The New Silk Road Proposal: China’s Destructive Past Could Hinder Its Future

Map of overland and maritime Silk Road

Map of overland and maritime Silk Road (Credit: Silkroutes.com)

Established around 220 BCE during the Han Dynasty, the ancient Silk Road boosted trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe. The cultural exchange that occurred between nations along the Silk Road generated great prosperity and economic growth. Now, the Chinese government plans to invest 40 billion dollars to reestablish the trade routes from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The funds will help build or refurbish roads, railways, and airports for better travel along the old Silk Road route. Investments will also reestablish maritime routes to improve trade with African nations and possibly islands along the Pacific Coast. The new Silk Road will generate trade, continental prosperity, and cultural exchange by reconnecting East Europe and East Africa with China once again. True, China’s economic growth, and its abundance of natural resources, promise alluring future capital to countries invited to participate in the new Silk Road proposal. Still, China’s past in civil injustice and loose policies on pollution signal a red flag that might obstruct the project’s acceptance.

China’s economy has made a tremendous increase in the past few decades. In the 1980s, Communist China adopted another new “ism” to add to its repertoire: Capitalism. The new communist leader Dang Xiaoping welcomed free enterprise into the country. Since then, Chinese corporations have become some of the leading manufacturers in the world. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “China has become one of the United States’ primary trading partners in manufactured goods.” Increasing industrial manufacturing and technological commodities have allowed China to become a thriving country.

The shift from a poverty stricken country to a leading manufacturing nation carries with it some serious requirements. A thriving country must have energy to survive. Oil, gas, and mining operations fuel the industrial giant. China has climbed the ranks to become the second leading natural resources import and export country in the world. Although mining and drilling operations provide most of the country’s energy, hydroelectric facilities established along China’s many rivers generate megawatts of electricity. China’s natural resources and hydroelectric power provide support for neighboring nations to accept the Silk Road proposal. Most notably, China’s bursting economy and multiple energy sources create an enticing deal for Afro-Eurasian nations. For instance, “A Chinese state-owned rail company has signed $5.5bn worth of contracts in Africa, in the latest sign that the country’s ‘New Silk Road’ strategy to build infrastructure around the developing world is showing tangible results.”

Still, despite China’s abundant natural resources and ambitious attitude for improving international business relations, finding a reliable work force is another issue altogether. According to the United States Census Bureau, China had the largest population in the world in 2013, but this represents only part of the labor-force equation. In the late 1970s, China implemented a one child rule in response to population control. The effects from this policy have left China with an increase in elderly citizens close to retirement and a rise in the average labor force age. In response to this complication, China might consider changing to a two-child rule or raise the retirement age. Researchers predict that the declining labor force will shift from labor-intense industries to more technical industries. True, capitalism mixed with communism has generated a positive international shift in relations with other countries, but the effects from the cultural change devastated China’s citizens, resulting in continual civil unrest.

Chinese factory workers

Chinese factory workers (Credit: NPR.org)

China’s civil rights history has never been good given. Militant organizations and unethical business manufacturing operations have been accused of abusing workers. Some companies and factories contracted from outside sources have been known to impose harsh working conditions. In the documentary Those Were the Years at Foxconn, a worker describes situations while at Foxconn in 2005, an electronic manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, when employees were exposed to dangerous machines, chemicals, and toxins without proper safety protection. Workers suffered injuries on the job yet refused to file reports in fear for losing the factory money. Supervisors controlled workers through bullying and threats. Situations like this have led to workers resisting militant business operations and fighting for proper working conditions and pay, and despite companies cutting their health benefits and wages due to protests and riots, gradual progress has been made. Internal business operations throughout China have improved with modernization, resulting in an increase in minimum wage, allowing for urban citizens, at least, to become more affluent.

Civil injustice is not only seen in factories. China’s expanding economy seeks lands for development. Villages and country towns are forced to give up property to the government for private enterprise. Construction for roads and buildings generate waste and garbage that pollutes farm crops and water source. To make matters worse, low compensation for purchased lands and corrupt officials continue to damage citizens’ rights. A BBC news reporter describes conditions in a village called Wukan in Southeast China. In 2011, the community erupted in riots and protests against the government, with “hundreds of villagers chanting slogans such as ‘Down with corrupt officials’ but also ‘Long live the Communist party’” in the hope that China’s central government would “intervene on their behalf.” Citizens stood against police and corrupt officials for land seizure and the killing of a village citizen. Regardless, the village continues to feel the pressure from corrupt officials. The internal civil injustice that plagues China generates future issues in work force reliance and citizen cooperation. As citizens stand against tyrant leaders and corrupt officials, corporations simply continue to take over lands and pollute wantonly at their leisure.

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A Chinese factory (Credit: econnews.com)

As one might imagine, China’s pollution-belching factories discourage some governments to join the new Silk Road proposition. Changes in political power and cultural reform helped China build a thriving economy, but as seen in the Kuznets Curve, the industrialization of a country results in an increase in pollution before a steady decline with modernization. China followed no environment protection rules during its explosive period of economic growth. The film China on the Brink states that China is home to 7 of 10 most polluted cities in the world. Manufacturers operate around the clock to meet high output demand, thus filling the air with pollutants. What this probably means is that, while some companies have made efforts to preserve the environment, the quantity of pollution spewing into the atmosphere might be insurmountable.

Industrial waste cannot be the only cause for China’s pollution. Greater economic affluence means that more citizens can purchase vehicles, apartments, and consumer products. The vehicles built and sold in China follow outdated emission controls even though taken straight from the factory. Cities grow with every new migrant from the countryside. Construction waste and increasing consumer waste add to the pollution, which means that an increasing need for energy results in more energy programs that damage the environment, such as mining, oil field construction, and  hydro-electric facilities. This growing economy has transformed China’s population into a consumer-hungry society with a GDP that could surpass the United States before too long.

(Credit: Xihuane.com)

(Credit: Xihuane.com)

What would the Chinese hope to gain in the reestablishment of the Silk Road? Their government plans to reestablish cultural strength between three continents by expanding their economic and political influence. As briefly noted early in the discussion, business relations are already underway between several countries, to include Russia, India, and various Middle Eastern and African governments. But again, a barrier to accepting the proposal could be the cost of establishing a motivated healthy labor force and a lack of proper pollution controls.

Ultimately, China’s history of poor working conditions and pollution production must improve if the country is to establish a strong future for the new Silk Road. Of equal significance, the possible connections between governments could generate international problems through business alliances. Strong opposing forces from the United States and West Europe could affect relations. China has much to offer for future capital and economic developments to participating governments, but the previously mentioned issues within China, along with a host of other possible impediments, might slow the forward progress, especially given the precarious condition of our global economy.