Common Destiny, a movie-documentary about the modern Silk Road, tells the story of lives transformed by dreams realised through persistence and the enabling power of infrastructure development. In many ways the movie presents the narrative of China’s materialist theory of development, led by and underpinned by infrastructure, a contrast to Western countries’ current focus on development aid.
Released in China shortly before the October National Day Holidays, the documentary was relatively high budget – in excess of 50 million RMB, according to producer Liang Yan – received some international attention at the Venice Film Festival, but was low audience, garnering only a million RMB in box office sales during its five days of screening in September, according to RFI.
The movie is a picaresque medley of five stories from across Eurasia and Africa. The stories are all real, recreated by amateur actors, in some cases the real life protagonists themselves.
The prominent presence of infrastructure through the movie reflects and participates in the creation of the “promises of infrastructure” that anthropologist Brian Larkin writes about in his key essay on the social meaning of infrastructure. In that essay, Larkin posits that infrastructure projects “are made up of desire as much as concrete or steel”. He also argues that, because they are the sites of such fluid and diverse forces as personal and societal desires and ambitions, infrastructure is “always metaphor.” If that is the case, Common Destiny is, as a film director’s response to the Belt and Road, playing an active role in constructing that metaphor.
Five journeys, one destiny
Common Destiny begins in Kenya, with what has, after being retold on a number of WeChat channels, perhaps become the most iconic of the five stories. Grace is a child in rural Kenya whose school lacks an art teacher. Their weekly scheduled art class has been replaced by an English language class, to the frustration of the students. One day whilst stacking shelves in her mother’s village shop, Grace comes across a promotional flyer for a children’s art school in Nairobi tucked away in one of the delivery boxes. It triggers an idea – to go to Nairobi, find this school and ask the teacher to come to her village to teach at the school. But how to get to Nairobi? Well, there is a new high speed train line built by a Chinese company. Grace saves up money for the train ticket and arrives at the school in Nairobi to ask the teacher to come to their village school. The teacher is sceptical, saying he cannot give up his job in the city just to teach at a rural school. No worries, says Grace, there is a high speed train, you can come just one day a week. Infrastructure has compressed space and made the impossible possible, made dreams, with a dose of dogged persistence from Grace, a reality.
The other stories focus on the road trip of Yangyang, a young Chinese artist and writer, and her father’s friend Wu Yinghua, a truck driver and secret photographer, from Guangzhou to Almaty, Kazakhstan; a journey of (re)discovery for Santos, a Spanish traditional paper maker, to a paper making village in Jiangxi province; the persistence of Ghayda, a young Jordanian woman, in finding a job against the headwinds of patriarchal tradition dictating a housewife future (after nearly 20 failed attempts she finds a job in what seems to be a Chinese company); and the dream of a young Uyghur boy Yusuf Jiang in Kashgar to win a basketball scholarship, again against the headwinds of traditional expectations.
A full deck of positive stories then. At the screening, producer Liang Yan made a point of stressing that the film is not backed by government, echoing comments made to The Economist. Beijing Silk Road Media Group, the production company behind the movie, do explicitly state one of their missions as to “enthusiastically respond to the country’s Belt and Road strategy,” however (written in 2015, when the term “strategy” was in use to describe what is now termed “initiative”). Whether or not the film has direct financial or other backing from government then, it seems likely that it set out with an intention to portray a favourable image of Belt and Road. Of course, if it did not, it would hardly get past Beijing’s movie censors anyway.
Regardless of where the money comes from and the propagandistic undertones of the movie, we can still take it seriously as a cultural response to and participation in the Belt and Road. With Belt and Road a dominant topic in Chinese mainstream (especially state) media, it was only be a matter of time before Chinese artists, literary writers or, in this case, film directors turned their attention to the initiative to offer their interpretations of it. Their interpretations are part of the creation of meaning and of the metaphor of the Belt and Road.
Personal Dreams + Infrastructure = A positive future
This is the equation that formulates the main theme of the movie. Grace’s story is the most prominent and obvious example. Infrastructure is also central to the story of Yangyang and Wu Yinghua whose journey of finding themselves – Yangyang finding her creative drive and Wu finding the confidence to become a semi-professional photographer – is written out in allegorical style as they journey across the now-tarmaced silk roads of China from Guangzhou to Xinjiang and on to Kazakhstan. Elements of that story are almost pointedly self reflective of the centrality of infrastructure to the movie. While Yangyang photographs local minority villagers going about their farming business, Wu turns his camera lens to mega-bridge projects spanning the gorges of south west China, lingering on their powerful, transformational forms.
Infrastructure features prominently throughout the movie, the camera sometimes panning slowly across infrastructure panormas. At times it even seems to perform the functions of narrative and plot device, both a scenic backdrop and a character in itself. It would be easy to mock this as a filmic representation of the financially and techno-charged dreams of state-owned enterprises and local governments, but there is, of course, an element of truth to the equation. The rapid development of infrastructure has enabled incredible things to happen in China over the last three decades and perhaps it is only natural that a creative response to the Belt and Road from Chinese film directors would view the initiative through this lens.
In this way, Common Destiny reflects China’s materialist concept of development, which puts infrastructure front and center in the process of development. Build and economic activity will follow, it proposes, a gamble that has met with both successes and failures within China.
The insistence to put infrastructure front and center in its overseas development agenda differs significantly to the shifting focus of Western development aid in the past few decades, which, according to scholars such as Debra Brautigam, has gradually moved away from earlier emphasis on infrastructure and industry. Over the years, Western donors have elevated concepts of basic human needs, “structural adjustment”, governance and democracy in the place of handing out “hardwares” to recipient countries. While infrastructure is not totally excluded from this picture, current Western theories of international development tends to place emphasis on the individual as the unit that, once empowered, will bring about economic progress. In the Marxian language China’s state planners should be familiar with, the Western theory of development proposes to tinker with the superstructure, while China proposes to remake the base.
Crazy about Infrastructure
Perhaps it is also worth pointing out here that, though an obsession with mega infrastructure projects — bigger, taller, longer, faster — might seem somewhat crude to 21st Western sensibilities, the West too had its period of rapid infrastructure development and a similar fetishisation of the structures — New York’s tallest skyscrapers, 19th century England’s gorge-spanning Clifton Suspension Bridge. Since then, however, the role of infrastructure has largely been backgrounded in the West, while in Chinese discourse of both domestic and international development it is clearly very much foregrounded.
Indeed, as the developed world grapples with post-industrial issues, China is very much embracing and celebrating its industrial might that has finally reached a level comparable with established manufacturing powerhouses like Germany and Japan. The sentiment is best manifested by the online term “infrastructure maniac” or “infrastructure devil” (基建狂魔), coined by netizens to refer to their motherland. Under a 2016 question on Zhihu.com (China’s Quora) “Why do people refer to China as an infrastructure-maniac?”, there are more than 1000 answers, many of which are first-person accounts by engineers of impressive infrastructure projects they worked on — bridges built in remote mountainous areas, highways connecting seemingly impossible destinations, and electricity grids providing millions with access to power in a matter of years. In one of the answers, the user simply posted a few pictures and typed “this says it all.” They were pictures of kids playing with mock excavators in an amusement park.
The industrialist national psyche has found its way into people’s imagination about China’s involvement overseas. Common Destiny is a manifestation of that development philosophy.
The omitted variables
In the introduction to the edited volume The Promise of Infrastructure, Hannah Appel, Nikhil Anand and Akhil Gupta write “new infrastructures are promises made in the present about our future.”
In Common Destiny, the “dreams + infrastructure = development” equation works seamlessly. The question this raises, and one which brings us closer to reality, is what happens when the equation goes wrong? In reality, there are many more variables to that equation — levels of corruption, effectiveness of engagement with local communities, the attainment of a “social license”, the conduct of environmental impact assessments, and more — what in the parlance of investors would be categorised as “risk”.
A failure to take into account the many variables which can make that bright future a reality leads to a breaking of those promises and a betrayal of aspirations, a major reason why infrastructure projects — from the Lamu coal power plant in Kenya to the hydro dams of Indonesia to the Yunnan-Laos high speed rail — are so frequently controversial and politically charged. Common Destiny omits these elements and their consequences from its equation.
But through its storytelling, Common Destiny also (maybe unintentionally) acknowledges a fundamental truth to human development. No matter what you end up building — a bridge, a highway, a power grid — infrastructure is always a means to an end, not an end in itself. Grace’s dream is for her school to have an art teacher. Ghayda, the young Jordanian woman, is trying to break away from suppressing traditions. These are human pursuits that speak to desires and aspirations higher than material satisfaction. Steel and concrete may assist such pursuits, but can never replace or suppress them.
Ironically, non-materialistic values, such as the integrity of one’s cultural heritage or the love for nature, are often brushed aside as irrational or outright anti-development by infrastructure constructors and their interest groups when they get in the way of a project. In that sense, Common Destiny may have provided a window for viewers to reflect on what development is really about — the needs and desires, material and non-material, of communities around the world.
Writing the image of Belt and Road
“Infrastructures are always fantastic as well as technical objects. They are made up of desire as much as concrete or steel,” writes Brian Larkin in his essay on the anthropology of infrastructure. It is this combination of infrastructure as physical, technical object and a location of wishes and desires that Common Destiny tries to spell out, though limiting itself only to positive examples.
As sites of dreams and desires, government-to-people promises and potential abuses, the meaning of both individual infrastructure projects and a mega infrastructure project like Belt and Road as a whole is a process of creation and discourse. That discourse will include a plurality of voices from across the Belt and Road, weighing up such issues as whether or not promises of a better future have been kept or broken.
Common Destiny contributes its voice to the construction of the narrative of infrastructure. But, as in traditional Chinese paintings where blank means as much as strokes, it is in the omissions to the movie’s central equation that we can see the real challenges and controversies facing China’s infrastructure projects overseas.