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This article first appeared on Colorado Arts and Science Magazine on February 14, 2018.
As the United States steps back from international development, China is launching huge infrastructure projects as a way to broaden its global influence. For scholars at the University of Colorado Boulder, this trend raises new questions they aim to address with support from the Henry Luce Foundation.
The CU Boulder Center for Asian Studies has won a three-year Asia Responsive Grant from the Luce Foundation for a project called “China Made: Asian Infrastructures and the ‘China Model’ of Development.”
Asia Responsive Grants support collaborative research to improve understanding between the United States and the Asia-Pacific region. During the China Made project, the Center for Asian Studies will collaborate with the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong.
Studying the effect of new roads, airports and pipelines might seem narrow, but the issue has broad implications: In 2013, China launched the “Belt and Road” initiative, in which it has spent about $150 billion annually in 68 countries along the Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road. This effort is part of China’s goal of becoming a leading global power by 2050.
China’s initiative raises questions in fields beyond political science, notes Tim Oakes, the center’s director. Oakes says there’s rising interest in infrastructure across the social sciences and even in the humanities.
“And that might seem kind of odd. Why would somebody in an anthropology department care about a pipeline or a road? But, in fact, it’s become a very lively research field.”
China likes to present itself as an alternative model in which it is saying, ‘We don’t need to get into ideology. … We are simply there to help build things, and that’s a win-win for everybody.”
At the same time, Oakes says, there’s a research gap: “There’s so much interest in this, and yet very few people who are writing about this are writing about China, and China is in many respects the world’s paradigmatic infrastructure state.”
China invests seven times what the United States invests in infrastructure, as measured by proportion of gross domestic product. “China’s entire foreign policy in many respects is all about building infrastructure in other countries.”
The United States has often tied its international-development expenditures to the promotion of human rights, democracy, “the kinds of values the United States likes to project abroad.”
“China likes to present itself as an alternative model in which it is saying, ‘We don’t need to get into ideology. We don’t need to get into the internal affairs of (other) states. We are simply there to help build things, and that’s a win-win for everybody.’”
Oakes and his collaborators, including Emily Yeh of geography, will focus on infrastructure development both in China and in other countries.
He emphasized that the research goal is not solely geopolitical. “We really need to look at the infrastructures themselves. We really need to draw from what’s been going on in infrastructure studies.”
Such qualitative research is labor intensive, requiring time on the ground, language skills, cultural knowledge. “You can’t just look at spreadsheets. You can’t just go in and see a dam or building and say, ‘This is what’s happening.’”
The goal is to study the effects of the new infrastructure in the social and cultural contexts in which they’ve been built, or, according to Oakes, to look at: “What kinds of political effects do they have, intended and unintended?”
Such questions arise as some academic world views are shifting, Oakes said.
“In terms of social theory, we’re in kind of a post-human or post-humanist moment in which the material world that we live in is viewed as an increasingly important part of how we analyze the social.”
Part of the change in perspective reflects an understanding that climate change is a part of the world we live in now, “and that any study of social processes needs to account for the dynamic environment we live in and how that has effects on how society is constituted and organized and how it changes.”
He added, “People who just thought of themselves as social scientists are increasingly interested in thinking about the broader environmental world or the non-human world that impacts human society.”
Infrastructure undergirds that “non-human world.”
The China Made project aims to shift the academic focus from broader geopolitical and international relations perspectives to a “finer grained analysis” of the infrastructures themselves and the on-the-ground social and cultural dimensions of their construction, Oakes states.
China Made will include new postdoctoral and graduate research positions, the development of online scholarly resources for project participants and the academic community, and three academic conferences—two of which will be hosted by the Center for Asian Studies.