first look at the belt and road

Its difficult when looking at a map of the proposed Belt and Road and not associate the maritime road with British colonialism, albeit in reverse and more than a century after the fact. But that’s what’s so distressing. When the British parliament dissolved the East India Company (EIC), it did not dismantle the systems of unjust and unjustifiable extraction that EIC had put in place over roughly four centuries of occupation, exploitation, and forced participation in the system. Instead, independence movements saw the rise of local elites who were determined to benefit from the system, justifying their profits with respect to local values and structures of oppression. In other words, it was never just the Brits, but also the Brits and their local running dogs (to use Mao Zedong’s felicitous phrase) and even after Independence, the dogs kept yapping, securing military support from the US and elsewhere (for the distressing tale of the fate of the Third World as a revolutionary ideal, check out The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad).

The problem, of course, was that the profitability of the British system depended on opium; where would surplus profits (to fund industrialization, for example) come from without monopoly, forced labor, and addiction? Certainly, once India regained control of the Bihar plantations and China retook its ports, both countries were faced with the problem of “surpassing England and catching up with the United States” in the absence of captive markets and a drug monopoly to finance their industrial revolutions. And this may be why Europeans and US Americans fear the Belt and Road: if you’re not a running dog with Chinese characteristics, just what are your options in the new world dis/order (and yes, I’m looking at you, midwestern farmer)?


Map from an early analysis of Belt and Road, eurasia review.

The British East India Company’s (EIC) opium monopoly system was established in 1799 and it continued with minimal changes until 1947, when India gained its independence. Bare bones of the monopoly system: Opium produced in Benares and Bihar was processed in Patna, Bihar and sold in Calcutta to be sold in  China. By 1825, the money needed to buy tea for cold and dismal English afternoons was raised through the illegal opium trade. Here’s the thing: even after the EIC’s lost its monopoly to sell opium, the British government maintained monopolistic control over the production of opium because it was just to profitable to do the right thing. (For the sordid tale of how sugar for that tea was produced on slave plantations in the Caribbean check out Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz.) Today, copies of pictures of the Patna warehouses are displayed in the opium house in the Nantou Old City walking museum.


The opium warehouses at Patna, Bihar were built by the British East India Company but maintained by the British government even after “John Company” was dissolved in order to promote “Free Trade.” (And yes, it’s no accident that Bihar is now one of the poorest States in India. But that’s a rant for another post.)


Visiting the Nantou walking museum with guests from the India China Institute and the Centre for Policy Research, 2016. This visit occurred before the upgrades for the 2017 edition of the Shenzhen Biennale, and yes at the time the pictures were just tacked onto crumbling walls–hee!

The continuation of the illegal opium trade by other means in the post EIC British Empire not only makes salient just how profitable and unsavory colonialism was, but also suggests why governments would turn a blind eye to its everyday horrors and tragedies,  explaining away the suffering caused by the production and distribution of opium in terms of the moral weakness of its consumers. This is important; a Monopoly on the production of opium predicated Free Trade in the same, even as the so-called moral depravity of Chinese people allowed Brits and their Chinese allies to shrug their shoulders and blame the addicts.

We know, for example, that E. J. Eitel (and I am still slogging through Europe in Asia) believed that dissolving EIC was a good thing because it allowed for Free Trade among Brits (like Jardine) in Canton. Eitel’s position was wrapped up in imperial ideology and the racist belief of European superiority. It was also drew on classic liberalism: Eitel believed that equality of economic opportunity predicated democracy, even as his understanding of who should be granted said opportunities–economic and political–was limited to white, property-owning men (who became property owners through inheritance or colonial sojourns).

To the extent that liberalism recognized human agency through property ownership, but did not entail dismantling systemic inequalities, it failed provide a viable critique of colonialism because it allowed for a powerful minority to claim rights over the system in the name of a national cause. You can see where this is going. Nationalization of industries throughout the world (including the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and eventually the People’s Republic of China) was a strategy to take control of the colonial system without completely dismantling it, but rather tinkering with it in order to redeploy profits to achieve domestic goals, rather than to profit a foreign government.


Li Hongzhang between a rock and a hard place. On his left, Lord Salisbury, UK Prime Minister (25 Jun 1895 – 11 Jul 1902) and on his right, Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor General of India (6 Jan 1899 – 18 Nov 1905).


Soldiers of the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900, left-to-right: Britain, United States, Australia, British India, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Japan. These were the signatories to the Boxer Protocol, an alliance to buttress the Qing Dynasty in order to maintain and extend the extra-territorial rights of foreign powers in China.

In light of the Belt and Road, it is useful to think of China Merchants as a transitional form of national enterprise, bridging the Late Qing to the People’s Republic of China via a redeployment of colonial structures.

Li Hongzhang established China Merchants in 1872, a mere two years before “John Company” met its demise in 1874. Like the early EIC, China Merchants aimed to contribute to national goals through a private-public alliance that took advantage of international trade in the South China Sea and along the Chinese coast. Also like EIC, China Merchants negotiated international treaties on behalf of country. Indeed, on September 7, 1901, for example, Li Hongzhang signed what is considered one of the most humiliating treaties in Chinese history, the Boxer Protocol on behalf of the Qing. In other words, China Merchants was a nationalist symptom of colonialism.

Thus, unlike the EIC–and this is a difference that makes a difference–China Merchants did not start out as a bunch of pirates who used military force to secure goods and then markets, but rather began as an economic means of transforming an untenable political situation. In other words, China Merchants aimed to use nationalized international trade in order to overcome colonial capitalism, redirecting the world system profits back to Chinese coffers. This mission became more explicit on February 1, 1951, when the Central Government reorganized the Shanghai Head Office of China Merchants into the People’s Navigation Company and merged with the General Navigation Office under the Ministry of Communications.

Now what’s interesting here is that “Shen Kong” remains implicit in the model with the potential to redirect colonial structures to other ends. In 1979, China Merchants Hong Kong was redeployed on the Nantou Peninsula via the Shekou Industrial Zone. Most recently, China Merchants has been exporting the “Shekou model” along the Belt and Road, making it the economic arm of China’s expansion. How did this happen?

In 1957, Zhou Enlai announced the decision to keep Hong Kong in British hands “until the time was right to take it back.” In practice this meant that China Merchants Hong Kong remained open, providing hard currency for the newly established People’s Republic of China. In turn, these profits could be used to strengthen the Chinese government within the growing world system. Now here’s the thing: this argument would resurface in 1978, when Yuan Geng and the Ministry of Transportation would deploy them in order to justify the establishment of the Shekou Industrial Zone. Roughly thirty-five years later, the “Shekou Model” would become one of the primary exports of China Merchants, which is building many of the ports on the Belt and Road.

There are two areas of contention, which highlight how neo-colonialism with Chinese characteristics is being built. First is the re-militarization of the South China Sea through land reclamation. Second is the re-occupation of the Indian Ocean.

In a nutshell, China’s claims are based on United Nations Convention for Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which started out as a way for Europeans and Americans to continue to claim territory that was near their military ports despite the fact that their former colonies had achieved independence. Today, this law  is now being redeployed by China to assert its growing hegemony. Anyway, below is a conceptual model of how UNCLOS functions. Of note, there is a giant teacup (called “green”) in the middle of the model, which usefully reminds us that all this was a result of tea trade deficits.


The Chinese teacup in the middle of the model illustrates the confusion that many westerners seem to have about the origins of China’s neo-colonialism. All this occupation and re-occupation has its roots in the British East India Company’s brutal policies on the subcontinent and desire for a commodity that the Chinese would trade. That said, it is also clear that this history never goes away, but returns in uncanny forms. Of note in this image? The teabag (called “green”). A teabag? Seriously? No Chinese voluntarily drinks tea made from dried out leaves in a bag unless they’re in a cheap hotel.

disputed islands

Meanwhile in the India Ocean, one of China Merchants’ earliest investments was in Djibouti, which is strategically located on the northeastern coast of Africa, which is also the northwestern coast of the Indian Ocean.  However, that initial investment has grown into Africa’s largest free trade zone, the  Touchroad Djibouti Special Economic Zone, which (if the website is to be believed) will be the economic hub of China’s African ventures. American analysts fears its military potential, while India worries about hegemony in the Indian Ocean.


For a sense of Djibouti’s strategic importance, compare this map with the Belt and Road above.

djibouti signing

Silk Road station providers, a jointly venture by China Merchants Group and Izp Group, signed agreement with Djibouti FTA, 2016. Izp Group is a new kind of Chinese multinational that “makes life smart” through big data, Chinese venture capital, and international restructuring.

This deep (if brief) timeline of the Belt and Road tracks the histories that have made Shen Kong simultaneously post-colonial and neo-colonial. Inquiring minds wonder: what kind of “geographic morality” provides the deep structure the maritime Road despite and against China Merchants’ revolutionary credentials?  Today I’m thinking that Shen Kong, this ongoing reworking of the meaning of colonialism from the perspective of the former Sino-British border embodies the liberal ideology of the initiative, even as China builds naval bases throughout the South China Sea.

note: In a series of “postcards” , I read within and against the emergence of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. I am not so much interested in providing a comprehensive history of the SEZ as I am in tracking Shen Kong, a form of post-Mao post-coloniality that is one of the close roots of the Belt and Road initiative. As I read, I note associations that link contemporary Shenzhen and early colonial Hong Kong. In those flashes of awareness, the norms and forms of contemporary global restructuring make uncanny and distressing sense. More on “John Company” in a future post!

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