Dreams and Infrastructure – Common Destiny, the first Belt and Road movie

A BRI-themed documentary movie manifests China’s infrastructure-centric concept of development

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.

Common Destiny
The movie poster for Common Destiny

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 Their weekly scheduled art class has been replaced by an English language class, to the frustration of the students.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.

Infrastructure-maniac

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.

Rising China in the eyes of its closest neighbors

What a collection of ethnographic studies about “neighboring China” can tell us about the Belt and Road

by Tom Baxter

At over 22,000 km, China has the world’s longest land border. Lined up along that border are a total of 14 countries, countless local communities and long histories of interaction and isolation, trade and suspicion. The Art of Neighbouring: Making Relations Across China’s Borders (pdf available for download here) is a selection of essays that look at the diverse experiences of living on China’s border from the perspectives of the communities who live with its presence on a daily basis.

From Laos to Nepal, to Mongolia and Vietnam, the regions along China’s long border are too often seen as peripheral, on both sides — the northern highlands of Laos and Vietnam border China’s mountainous Yunnan province, Nepal neighbors the Tibetan plateau. But as China’s economic, political and social presence and engagement across the Asian continent expands, not least via the official encouragement of China’s “going out” policy and the more recent Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the experiences of these border regions are becoming increasingly important in understanding China’s role across the continent. At the same time, it is the communities on both sides of the border who often feel the most direct impacts of the increased interaction being encouraged by Beijing.

In attempting to understand and assess the impact and the on-the-ground reality of the BRI, this year celebrating its sixth birthday, it is important that we acknowledge those communities’ experiences and look at, in the words of the collection’s editors, Martin Saxer and Juan Zhang, the “smaller scale processes of exchange”, which are undergoing rapid change. Through a series of in depth, mostly ethnographic case studies, The Art of Neighbouring is a step in that direction.

The case studies in the book all date from before 2012. That is, from before the Belt and Road Initiative was announced in October 2013. Nonetheless, they reflect the impacts of a trend of China’s increasing presence outside its own borders which holds true both before and after Xi Jinping’s BRI speech in October 2013. Each chapter of the book focuses on a case study from a total of eight of China’s neighboring countries. Running through those geographically disparate case studies are couple of major themes which deserve highlighting.

art of neighboring

Reimagining histories

In a number of the book’s case studies the rapidly increasing interconnectivity with China is not a new phenomenon, but rather a revival of a historical norm. This is particularly evident in the case of Martin Saxer’s ethnographic study in northern Nepal where the trading relationships across a previously porous border was the basis of existence for borderland communities. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s that the border between China and Nepal became strictly demarcated and regulated. Where trade had once occurred wherever there was a passable valley, it now became limited to just six official border crossings. Before that, highland communities sought their existence as intermediary traders between the arid and harsh Tibetan plateau and the fertile lowlands of Nepal and India. Since the 1970s China’s increasing wealth and the renewed connectivity brought by new roads which link the borderlands to China much more directly and tightly than to Kathmandu revitalized this centuries old norm.

Along with these physically changing realities, local communities have also reimagined their place in the history of China-Nepal relations and understand their current occupations as following in the footsteps of their ancestors as borderland trading communities. “The new roads are primarily conceived of as ways back to what is remembered as prosperous trans-Himalayan exchange,” Saxer writes. In other words, in the eyes of local communities, a rising and more internationally present China is not so much a disruption of the world order, but is facilitating a return to normality after a comparatively brief interlude.

A case study of traders in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan demonstrates a similar historical processes of a border region “under fuzzy sovereign rule” becoming closed borders during the Cold War to re-opening in the last thirty to forty years. Henryk Alff’s study of the traders reveals that they often attempted to rekindle (perceived) historical ethnic allegiances across borders with, for example, Hui Muslims in China. One Dungan trader from Kyrgyzstan states, “some of us had remote kinship ties with places in China where our ancestors originally came from.” In the post-Soviet and rising China period, traders have been able to take advantage of these perceived cross-border common identities to ease deals and partnership. It is another example of regional history re-imagined, which in turn informs how local people comprehend China’s growing presence and interconnectivity on the continent.

Nepal2
A truck preparing to enter into China at Nepal’s border to Tibet in Rasuwagadhi, image by: Nabin Baral

China as threat / China as opportunity

Which leads on to the second major theme in the book’s case studies. Informed by local history and present day circumstances, communities all along China’s border are divided in their perceptions of China as a threat or an opportunity.

In Saxer’s Nepal case study he provides an example of an embracing attitude towards China’s presence. Moreover, it is a welcoming coming from local communities and a bottom-up approach, rather than via the top-down government initiatives involving state owned companies, banks and political MOUs through which we normally make sense of China’s presence abroad.

In 2010 a former member of Parliament and local to the northern border region of Humla pulled together local business people to form a Road Construction Committee which lobbied Kathmandu to provide funding to build a road through the lesser used Limi valley to China. They were successful and, after securing funding from Kathmandu, also managed to reach agreement with China to temporarily open the border through the valley for sales of diesel for the construction equipment. By the end of the year the first section of the road was complete, and a Chinese delegation even came to attend the inauguration ceremony.

In another example, a study conducted between 2009 and 2012 of Myanmar Muslim communities residing in Ruili in China’s Yunnan province by Renaud Egreteau reveals that to these communities China is seen as a refuge and a sanctuary compared to the situation they face at home. One of his Ruili-dwelling Myanmar interviewees even says “it’s paradise here!”

In contrast, the histories of Cold War suspicion, tension and conflict along China’s Russian and Vietnamese borders do not wash away overnight. Two case studies of these borderlands show that a perception of China as a threat persists through to this day. A Vietnamese border trader interviewed by Juan Zhang in her study of the Lao Cai – Hekou border crossing says, “even now the Chinese are not much better than before…One can never be too careful.”

Within countries there are of course also divided perspectives on China as threat or opportunity. These as yet unsettled perspectives played out in a number of high profile elections in 2018 in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. 2019 is likely to see more of this tension as more politicians, banks, constituents and other interest groups push back on some of the excesses of Chinese projects and work towards establishing national level strategies on how to interact (or how not to interact) with China and the Belt and Road. Elections in India and, in particular, Indonesia this year could display snapshots of this trend.

What can we learn?

The voices and the world views of communities experiencing and engaging in China’s increasing global presence are an important part of the Belt and Road “story” and the rapidly changing on-the-ground reality across Asia. For one, they represent world views that are often overlooked in mainstream coverage of China’s influence abroad and the Belt and Road. While media often seek comment from local communities on their attitudes toward a specific project, it is rare to hear their take on the larger scale shifting reality or on such big questions as whether China is primarily conceived of as a threat or as an opportunity. As narratives on BRI become more and more polarized between the Beijing story and the Washington story or the Brussels story, it is important not to forget the voices of those who are far more directly impacted by the, in some places, transformational, change BRI is bringing.

But these local community voices are not just “color” for media stories. They are also agents in and of themselves. Saxer’s fascinating case study of a local community proactively campaigning for infrastructure connectivity with China is a case in point. The agency of these local communities is also being played out at very local levels, in national elections and in the establishing of recipient country policies and strategies toward the Belt and Road. In a recent article on Euromoney, Djiboutian minister of finance, Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, stated “we have problems with the current Belt and Road narrative”. His voice may represent that of a recipient country political elite, rather than the grassroots voices explored in The Art of Neighbouring, but it points to the same problem — the current narrative of the Belt and Road too often overlooks the diversity of agency playing out in its growth and development.

The Art of Neighbouring points a way towards a deeper and more complex understanding of China’s growing presence and engagement on the Asian continent and of the dynamics playing out along the Belt and Road. For these reasons it is useful for all of us in the emerging “Belt and Road watcher” community. Even better will be more recent ethnographic studies of local communities’ perspectives on China since the announcement of the Belt and Road in 2013. This watcher, for one, is waiting keenly for that.