2018 - Ongoing
In the barely inhabited steppes of Asia, China is building an international shipping hub and free trade zone that will connect its coastal factories with the global economy. The area, near the Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility lies 1,550 miles from any sea or ocean on the planet and is home to some of the last surviving pastoral nomads in Central Asia.
Just across the border from the Pole, in Kazakhstan, a central hub is growing around village called Khorgos. Khorgos has spent most of its existence on the obscure periphery of international affairs, but it has become an integral part of the initiative known informally as the new Silk Road, a China-led effort to build a vast cephalopodic network of highways, railroads and overseas shipping routes, supported by hundreds of new plants, pipelines and company towns in dozens of countries.
Ultimately, the Belt and Road Initiative, or B.R.I., as the project is more formally known, will link China’s coastal factories and rising consumer class with Central, Southeast and South Asia; with the Gulf States and the Middle East; with Africa; and with Russia and all of Europe, all by way of a lattice of land and sea routes whose collective ambition boggles the mind.
Critics have described the B.R.I. as a new kind of colonialism or even part of a strategy of ‘‘debt-trap diplomacy,’’ seducing cash-poor countries with infrastructure projects that are unlikely to generate enough revenue to cover the interest on the loans that funded them. And the people along China’s border are especially susceptible to these developments and new policies. In recent years, the Chinese government has erected the most advanced police state in the world in Xinjiang, targeting the region’s Turkic Muslims, especially its Uighur ethnic group, who make up about half the region’s population. Will the B.R.I. benefit the people living in its path, or will it upend their way of life and leave them with little in return?