Even a rudimentary inspection of the historic ports of the Chinese maritime silk road reveals some profound differences between this original maritime silk road and the modern-day counterpart which it inspired.

The 21st century maritime silk road, together with its land-based equivalent, underpins China’s ubiquitous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), first revealed by President Xi Jinping in late 2013.

Xi’s grand geo-political vision has already made a profound impact in the thinking of many of the 65 countries that have so far signed on, and has been described by Jonathan E. Hillman of the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as “the most ambitious geo-economic vision in recent history.”

For all its advocates and its undeniable scope, the ambitious BRI development strategy leans heavily on the history of the ancient maritime silk routes for credibility and a metaphorical luster that sparks imaginings of exotic fleets from the four corners of the globe criss-crossing the high seas seas. It's a vision that speaks of mutual exchange and benefit, a win-win situation, which indeed is the language employed by Xi in his efforts to promote the BRI.

Yet a closer analysis reveals that while the historical vision certainly lives up to its popular perception,the modern-day BRI lacks the cross-cultural engagement that defined intercontinental trade of yore.


The term ‘silk road’ did not even originate in China, nor can it be considered ancient – it was coined by a German geographer, Baron von Richthofen – the uncle of the infamous 'Red Baron' ace WWI fighter pilot, in the late 19th century.


Credit: Wikipedia

The term 'Silk Road' was coined by German explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the late 19th century.

A maritime version was appended later to loosely reference the intricate network of ancient sailing routes utilized by merchants between the 9th and 18th centuries to trade, not just in silk, but porcelain, tea, incense, spices, silver and gold. These routes connected Asia with the rest of the world and, as they expanded, incorporated not just Chinese ports like Quanzhou, Guangzhou, and Ningbo but many others in east Asia and the Middle East.

During its so called ‘golden era,’ in the 15th and 16th centuries, Malacca, in Malaysia, was probably the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated port city in the world and a key node on the maritime silk road. Strategically located near the center of the Strait of Malacca, it was the natural transit point for trade between east and west.

According to the city’s impressive maritime museum, at its peak, Chinese, Persian, Siamese, Filipino Javanese and Guajarati merchants all traded here. The harbor accommodated more than 2,000 vessels, employed four harbor masters and more than 80 different languages were spoken. A heavy Chinese influence can still be observed in the architecture, cuisine and heritage of modern Malacca, now an UNESCO world heritage site. Yet while heavily influenced by China and its trade, Malacca's historical multiculturalism reveals that the maritime silk road was never exclusively Chinese.

That diversity of influence and participation is evident even in China itself. The Chinese port city of Quanzhou, which nestles beside the Taiwan Strait in Fujian Province, is regarded as the eastern terminus of the maritime silk road. When Marco Polo sailed from the city in 1292 A.D., he enthused about the busiest and most cosmopolitan port in the world, rivaled only by Alexandria in Egypt. The paved streets, temples, pagodas, mosques, markets and Song dynasty city walls -- which can still be seen today are all examples of the mass infrastructure built partly with foreign direct investment (FDI).


Credit: Stuart Heaver

Quanzhou's Maritime Silk Road Museum contains ample evidence of the city's rich multicultural past.


By contrast, the 21th century BRI focuses on infrastructure projects outside China financed by Chinese banks and often utilizing Chinese materials and Chinese labor. There is an ongoing debate about the debt sustainability of some BRI projects and whether the terms and conditions attached to Chinese loan financing are a backhanded means of securing geopolitical leverage.

“Chinese projects are less open to local and international participation,” says Hillman. The CSIS also claims that out of all contractors participating in Chinese-funded projects within its Reconnecting Asia database, 89 percent are Chinese.

Of course, FDI into China is increasing, too. According to the 2018 World Investment Report published by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), China was ranked the world's second-largest FDI recipient after the United States, but the inward investment is asymmetric. Most of it is from the larger economies that are peripheral or non-players in BRI.

In 2017, apart from Hong Kong, major investors in China were Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom and Denmark. Compared to its historic predecessor, BRI does not appear to be a truly bi-lateral exchange.

The influence of the silk routes was multi-dimensional and extended beyond commerce. The back and forth changed the social and cultural complexion of coastal China and left traces that are still evident in its other principal Chinese ports, including Guangzhou, Nanking and Ningbo: Islamic mosques, Buddhist art, Confucian temples, Islamic graveyards, Middle Eastern cuisine and ancient shipyards.

“China gained financially and culturally from the maritime silk road and it helped develop a number of cities along the China coast,” said Richard Wesley, Director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, at the opening of its new maritime silk road exhibition.

People were the agents of these exchanges, and in the 13th century, Quanzhou boasted an international community of some 100,000 people which included Persians, Sri Lankans, Europeans, Omanis and Siamese. By comparison, the 2010 census put the total number of expatriates currently living in the whole of China at just 600,000.

One of the more glaring differences between the ancient maritime silk road and its modern equivalent is China’s insistence on exporting its labor along with its capital. As of the end of July, China had dispatched almost a million workers overseas, according to data from its Ministry of Commerce, most of whom are engaged in working for Chinese state-owned companies building the infrastructure projects that are the BRI’s hallmark.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Chinese workers construct the new Costa Rican national stadium in San Jose November 24, 2009. The stadium costing US$83 million dollars is donated by the Chinese government after establishing diplomatic relations with Costa Rica in June 2007 – the fact that Chinese worked were imported to build it is typical of a model that continues today in many Belt and Road projects.

Seafarers often inter-married and settled overseas – but never on such a drastic scale. The BRI labor export model has attracted criticism around the world from host countries smarting from the lack of employment opportunities afforded to their domestic workforce.

Even when it comes to trade, historical comparisons reveal a disconnect between the China poses as a savior of the existing global order, most recently cozying up to the European Union to defend the existing order against U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionist “America First” agenda. However, the original maritime silk road was not state led and had no political agenda.

It was spurred by Arab traders sailing to ports in Fujian province from the 9th century and prompting the authorities in Quanzhou to establish a shibosi (official customs house) in 1087, as documented in the Quanzhou Maritime Museum. The maritime silk road was pioneered by entrepreneurial merchants, not government bureaucrats, and it was as much Islamic as it was Chinese.

The Qingjing Mosque, also known as the Ashab Mosque located on Tumen Street in Quanzhou, can trace its roots back to 1009 A.D. and has maritime inscriptions carved into its stone cornices in Arabic. In Guangzhou, which displaced Quanzhou as the most vital Chinese port on the maritime silk road from the 15th century onwards, the Huaisheng Mosque (also known as the Lighthouse Mosque and the Great Mosque of Canton) is even older.


There are still more troubling oppositions between old and new that threaten to undermine the BRI project entirely, and that is the ongoing persecution and arbitrary detention of Muslims in Xinjiang Province.


Credit: AP / TNG

A monitor of a computer at an inspection point shows many faces in Kashgarin in Xinjiang on June 28, 2018. The scene marked the ninth anniversary of the bloody riots in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi on July 5, 2018, and is a vivid contrast to the religious and cultural tolerance evident in the golden age of the maritime silk road.

This repressive regime is in stark contrast to the religious tolerance enjoyed in Guangzhou and Quanzhou during the golden age of the maritime silk road, and has the potential to disrupt the relationships with Central Asian and Arab nations that are vital to the BRI's success.

“For China, good relations with Islamic countries are critical for the successful implementation of the ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative,” writes Fuquan Li of the Northwest University, Xi’an, in the Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

At present, Islamic governments have largely ignored the mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang. However, in August, Kazakhstan, facing growing public anger, allowed a Chinese national and ethnic Kazakh immigrant to stay in the country after she shared details of her experience in a Xinjiang internment camp – a situation which may be bound to repeat itself.

Moreover, one Islamic leader, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, has recently cancelled three major BRI infrastructure projects and expressed his discomfort about the re-branding of the maritime silk road, which once included Malaysian Malacca, as a purely Chinese phenomenon.

Yet China still relies on the cultural imagery of the old silk road, a decision which may continue to bring scrutiny should the new maritime silk road not involve the open exchange of products and ideas.

Frances’s President Emmanuel Macron has certainly noticed the discrepancy, and pointedly mentioned it during his visit to Beijing in January this year: “The ancient Silk Roads were never only Chinese,” he said. “The new roads cannot only go one way.”

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Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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