The BRI as an Exercise in Infrastructural Thinking

Author: Tim Oakes (University of Colorado Boulder)

It’s difficult to understand how a project with a name like “One Belt, One Road” (一带一路) could spark much excitement. And while the translation upgrade “Belt & Road Initiative” suggests something a little less haphazard – something with goals and frameworks and plans – the name still fails to stimulate the degree of reverie and unabashed obsession that China’s “project of the century” has in fact garnered. Seven years into the initiative, enough has already been written about the BRI to probably fill several libraries. The attention-grabbing magnetism of the “Belt & Road” has always confused me. The willingness on the part of many scholars, journalists, commentators, and analysts to write about the BRI as if its hyperbolic aspirations of vast connectivity were already set in concrete on the ground made me think I was missing something. I became convinced that what Hillman (2020) calls “The Emperor’s New Road” was a spectacular case of “the emperor’s new clothes.”

It turns out, I was indeed missing something. And that was the whole point. It wasn’t that there were facts-on-the ground that had somehow escaped me, or that a high-level policy document had finally been drafted. The hole in the middle of the Belt and Road – a hole where there should have been plans and policies – was intentional. Where actual content might be expected to be clarified and laid-out, there was instead a sort-of “fill in the blank” space. The Belt & Road was only ever meant to be a vague idea, a notion, a gesture, the beginning of a sentence waiting to be completed by someone else. It was an invitation. And perhaps this is why it has generated such an exuberant response. We all love filling in the blank.

The BRI is not a policy. It’s not even a ‘soft policy’ (Holbig 2004), that is, a policy written with enough vagueness to accommodate the highly diverse, and often competing, agendas and instruments that will drive its implementation. It’s barely even a framework. Instead, it’s an aspirational statement of evolutionary principles that invite imaginary cartographies of lines and corridors. Rather than viewing the BRI as a grand scheme formulated by Xi Jinping – a view that continues to dominate most popular media and commentaries from the punditariat – we are on safer ground approaching it as an evolutionary discourse, perhaps even a performance, a kind of ‘development theater.’ I don’t mean dismiss the BRI as a charade but rather to emphasize the point that to look for a concrete scheme or policy in the BRI is to be looking for the wrong thing. And yet, concrete is indeed what we should be looking for.

As Tang Xiaoyang (2020) has argued, China does not pursue a linear approach to policy-implementation. Initiatives are offered on a gradual and experimental basis, and (importantly) in a way that will generate competition, inviting local governments and collectives to imagine themselves as the model everyone else will follow, as the new idea’s concrete manifestation. To look for the grand scheme underlying the BRI misses the point of such initiatives as they emerge in China. It seems to me that the key questions to ask are these: how will the BRI evolve and change in response to developments and outcomes along the way? How does the BRI ecosystem adapt to specific conditions that it encounters and creates? How does it get shaped by the on-the-ground experiences as it moves along?

Addressing these questions, in turn, requires a focus on the actual projects and spaces where ‘global China’ is materialized. This means a focus on infrastructure, the most prevalent material form that the BRI comes in. There are at least a couple ways of conceptualizing a focus on infrastructure. The first is scale. The BRI needs to be studied locally, on the ground, and qualitatively. The Beijing-centric view that has dominated the BRI library misses the fact that the BRI was never anything more than the collective efforts of all those locally-situated actors “filling in the blanks.” Local improvisation and bargaining has always been the central story of the BRI. There has been no shortage of ink spilled on the broader-scale geopolitical and geoeconomic implications. But the concreteness of China’s actual projects need to be the focus and, importantly, the contestedness (Lee 2018) of those projects. Tina Harris (2013) has found that the nuance generated through ethnographic approaches to understanding transboundary infrastructure development almost always contradicts the hegemonic narratives that drive those projects in the first place. Those hegemonic narratives tell a story of connectivity as a realm of expansion, opening, and unfolding. And yet on the ground, spatial patterns and practices are displaced, demolished, and buried as often as they’re enhanced and smoothed out. Meanwhile, Liu and Lim (2019) have noted the lack of studies on how smaller states have engaged with and reacted to the BRI and the fact that most studies emphasize the perspectives of Chinese actors. Indeed, most studies default to Beijing as the primary actor.

Studying the BRI locally also means that it needs to be studied locally within China. This starts with considering the role that provincial governments and municipalities – and in particular the rivalries among these governments and municipalities – have played in steering the BRI in directions that had not been anticipated. Much of this is the result of the rivalries that have always driven policy implementation in China. Xinjiang, for instance, has played a relatively insignificant role, with its government preoccupied by the surveillance and encampment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Wealthier coastal provinces have played a large role even though the impetus for the BRI was initially to consolidate economic development in China’s interior borderland provinces and to restart the slumping Open Up the West initiative. He Baogang (2019, 187) has for instance observed that, “Guangdong’s existing infrastructure, and its prior experience as an engine of Chinese growth, has enabled it to adeptly exploit the opportunities afforded by the BRI.”

In addition, studying the BRI from within China draws our attention to the BRI as itself an effect of the ‘infrastructure machine’ of the Chinese state (or, to put it more colorfully, the ‘infrastructure maniac’, jijian kuangmo 基建狂魔). Infrastructure construction is a byproduct of the political economy of Chinese statecraft (Oakes 2019). The BRI brings our attention to the fact that this byproduct is now exceeding China’s borders. But it also brings our attention to the peculiar legacies of state socialism in China (Bach 2019). Xi Jinping did not create this infrastructure machine. However, an argument can be made that Mao Zedong did not create it either. In some ways, it derives from the technocratic nature of reformist visions in China that date to the late 19th century.

A second way of conceptualizing an infrastructural focus for studying the BRI is to consider infrastructure not only as an object but as a unit of analysis and, indeed, as an analytical strategy. Brian Larkin (2013, 329) has noted this “peculiar ontology” of infrastructures:

“Infrastructures are matter that enable the movement of other matter. Their peculiar ontology lies in the facts that they are things and also the relation between things…Yet the duality of infrastructures indicates that when they operate systematically they cannot be theorized in terms of the object alone.”

This relational approach to theorizing infrastructures suggests that when we consider infrastructure as a unit of analysis, we develop a set of systemic connections that transcend scale and enable an emphasis on both the effects of these projects and the ways those effects in turn feed back into subsequent decisions, practices, and discourses about development and change at broader scales. That is, an infrastructural approach remains attuned to the evolutionary nature of the BRI. Effects might be constituted in techno-political forms (i.e. new political formations contesting everything from a new dam or high speed rail line to new forms of surveillance and data mining), or they might be constituted in merely material forms (i.e. a new highway renders older transport networks obsolete, producing remoteness for once-connected places and connection for once-remote places).

Considering the infrastructure as a unit of analysis also draws our attention to project temporalities in alternative ways to those focused on short-term debts as opposed to long-term payoffs. There are two conventional infrastructural timelines. Both are linear and idealistic. One draws a line from project design to construction to completion. The other connects early debts with later payoffs. Neither accounts for the temporalities of infrastructural materials themselves (that is, their decay, obsolescence, suspension), or on the unanticipated outcomes, or dispositions, of infrastructures, their appropriations by those for whom they were never intended, their repurposings, and even their symbolic seizures for better or worse. These temporalities are of course essential to any scaled-up understanding of the BRI as an evolutionary process.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that an infrastructural approach does not necessarily mean a focus on megaprojects. Indeed, in some ways, megaprojects have mostly been ephemeral, trotted out in the form of fanciful birds-eye-view renderings, or as lines and symbols populating the cartographic answer to the BRI as an invitation to “fill in the blanks.” But considering infrastructure as a unit of analysis and analytical lens can also suggest a focus on the everyday and the mundane. Here infrastructures may be surveillance cameras running facial recognition software, or smart phones feeding data into algorithm-driven processes of social ordering. But everyday infrastructures may also be the workaday lives of villagers who process e-commerce orders in 12 hour shifts for Alibaba. Much of rural China has in fact become the human infrastructure supporting China’s global technology reach (Wang 2020). In some cases, most notably in Xinjiang, that human infrastructure is incarcerated. But in most cases, providing digital infrastructure support services has simply become a way of life for hundreds of millions of rural laborers who can no longer see a future for their families in farming.

As an invitation to “fill in the blank,” the BRI pairs well with Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” Both are like ghost cities waiting to be populated. Both are “pregnant with desires, frustrated frenzies, unrealized possibilities,” as Henri Lefebvre (1995) put it, writing about the boredom of life in the New Town. But as an exercise in infrastructural thinking, the BRI is all concrete and steel and wire, the empty buildings of the dreamy New Town. What it turns into depends not on the plan, but on the people who move in.



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