In the third quarter of 2019, we visited a few villages in the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The villages are remotely located in forest-clad mountains, or beside rivers of white rapids, or by vast barren deserts, or in fishing boats on the sea. They are home to shy villagers who have been farming, hunting, or fishing in these villages, generation after generation.
That was until recent years when, accompanied by local government agencies, the Chinese came with an old legend called the Silk Road, and a new initiative called the Belt and Road. The villagers see strangers measure their own houses and farmlands with equipment they’ve never seen before, and hear people talk about their own rivers and seas in languages they’ve never heard before. Something big is going to happen, for sure. But what? They do not know. There are questions. There are anticipations.
Farmlands are now construction sites, trees are gone and replaced with power plants, a tunnel has been dug through the mountain, and skyscrapers and resorts are mushrooming by the sea. They have happened right on their own lands and right around and about them. The villagers are taken onto an express train, so fast that their backs are pushed to the seats. Seeing the life that they once knew flying by outside the train, they reach out to grab a piece, almost like a souvenir. However, they pull their hands back and put them over their chests. The train is too fast. The pressure is making breathing difficult.
Some young people, however, are joyously running up and down the train. When they sit down, they stare out of the window, looking forward, the direction where the train is going. It’s a place called “a community of shared future for mankind”. How does it look? They do not know. There is only a mixture of curiosity, suspicion, expectation, anxiety, and excitement.
The Belt and Road Initiative is part of a long historic narrative. Zhang Qian and Ban Chao, in the Han Dynasty, took silk through vast deserts to Central Asia, and Zheng He, in the Ming Dynasty, took a fleet of 240 ships loaded with chinaware all the way to East Africa. They returned with music, religions, spices, fruits, vegetables, and stories of the local communities. Today, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has five pillars: policy connectivity, infrastructure connectivity, trade connectivity, financial connectivity, and people-to-people connectivity, with the last one set to be an ultimate vision.
By the end of Nov 2019, the Chinese government has signed over 198 deals with 137 countries and 30 international institutes, since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. Trade in goods between China and the Belt and Road en-route countries reached over USD$ 7.5 trillion, and China’s direct investment in these countries surpassed USD$ 100 billion.
The negotiations for such big figures take place between governments and between corporations, with diplomatic handshakes and precise wording. From paper to reality, these grand agreements will ultimately land into communities, where daily life is more emotional than rational and daily concerns are more person than the greater good, understandably. It is such a life that will forever be affected, and that is why their voices, emotions, and concerns must be heard and felt, with respect and empathy.
However, lack of communications and transparency was one of the biggest complaints we heard often from local directly affected communities. In some cases, local governments hardly ever bothered to have a real equal dialogue with the villagers, making little effort to respect their rights to know, to participate, to express and to supervise. In some worst cases, local governments sign the agreements with the Chinese funders without completing such basic necessary steps as environmental and social impacts assessments.
We also hear and see villagers with acknowledgement and excitement in other villages. Their livelihoods are more stable, their lives are more comfortable, and their education is more accessible, thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative projects. They talk about their future with confidence and hope. It is because, on one hand, these renewable energy projects are in nature clean and safe, but also very importantly, local governments and contractors communicate with the villagers frequently, equally and transparently. That’s how anxiety and suspicions are eased.
We only talked to less than one hundred villagers in a dozen communities in five countries, where projects under the big Belt and Road Initiative programme are either completed, or constructed, or assessed. Compared with the trillions of dollars put down in the 195 agreements, these villagers may seem as small as a tiny ant on a leaf in a forest or a fish on a seaweed in an ocean. However, it is important to recognize that this leaf or seaweed is the whole word to the ant or fish. They are small but not insignificant. The leaf and the seaweed might become greener and juicier, but that alone is not an excuse not to respect their questions and doubts. Their concerns, their fears, or their excitements, all deserve to be heard and addressed by both the local governments and the Chinese government, as well as the project designers and implementers.
Not too distant from these villages are other communities, where people are enjoying more abundant water, more affordable electricity, and more accessible education and medical care. Their happy stories of an improved life also deserve to be heard and documented. Born in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative is at the perfect age to listen as much as possible to avoid pit holes and bumps.
The journeys to these communities were hard physically for the project team. It was harder emotionally. We felt each tear, each fear, and each smile. It was, more than anything else, an inspirational journey; for that, we thank all the villagers for their trust, their vulnerability, and their bravery and persistence. We owe this book to them, and to the talented photojournalists, and to the publisher.