Belt & Road in Global Perspective
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Commentary / Analysis, Technology & society, East Asia, Belt & Road

BRI as a set of technological platforms

Infrastructural turns

Declared in 2013, the People’s Republic of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR), was initially characterized as a development-cooperation programme emphasizing the construction and financing of traditional infrastructure for transportation and industry connecting Asia to Europe. Since then, the initiative has continued to expand in both scale and diversity, having been rebranded as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). BRI projects now include funding for education, urban real estate and city development, digital technologies and “smart city” expertise, and even space exploration. The shifting and expanding character of the BRI — its “useful fuzziness” —  has led to a flurry of scholarly interest in infrastructure as a category of analysis. An “infrastructural turn” in the literature — partly attributable to the PRC’s increasing drive towards large infrastructural projects — now extends over and across territorial and disciplinary borders.

It is not clear, however, that the concept of infrastructure sufficiently encapsulates the complexity of the links between physical infrastructure for the movement of goods and the variety of other important projects and initiatives pushed by the PRC during and before the BRI era. One problem may be that practitioners (engineers and engineering firms, construction developers, financing institutions, and governments) continue to use the concept of ‘infrastructure’ in a traditional sense, while the breadth of phenomena that the term is expected to cover in the case of BRI continues to expand. Similarly, while some BRI projects are concerned at least in part with trade in material goods, others seem directed towards a wide range of different ends. Given this, the infrastructural approach is perhaps no longer the best way to account for the various actors and processes that have taken and are taking place under the auspices of BRI, especially in its spatio-temporal margins.

The concept of the “infrastructural turn” is now awkwardly stretched to include even future strategic plans and designs drawn by the state and private entities.

In this way, the continued characterization of BRI by academics in “infrastructural” terms may actually serve to obscure some of the more critical — but less visible — features and initiatives that transcend both the geographical limits of the nation-state and the timeline of the BRI. Furthermore, the continued centrality of physical and built structures in practitioners’ definition of infrastructure draws attention away from cultural, social, and (techno-)political initiatives that connect networks across territories and scales but are excluded from mainstream discussion of the BRI.

The technological alternative

An alternative approach — one rooted in science and technology studies (STS) — might characterize BRI as (part of) a set of larger, often historically ongoing “socio-technical” projects and systems that facilitate and guide, but also dictate and constrain behaviours. Such an approach calls our attention to the ways in which physical and digital technologies are already imbricated with the social and political circumstances of their production and use. Additionally, this approach brings to bear an established toolkit for analyzing such technological systems — social construction of technology, co-production, (path)dependency, and the language of affordances. Of course, it is not possible to carry through such analyses in full here. In what follows, we outline two examples that we think are suggestive for indicating the insights that an STS approach to BRI might bring, potentially allowing us to better contextualize and historicize it.

OBOR beyond infrastructure

To suggest how we might think about BRI projects – including those located at the initiative’s margins – in similar technological or ‘socio-technical’ terms, we will examine two recent examples from the PRC, one focused on standards-making and the other on global finance.

Qualcomm: A precursor to the Huawei controversy

Since the 1990s, the PRC’s ambitions have included not only developing and building new technologies, but also developing the standards that allow them to function. Of particular note are standards for cellular telephony. In the 1990s, the Ministry of Information Industry (MII, now MIIT) began sponsoring research into the development of an indigenous 3G standard. Eventually known as TD-SCDMA, the Chinese standard was certified by the International Telecommunications Union in 2000. This standard aimed to compete for market share with (US-based) Qualcomm’s CDMA standard and the European W-CDMA.

In 2002, Qualcomm contested the Chinese standard, arguing that it was based on the US company’s own intellectual property. Specifically, Qualcomm asked Hong Kong-based Datang to pay royalties for using the TD-SCDMA standard. Datang declined to do so, arguing that it was based on Chinese-developed technology. Although Breznitz and Murphree have argued that TD-SCDMA ultimately held back the development of Chinese mobile networks, others have suggested that it represented a “near miss” that could have enabled Chinese cellular standards to propagate in Europe and elsewhere.

The battle was certainly not over. In 2013, the PRC’s National Development and Reform Commission raided the Shanghai and Beijing offices of Qualcomm. Qualcomm was a major supplier of cellphone chips to the Chinese market, as well as an owner of patents vital for the production of 3G and 4G wireless communication technologies.  By the end of 2013, Qualcomm was under investigation for monopolistic practices and eventually was forced to pay the Chinese government a fine of 975 million USD. In addition, however, Qualcomm had to agree to lower royalties on their patents for Chinese cell phone manufacturers.

But Beijing’s aim was not merely to give its own technology companies a leg-up. Rather, the Qualcomm fine was part of a broader strategy to foster indigenous capacity in both chip manufacturing and communications technology. As part of its deal with the NDRC, Qualcomm also committed 150 million USD to funding PRC start-ups in the area of mobile technologies and semiconductors. Recent battles over 5G networks should be understood in similar terms. The immediate benefit to Huawei (or other firms) of selling physical infrastructure for these networks is less important than the longer term significance of becoming the standard-setter in the realm of 5G.

Considering 3G or 5G networks as socio-technical systems allows us to show how the propagation of standards supports the PRC’s geopolitical and economic interests. But it also directs us towards thinking about the values embedded in these standards and systems — what kinds of alternative practices or political, social, and economic relations do they engender? Are they more “open” or “closed”? Centralized or decentralized? What sorts of firms stand to benefit from them? Will they support rural or urban interests? Answering such questions depends on analysis not only of the technology (or the technical specifications of standards), but also of the economic, legal, political, and social context within which they operate.


The PRC’s broader ambitions also include asserting increased dominance in global financial systems contra institutions based in Euro-American economies. For example, the launch of OBOR was closely linked to the 2013 proposal for the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Officially a multilateral project with over one hundred members, the AIIB was the brainchild of a Chinese think tank. Although the AIIB is involved in funding BRI infrastructure projects, especially within Central Asia, it was conceived explicitly to compete with the US-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Japanese-oriented Asian Development Bank (ADB), among others. In practice, these older institutions have represented a global financial system established by the Bretton-Woods agreement of 1944 and dominated by the 38 countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The Bretton-Woods meeting established a set of rules obligating member countries to follow particular monetary policies, regulating exchange rates, international trade, and cross-border investments. Although the Bretton-Woods regime broke down in the 1970s, its institutions have remained dominant and many practices remained consistent through the era of the “Washington Consensus.”

From the perspective of the PRC, its own marginal position within these existing financial institutions has not reflected its increased economic clout. Since the US and Japan have proved unwilling to offer China more power within those institutions, AIIB offers a way to sidestep them entirely, providing an alternative set of rules and practices, now much more closely aligned with Chinese economic and strategic objectives. These objectives include expanding the role of China’s RMB as a global (digital) currency and offering incentives for potential allies in the region. Xiao Ren argues that the aim of the AIIB is “not just an issue of helping to advance others’ development, or seeking discursive power internationally, the real world status comes from the capability to influence international thinking and future direction.” Dunford argues that China has evolved a distinct model of foreign aid that is now being mobilized through the BRI. This model involves less dependence and more “self-reliance” by recipient nations. Like the IMF, the AIIB’s charter also allows it to offer “technical services” — these may include training for governments, legal frameworks, economic policies to promote growth and stability such as exchange rate policies, monetary policies, data dissemination standards, debt and asset liability management, and fiscal policy. These “services” are no doubt also shaped by PRC interests, ideals, and values.

The AIIB is directed towards infrastructure, but it is not a traditional infrastructural project in and of itself. Rather, like Euro-American institutions emerging from Bretton Woods, its aims can and should be understood as far broader — developing and exporting sets of practices, structures, and rules (both formal and informal) for the conduct of international finance and governance. These — in turn — shape diplomacy and geopolitical strategies, facilitating (and affording) certain transactions and outcomes and constraining others.

The technological platform as a methodological alternative?

Neither TD-SCDMA nor the AIIB are “technologies” in the traditional sense, although certainly they are composed of technological elements. How, then, should we understand them?

We suggest here that they might be considered as a particular kind of socio-technical system that we label the “technological platform.” The idea of a technological platform has emerged from the specialized and obscure niche of back-office software development ecosystems, seeping into the world of consumer products. In the last twenty years, big tech companies have succeeded in crafting the technological platform as the “new cool” in consumer high-tech. They have done so by playing on the double meaning of the word “platform”: as a space for democratic power-sharing and as a system that supports artifacts, on which they depend for proper function, and without which they collapse.

Today the metaphor of the platform is ubiquitous, finding its way even into critical social science research. Nick Srnicek defines a platform as an “intermediary” between different groups — he uses market squares and shopping malls as examples of ‘non-digital’ platforms but locates the proliferation of “platform capitalism” in tech companies such as Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb. Contemporary technological platforms are in the process of displacing and “disrupting” many economic sectors, including those traditionally controlled by nation states (e.g. radio stations, taxi and other transportation services, the hotel industry, retail markets, and finance). In bringing together different groups (eg. riders and drivers), the companies behind these platforms position themselves to enable the extraction of data from users, which in turn becomes a source of revenue. Perhaps more importantly, technological platforms also are able to set the terms or rules of engagement between different groups. Uber, for example, wields power through a specific technological system but the power lies in that system’s ability to process interactions by setting the “rules of the game.”  By ordering space (real or virtual) in particular ways, creating particular kinds of rules (laws, algorithms, standards), or encouraging or discouraging certain forms of behavior, platforms shape economic and social interactions. Platforms also act to continuously widen their range of action, making us increasingly dependent on them and continuously expanding the range of actions and interactions that come under their purview.

Although platforms include infrastructural elements and can act via and like infrastructure, they also include other elements. These include laws and regulations, norms, rules, standards, frameworks, algorithms, and so on. A 3G or 5G cellular network, for example, contains infrastructural and technological elements (towers, fiber optic cables, cell phones, etc.), but also includes standards, regulations, and intellectual property regimes of exactly the kind that governments are attempting to create, both domestically and overseas. Likewise, the AIIB, although deeply involved in infrastructure projects, is engaged in creating and enacting a particular set of norms governing international financial arrangements and cross-border trade, particularly in regions of strategic interest. BRI’s promotors within China explicitly refer to such work in the language of “platforms” (for example, a report by 领导小组 (lǐngdǎo xiǎozǔ) characterizes the AIIB and the Silk Road Fund as “financing platforms for cooperation.”

What do we gain by looking at these BRI projects through the “platform” lens? First, the notion of the platform more fluidly accounts for the diversity and heterogeneity of these phenomena, their cross-border links, and subtle but crucial historical continuities. The “social” or “political” aspects of these technological projects such as 3G/5G and the AIIB are apparent from the outset. Second, and as a consequence of the first point, platforms also allow us to more readily perceive the values embedded in these technological systems and hence their potential for enacting power over individuals and groups. By directing our attention not to material manifestations (such as in traditional understandings of infrastructure), but to how those materials are tightly bound to broader systems, we are better placed to understand how these technological systems operate politically. We can think of 3G/5G, AIIB, and other BRI projects in a similar way — setting the rules of the game for global communications, finance, or other systems.