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Social and Cultural Anthropology

The Silk Road’s Rougher Side

High-speed highways don’t just facilitate transport and mobility. They can cut through communities, disadvantage people and arouse false hopes. A team of social anthropologists have been studying China’s massive Silk Road project.
Michael T. Ganz; Translation by Paul Day
One direction. The New Silk Road pays no regard to the needs of the people who live along it.Highway 218, Xinjiang, China

When Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi first saw the pass road through the Tian Shan mountains in Northwest China some ten years ago, it was still a narrow and sinuous sand-and-gravel band. The Kazakh nomads crossed it to take their sheep to new pastures, and used it to transport them back to their winter quarters in rickety old trucks. Then the Chinese government replaced the old road with a four-lane highway – a dead-straight strip of tarmac with ditches either side and a quadruple fence to keep wild animals at bay. Since then, long-distance lorries have rumbled through the barren hilly terrain. It wasn’t long before the local shepherds began to cut through the fencing and build ramps over the ditches, so they could continue to move their sheep between pastures as before. Soon thereafter, workers arrived to remove the ramps and repair the fences. And so the pattern continued. The small local businesses that had fringed the old road, such as kiosks, snack bars, hostels and workshops, lost their custom and closed. And hardly any of the Kazakhs owned vehicles that were permitted to use the new Highway G30 – which the Chinese government must have assumed anyway, since no entrances or exits had been planned to provide local access to the route.

Shepherds on the road

Are the shepherds damaging the highway, or is the highway damaging the shepherds? Who does a road belong to anyway? Who does it help, and who does it hinder? They’re all questions that the five-member team headed by Professor Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi set out to address. The project is entitled “ Roadwork: An Anthropology of Infrastructure at China’s Inner Asian Borders ”, and is being conducted under the auspices of UZH’s Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies.

That social anthropologists should be concerning themselves with the nature and the impact of asphalt traffic routes is a new and surprising development. “We’re trying to understand what a road does,” Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi explains. “Who it connects, who it excludes, what relations it enables and what relations it destroys.” Her fellow team member, post-doc Emilia Sulek, expands: “Roads are everywhere. But we only tend to think about them when they don’t do what they’re supposed to.”

This is why the research team has chosen the controversial Belt and Road Initiative as the subject of its studies. The program is intended to achieve Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aim of connecting his country with other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. The initiative has two components: The Maritime Silk Road, which comprises a number of sea routes, and the new overland routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt. The latter, which are a series of rail lines, roads and gas and oil pipelines, run through Northwest China, or more precisely the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area some 40 times the size of Switzerland but with only about two-and-a-half times as many inhabitants. Xinjiang borders no fewer than eight other countries, and is considered a vital but sensitive region in geopolitical terms.

A Chinese prestige project

The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s big prestige project, designed – in the words of President Xi Jinping – to “promote peace and friendship at home and abroad.” Joniak-Lüthi and Sulek have their reservations here. “In all the discourse around the New Silk Road, the voice of the Chinese government is always louder than those of all the other players,” Emilia Sulek observes. Smaller and poorer nations such as Laos, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan, which are all affected by China’s transport plans, have had no choice but to accede to the new highways’ construction.

Their scope for negotiation on the corresponding construction contracts and loan interest rates is similarly limited. For all the claims of its promoting friendship and peace, the new road will primarily benefit the urban centers, where most capital is already clearly concentrated. The vast rural areas between them will hardly benefit at all. As the example of Highway G30 illustrates, the roadsides have lost their function as a source of income for the local populations, and the state-owned highway service centers sell brought-in Chinese factory products instead.

“Infrastructure should not be viewed in terms of its function alone,” Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi explains. “A transport network like the New Silk Road is sending a political and an economic message, too: Superpower China is seeking to connect. Ultimately, the Belt and Road Initiative is primarily a political affair.” Major road projects are born on a drawing board: Lines on a map, drawn by politicians with little regard for local realities and then cast in asphalt by engineers and construction teams. That they will then gradually deteriorate and need maintenance and care seems to be of little relevance to their planners, as long as the prestige project they embody can have its desired political effect.

Harsh lessons

For a telling example of the phenomenon, Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and her team have been monitoring the fate of a 450-kilometer stretch of the new highway through the desert plains of Xinjiang which is one of the key parts of the New Silk Road network. A caravan route had been established here by as early as the Chinese Han dynasty (202 BCE to 220 AD), following the course of the Tarim River that is so vital to the region. For centuries the local populations and political powers clashed over the maintenance of the route, which was harshly exposed to the winds, sand and heat.

In the early 2010s, the Chinese government asphalted the problem section throughout – for the second time in just ten years. The new Highway 218 is only seven meters wide, two-lane and hardly protected at all from the local wind and sand. Around 3,000 trucks and articulated lorries use the road every day, a higher heavy-vehicle volume than the St. Gotthard route. Xi Jinping’s engineers had reckoned without the climate, though. Nor had they considered that the trees which had always fringed the Tarim River and which anchored the earth and protected the earlier route from the wind and the sun were now no longer there: With the river’s waters diverted for use in agricultural and energy projects, the forestry on its banks had died.     

The result: Sand now laps over Highway 218 once again, and the searing heat and the salt in the sand are burning holes in the poor-quality asphalt – poor-quality because part of the funds which the government had assigned to the road’s construction ended up in the pockets of local rulers and suppliers, if the villagers of the region are to be believed. “One researcher in Xinjiang told me that each kilometer of Highway 218 has a different asphalt mix,” says Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi. “And he was only half-joking.”

Abandoned projects

China’s border regions are dotted with half-finished projects: Entire planned villages that have never been inhabited, industrial premises left unused, museums devoid of a single exhibit. Joniak-Lüthi and Sulek fear that the New Silk Road could suffer a similar fate if the Belt and Road Initiative should lose momentum or its political message lose appeal. Not so the massive debts, however, which the neighboring countries are running up with China through the new road’s construction: They will be carried and felt for decades to come.

In the case of Highway 218, the Chinese government has at least acknowledged the problem, and is currently investing the equivalent of some CHF 1.5 billion in rewatering the Tarim River along the road’s problematic desert section. To do so, it has ordered the construction of a system that pipes water from Bosten Lake in the north to the river’s dried-up lower courses. The ecologically important forestry has somewhat recovered as a result. But since the provision of the new piping system, the level of Bosten Lake has been steadily falling, and the lake is now likely to be entirely dry by 2030. So how long will the New Silk Road still be with us?

Water, forest and asphalt; shepherds, traders and engineers; government programs, economic policies and corruption: All these factors, interests and conflicts flow together along roads like Northwest China’s Highways G30 and 218. So the political and societal ramifications of all this swift and technocratic roadbuilding are a highly contentious issue. It’s the same story in Africa, where China is also investing billions in new trunk transport routes, not least to connect the mines it manages with the key commercial ports. “Roads,” Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi concludes, “are a projection of so much else that colors our lives. And that’s what makes them so fascinating.”