China’s maritime Silk Road plan starts a wave of bandwagon jumping at home
Cities and authorities try to link themselves with the seafaring side of Beijing’s massive trade and infrastructure scheme
China’s maritime Silk Road strategy of linking the country to Africa and Europe via the South China Sea and Indian Ocean may be raising suspicion offshore but local Chinese authorities are jumping on the bandwagon.
In Fuzhou, Fujian province, a maritime Silk Road tourism expo opened for the third consecutive year last month. In Shanghai, a research centre for the sea route – the “road” in the formal name for the trade and infrastructure plan, the “Belt and Road Initiative” – was founded last year. And in Nanjing, authorities are showcasing an exhibition of chinaware along the trade route and are eager to apply for World Heritage status for the maritime Silk Road.
In Zhuhai, at the southern end of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province, a group of Chinese officials, scholars and company executives gathered last week to explore the business and cultural aspects of the route that dates back to the days of Marco Polo and now bears China’s new global ambitions under President Xi Jinping.
At the forum organised by the Guangdong provincial news office, the Zhuhai municipal government and China Economic Information Service, a business intelligence unit run by the official Xinhua news agency, Chinese delegates discussed how to improve China’s image along the route to help mainland companies, especially those in Guangdong, venture abroad. The province had a US$200 billion trade turnover with countries on the belt and road network last year, or a fifth of China’s national total, according to a report released at the forum.
While the forum is more of a big brainstorming session rather than a conference for working out specific plans, it reflected a frenzy among local Chinese authorities, companies and institutions to translate China’s biggest economic diplomacy push into workable projects to serve the country’s national interests.
At the forum, He Yafei, a former deputy foreign minister, said Guangdong should use its overseas Chinese network to play a big role in “promoting Chinese culture and telling the China story well”.
The overseas Chinese community, many members of whom have ties with Guangdong, could play an important role in helping to cut “political, financial and security” risks for Chinese projects overseas, He said.
Jin Canrong, an international relations professor at Renmin University, said the maritime Silk Road programme would be “China’s special contribution to the world” as it could export its industrial facilities to help development along the way.
In China’s own Belt and Road Initiative blueprint, the maritime Silk Road winds through the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, and the starting point of the route is defined broadly as China’s coastal areas – from Shanghai to Shenzhen.
The grand plan is to encourage local authorities to create their own pet projects under the umbrella.
Guangdong aims to make itself a gateway for exporting traditional Chinese medicine to countries on the belt and toad map, in accord with Beijing’s five-year plan issued in January. By 2020, the government plans to build 30 overseas centres for traditional Chinese medicine.
Guangzhou Pharmaceutical, one of China’s largest medicine manufacturers and best known for its herbal tea Wanglaoji, plans to establish 56 herbal tea museums around the world to promote traditional Chinese medicine. At home, it launched a “fashionable Chinese medicine” campaign to entice more young people to embrace Chinese medicine, deploying various marketing and packaging strategies, according to company chairman Li Chuyuan.
“The campaign is also part of ‘supply-side reform’ promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping,” Li said.
For the Chinese leadership, telling good belt and road stories has become as important as boosting trade. State media have echoed the call to establish their own think tanks to provide consultancies for Chinese governments and enterprises.
In 2013, Xinhua set up the Liaowang Institute to provide research on national policies.
Last year, it restructured China Economic Information Service, formerly an editorial department on economic news, partly to support the belt and road plan with a consulting service on China’s economy.
“Compared with academic researchers, media-turned-think tanks operate at a faster pace,” Liaowang Institute executive deputy president Xia Yu said. “I once handed in a 10,000-word research paper for a government agency within a day. Can any academic professors top that?”