There’s never been a formal Silk Road. There was no sign or a physical road. It just happened because that’s what people needed. Before then, China had never heard of tomatoes and Europe hadn’t seen porcelain. Gradually, people came to understand that they could find certain resources along this trade route. It grew from there. It was a concept. A branding, almost.
The importance has never been the physical road or route—but the concept that, thousands of years ago, our countries benefitted massively through the exchange of our cultures, goods and ideas. China's Belt and Road initiative is about reigniting that concept and doing so in a way that, hopefully, benefits everyone involved.
Personally, I view the Belt and Road initiative as an extension of the China Go Global initiative; a policy originating in 1999 which encouraged brands to expand into international markets. To me, this is China Go Global 2.0—or even China Go Global 3.0, depending on how you look at it.
Chinese infrastructure and telecommunications companies initially aimed at going global in the early 2000s. Back then, brands were more likely to target regions like Africa and Latin America because their products didn’t have the quality to break into markets like Europe or America. And, at the time, there was skepticism towards Chinese brands in more developed countries.
But, more recently, China’s brands leveraged the global interest in mobile, internet and ecommerce solutions to create a situation wherein Chinese companies are actually at the forefront. Mobile payment options, for example, are much more advanced in China than in the rest of the world. This has allowed Chinese brands to leverage large revenue bases in China to expand or go public abroad.
Unlike China Go Global, however, Belt and Road is being driven as much by government investment as it is by private enterprise, which is a recognition of the incredible benefit globalisation and trade have had on China’s economy. While recent events in global politics have revealed a significant distrust for international collaboration in multiple regions, Belt and Road is a natural acknowledgement of a vital component of China’s development as a country.
At the same time, the Belt Road Initiative is really not about China.
For a lot of people, there is a belief that this initiative is China’s strategy to expand its influence and dominate the world. It’s a lack of trust that the Chinese government will have to overcome. However, China was one of the world’s largest economies for a significant period in the past—up until around 1850—and, historically, has always seen itself as a benefactor.
Export or exchange?
It’s an important and difficult time for China. It needs to determine what role it will play in this initiative. Is China going to be the leader? The one waving the flag and asking everybody to follow? Probably not. China being China, I think it will try to play an engaging role, but its ambition is more to create a platform where markets and cultures can come together and exchange ideas.
However, it will be hard to convince people without that historical context that China is interested in doing something for the benefit of everybody, especially given the country’s different political system. This will really be one of the main communication challenges of the Belt and Road Initiative. Can China convince people of the mutual benefit of the programme?
We’re not just talking an exchange of goods and services. Really, I foresee a bigger exchange of cultures. And, that’s going to be exciting and challenging for everyone—but especially for those in the communications industry.
As a Chinese communicator, this is a particularly exciting initiative to me. For years, our global communications thinking has been rooted in the idea of 'from the West to the East'. With the Belt and Road initiative, we’re looking at a platform for the opposite.
It’s an initiative that professional communicators would be well-advised to observe and stay engaged with over the coming years. In terms of impact, we probably won’t see the effects for some time. But I am confident that, in time, we’ll see swifter exchanges and new collisions of languages, values and cultures in the Belt and Road territories.
Personally, I’m excited because initiatives like this will better allow me to share ideas and approaches from the Chinese marketplace. Given the scale of China, the complexity of the market and the limited resources, there are principles and strategies in our region that haven’t been implemented anywhere else.
I’m not saying it’s going to be smooth. It’s going to be extremely challenging. There’s no common currency, value systems are different and there are significantly varied religious beliefs throughout many of the relevant markets. And yet, our ancestors conducted business along this road before—and under much harsher conditions. In a way, it’s just re-engaging with something from thousands of years ago.
To me, communication is about connecting cultures. The potential for that, more than anything else, is very exciting.
Lydia Lee is Weber Shandwick’s chief strategist for China.