Within this book, there are the stories of seven different villages in five different countries. They are stories of celebration and stories of hardship. They are stories of hope gained and stories of hope lost. They are stories of lives renewed and stories of lives destroyed. With an undertaking as grand as the Belt and Road Initiative (B.R.I.), perhaps this is unavoidable. Then again, maybe it is not. It will forever change the economies, livelihoods, and lives of most of the world’s population, which is quickly approaching 8 billion people. These stories are but a few. There are many more that need to be told, and more importantly, heard. There are many more stories yet to happen.
From the moment that the Belt and Road Initiative was announced, it had its proponents and its opponents, its supporters and its critics.
Supporters say that the infrastructure network will provide ease of flow of transportation, trade, and cultural exchange. It will increase access to goods and services. Massive investment in developing countries will increase the pace and stability of economic growth. Many jobs will be created. There will be more access to education and healthcare. China-funded projects like the Padma (Jashaldia) Water Treatment Plant in Dhaka, Bangladesh, will only benefit the people; it will provide water and jobs.
Critics say that the B.R.I. is almost a form of neo-colonialism. They allege that China uses “debt-trap” diplomacy to gain access to lands and resources. They argue that the project removes the livelihoods of many, making them dependent on under-paid menial jobs supervised by Chinese workers who are paid more. Investment in developing countries will give China undue political influence throughout the world.
The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
History shows several examples of great nations that have developed trade routes, on land and/or sea and built massive engineering and infrastructure projects. Some look at this history and see these nations as assimilating other cultures and asserting global dominance. Others look at that same history and see trade that benefited all involved and facilitated great cultural exchange and beneficial sharing of resources. There is value in looking at both sides. Looking at both sides is what we need to do with the Belt and Road Initiative as well. We must try to see into the future.
Regardless of how some people feel about it, whether they are for, or against, the Belt and Road Initiative, it has begun. It is happening and will continue to happen. This is the truth. There will be benefits and there will be costs. There will be consequences, both negative and positive. Where do we go from here?
On a scale as massive as the Belt and Road Initiative, seven villages in five countries may not seem terribly significant. The residents of these villages have had their lives changed forever, some for the better, and others, for the worse. In the face of the world’s population that will be, in some way, affected by the Belt and Road Initiative, their lives may seem too pale in significance to the greater good. However, theirs are not the only stories. There are stories yet to be told. There are changes yet to come. There are many more lives that will be forever changed.
It is essential that we learn from these stories. It is important that China pay attention to the lessons contained within them.
In this book, there are many stories of how much people have benefitted from China-funded projects, like powerplants and railways in their area. There are people who have been compensated for their land. There are people who have found steady employment and now make a comfortable living. There are those who say that they now have better access to education and other institutions and resources.
In this book, there are also many stories of how much people have suffered under the projects in their area. Their local governments have not compensated people for their land. They have not communicated with the people. They have not addressed their concerns or consulted with them. There are people who now feel like their lives are ruined. There are those who fear they are now simply waiting to die. The crops have been obliterated. Access to fishing grounds has been terminated. The employment and educational opportunities are reserved for others.
Some might argue that this is inevitable. Some might say that this is the cost of change, that we must replace the old with the new in order to move forward. There is always collateral damage along the path to progress. There are always casualties on the road to improvement. This might be true.
What is also true is that it is in China’s best interest to pay attention to the stories in this book, and the many more like them and the many more to come. If resentment grows, China will find itself with fewer allies in the region. As opposition mounts, there will be more dispute over financing and land acquisition, which could lead to many projects being stalled for long periods of time, or even forever. This would be an impediment to the development of the Belt and Road Initiative. This will be an obstacle to the realization of the vision of a unified network for trade, cultural exchange, and mutual benefit.
Those who have dealings with China, through business affairs, joint investment, or other affairs will be inevitably associated with its actions, They will be seen, by others, as sharing the credit for the good and share accountability for the bad. It is important that they be aware of, and able to address, these issues and the surrounding concerns.
It is also important that those who have no direct dealings with China, political, commercial, or financial, to hear these stories, and to share them. Most people on this planet, eventually, in one way or another be affected by the Belt and Road Initiative. It is of great value to know how it has touched the lives of others around the world—the good, and the bad. This is the way to be prepared to give voice to your concerns and seek answers to your questions.
China cannot control the behavior of the local governments. However, it is not enough to simply do paperwork and count money. They need to take an active interest in how people are being affected by the China-funded projects. They must do what they can to make sure that they are not the “bad guys.”
In order to do this, as fellow humans, it is vital that we investigate ways to reduce the number of casualties of progress. We must examine and explore ways of minimizing the collateral damage on the way to improvement. In order for us all to enjoy the benefits of such an ambitious undertaking, the benefits must be available to be enjoyed by all. This is the only way to truly realize the vision of the new Silk Road.
These are the stories of the people. We are grateful to them all for sharing them with us, and with you.