相反,它是一个依据进化原理邀请幻想中线条和走廊的雄心壮志的声明。与其将“一带一路”视为习近平所制定的宏大计划 —— 一个持续主导大多数流行媒体和专家评论的观点 —— 我们更安全地将其视为一种进化话语,甚至是一种表演,一种 ‘发展戏剧’。我并不是说将“一带一路”视为一种伪装,而是要强调在“一带一路”中寻找具体方案或政策是在寻找错误的东西。然而,我们确实应该寻找具象的东西。

正如 Tang Xiaoyang(2020)所言,中国政府并不追求线性的政策实施方式。倡议是在渐进和实验的基础上提供的,并且(重要的是)会以一种产生竞争的方式提供,邀请地方政府和集体将自己想象成其他人将效仿的模式。各地政府都希望以壮观的方式实施该倡议,受到关注甚至是上升到模范地位。寻找“一带一路”倡议背后的宏伟计划将会让你错失此类倡议的重点,即其在中国出现发展的过程。在我看来,关键的问题是:“一带一路”倡议将如何根据其后续发展和成果而演变和改变? BRI 的生态系统如何适应它遇到和创造的特定条件?当发展时,它是如何被实地体验塑造的?

反过来,回答这些问题需要关注“全球中国”具体化的实际项目和空间。这意味着关注“一带一路”倡议中出现的最普遍的项目形式,基础设施。至少有几种方法可以将对基础设施的关注概念化。首先是规模。研究 “一带一路”需要在地、实地和定性。以北京为中心的观点主导着“一带一路”的研究,然而这样的观点忽略了一个事实,即“一带一路”是那些“填补空白”的当地参与者的集体努力。当地的即兴创作和讨价还价一直是“一带一路”的中心故事。在更广泛的地缘政治和地缘经济影响方面也不缺乏讨论。但中国实际项目的焦点应该是具体性,或更重要的,这些项目的竞争性(Lee 2018)。 Tina Harris (2013) 发现,通过民族志方法来理解跨国界基础设施发展所产生的细微差别几乎总是与最初推动这些项目的霸权叙事相矛盾。这些霸权叙事讲述了一个将连通性视为扩张、开放和延展的故事。然而,正如 Alessandro Rippa(2020 )所发现的那样,在地面上,空间模式和实践通常随着连接性的增强和平滑而被强制改变、拆除和掩埋。同时,Liu 和 Lim(2019 )指出当下的研究缺乏对小国如何参与和应对“一带一路”且大多数研究都强调中国参与者的观点。不可否认,大多数研究默认北京是主要参与者。

在各国本土学习“一带一路”也意味着需要将“一带一路”放在中国境内学习。虽然考虑政策性银行和国有企业的独特作用是这一方法的重要组成部分,但我们还需要考虑省级政府和直辖市——尤其是这些政府和直辖市之间的竞争——在将“一带一路”导向出乎意料的方向过程中所发挥的作用。这在很大程度上是一直推动中国政策实施的地方和区域竞争的结果。同时这也是不同优先事项在地方级竞争的结果。例如,虽然拥有面向中亚的关键位置,但是新疆发挥的作用却不如预期的那么重要。虽然一些新疆公司(例如野马集团)在建设“一带一路”相关基础设施方面发挥了重要作用,但政府仍然全神贯注于维吾尔人和其他突厥穆斯林的监视和营地。与此同时,较富裕的沿海省份发挥了重要作用,尽管“一带一路”倡议最初的推动力是巩固中国内陆边境省份的经济发展,并重启衰落的“西部大开发”计划。例如,He Baogang (2019, 187) 曾观察到,“广东现有的基础设施,以及它作为中国增长引擎的过往经验,使其能够熟练地利用一带一路倡议提供的机会。”

此外,从中国境内的角度研究一带一路能将我们的注意力转移到一带一路本为中国“基础设施机器”的体现(或者就像许多我在中国的对话者认为的“基础狂魔”, 一种对政府的讥讽)。基础设施建设是中国治理政治经济学的副产品(Oakes 2019)。 “一带一路”倡议让我们注意到,这种副产品现在已经超越了中国的边界。但它同时也让我们注意到中国国家社会主义的特殊遗产(Bach 2019)。习近平没有创造这个基础设施机器。但是,可以说它也不是毛泽东创造的。在某些方面,它的起源可追溯到中国19 世纪后期具有改革主义愿景的技术官僚性质。

在研究一带一路时,将基础设施关注概念化的第二种方法是不把基础设施视为一个对象,而是将其视为一个分析单元和分析策略。 Brian Larkin (2013, 329) 注意到基础设施的这种“特殊本体论”:



将基础设施作为一个分析单位也让我们关注项目的时间性,以替代那些专注于短期债务而不是长期回报的方式。基础设施有两个传统的时间表。两者都是线性的和理想主义的。一个考虑从项目设计到施工再到完工。另一个将早期债务与后来的回报联系起来。这两者都未考虑基础设施材料本身的时间性(即它们的衰变、过时、暂停),也未考虑到基础设施的预料之外的结果处置、或它们被从未打算使用它们的人所挪用、它们的再利用,甚至它们的好坏与否的象征性采用。当然,这些时间性对于深入理解“一带一路”作为一个进化发展过程是必不可少的。最后,值得强调的是基础设施方法论并不一定意味只专注于大型项目。事实上,在某些方面,大型项目大多是短暂的,是以异想天开的鸟瞰图或者线条和符号填充在一带一路的制图中,作为回复“填补空白”的邀请。但将基础设施做为分析单元和分析视角也可以让研究者关注日常生活和平凡的细节。这里的基础设施可能是运行面部识别软件的监控摄像头,或将数据输入算法驱动的社会秩序流程的智能手机。这些“软性”基础设施可以说比高速公路、火车和管道等“硬性”基础设施更受利润驱动。它们也已成为农村发展的重要平台。因此,日常基础设施可能促成了为阿里巴巴轮班 12 小时处理电子商务订单的村民工作日常。事实上,中国大部分农村地区已成为支撑中国全球技术影响力的人力基础设施。在某些情况下,尤其是在新疆,人力基础设施既是劳动力又是数据资源。但在大多数情况下,提供数字基础设施支持服务已经成为数亿农民工响应政府号召返乡参与“乡村振兴”的一种生活方式。超过3000多个“淘宝村”遍布中国农村。同时,阿里巴巴的农村电子商务模式(官方称为电子世界贸易平台或 eWTP)已加入 BRI,并在马来西亚、卢旺达和南非建立了新的枢纽(Wang 2020)。

作为“填补空白”的邀请,“一带一路”倡议与习近平的“中国梦”相得益彰。两者都像等待被人口填满的鬼城。正如 Henri Lefebvre  (1995) 所说,两者都“怀有欲望、受挫的狂热和未实现的可能性”,写的是新城生活的无聊。但作为一种基础设施思维的练习,“一带一路”全是混凝土、钢筋和电线,是梦幻新城空荡荡的建筑。它变成什么不取决于计划,而是取决于搬进来的人。



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