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.
Years ago, I published becoming hong kong, razing baoan, preserving xin’an, an academic paper on urbanization as the ideology informing the construction of the Shenzhen SEZ. Part of that paper included an analysis of Nanshan District’s decision to create a walking museum at Nantou, the County Seat of Xin’an from the Ming Dynasty until the CCP moved it to Caiwuwei, in Shenzhen Market. The museum didn’t survive into 1998 and Nantou settled back into urban village life – migrant workers renting space in handshake buildings, small scale manufacturing taking place both at home and in low tech factories, and bustling streets of vendors, shops, and open air markets.
Yesterday, I walked Nantou and discovered Universiade traces. The roads that connected the buildings in the walking museum had been paved with grey bricks and the buildings abutting those streets (well all two of them) had been given “traditional” facelifts – a faux grey brick facade and eves. Moreover, the museum buildings have been reopened to the public! So the universiade upgrade of Nantou included Shenzhen’s ongoing push to open small museums in the urban villages.
Here’s the rub: Houses and streets beyond the scope of the museum remain as they were. Also, the gate god, which used to inhabit the old Ming gate to the city has been removed. All that remains of that living tradition are two holes on either side of the gate, where incense has been stuffed in. And yes, that’s an upgraded pedestrian overpass at the entrance to what remains of the walled city. Impressions of revamped and still unvamped Nantou, below.