BRI as a Set of Technological Platforms

Authors: Hallam Stevens (Nanyang Technological University in Singapore) and Ignacio Polo (University of Amsterdam)

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. (more…)

November 23, 2021

Belt & Road in Global Perspective Welcomes our New Postdoctoral Fellow

The Belt & Road in Global Perspective is delighted to welcome our new Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Stephen Smith! We invite you to learn more below about Dr. Smith’s research and his new role as part of the BRGP team. (more…)

October 26, 2021

Prefiguring China’s Digital Silk Road to Europe: Connecting Switzerland

Author: Lena Kaufmann (University of Zurich)

Since about 2015, the Digital Silk Road (DSR) has become an important component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), making its way into major Chinese policy documents. In practice, however, the DSR, just like the overarching BRI, is not easy to define. On the one hand, the DSR has a tangible material base, which mostly remains invisible. This includes the fiber-optic networks, data centers, and smart cities built together with BRI’s energy and transport projects.[1] Fiber-optic networks enable digitalization, whilst supporting the financial services and communication which are fundamental to other BRI infrastructure projects. Yet, most people are unaware of the materiality of these digital infrastructures, assuming that our emails, text messages, online orders, financial transactions and social media posts are stored somewhere in “the cloud”.[2] This is not surprising, as most digital infrastructures are buried underground, in the ocean, or hidden in remote data centers. (more…)

October 19, 2021

Workshop Report: Conceptualizing the Belt and Road and its Effects

Our June workshop, Conceptualizing the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and its Effects, was the first of many conversations that our project aims to facilitate. We hope to continue growing our network, both inside and outside of the academy, between and across disciplinary, methodological, and national perspectives. 

For a summary of the key themes addressed in this workshop, see the attached report by Joseph McQuade, Associate Editor for our blog Transformations: Downstream Effects of the BRI:


September 27, 2021

Geopolitical gravity and blanks on the BRI map; or why what is missing really matters

Author: Galen Murton (James Madison University)

When thinking about the “downstream effects of the BRI,” Nepal comes quickly to mind. As both a hydrological basin of great rivers descending from Himalayan massifs and the Tibetan Plateau and a site of widespread infrastructure development significantly financed by Beijing, much moves from China into Nepal. Flows of water and synthetic garments; capital investment and political alliances – Chinese stuff is increasingly ubiquitous throughout Nepal. In no uncertain terms, the Belt and Road has accelerated the movement of these things – commodities and ideologies, energy and power. However, it is not the BRI as physical infrastructure that gets things done in Nepal; rather, like so many places elsewhere, the BRI instead functions as an instrument with discursive force, an imaginary that underwrites promises of modernity and motivates particular political activity. (more…)

July 20, 2021

Excavating BRI Futures 

Author: Evelina Gambino (University College London)

Spanning over 140 countries, the Belt and Road Initiative has a global scope. As a vision of development that centers on the proliferation of logistical corridors, it foresees a worldly technoscape whereby seamless flows of commodities, capital, people and data constitute the central resource for the sustenance of future lifeworlds. Yet, alongside these borderless horizons of things in motion, the BRI has also become the repository of other ways of acting on the future and negotiating infrastructural pasts. (more…)

June 21, 2021

The coverage of BRI and Sino-Russian “integration of integrations” in Russian newspapers

Author: Anna Kuteleva (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow)

“Win-win” (合作共赢) is still a veritable guiding mantra in China’s foreign affairs, yet a China that was “hiding capabilities and keeping a low profile” (韬光养晦) has been replaced with a China that can and wants to “strive for achievement” (奋发有为) in international politics. As a case in point, the discursive construction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in its entirety presupposes establishing closer sociocultural and political ties on its route, as well as noteworthy changes in the geopolitical scenery. (more…)

May 24, 2021

Downstream is Actually Downstream: BRI, Hydropower, and Chinese Imperialism in Southeast Asia

Author: Stevan Harrell (University of Washington)

After the 1952 revolution that brought him to power, Gamal Abdel Nasser obtained British and American financing for the Aswan High Dam, which would provide electricity and water to Egyptian farmers, but would stop the Nile floods that had fertilized the rich farmlands since before the days of the Pharaohs. When the US and UK withdrew their financing for geopolitical reasons, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal (a project of British Imperialism), and Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt and captured the canal. They gave it back, but Nasser then proceeded to obtain Soviet financing for the dam, which was completed in 1970. (more…)

May 4, 2021

“Belt and Road” and the globalisation of Chinese migration

Author: Pál Nyiri (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam)

“Belt and Road” is perceived mainly as a geopolitical project that manifests itself principally in infrastructure and capital flows. To the extent that human flows associated with it attract attention, they are typically seen as instruments of a “state-mobilised globalisation” (Ye 2020) who may benefit from it by escaping unemployment at home while taking away potential jobs from locals. An influential if somewhat extreme instance of such a view is Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araujo’s book China’s Silent Army. In some cases, this picture is roughly accurate. For instance, Miriam Driessen’s fine-grained ethnography of Chinese construction workers in Ethiopia interprets their migration as a way to deal with pressures at home, which entails little meaningful engagement with their local environment. (For a critical attempt to highlight the diversity of Chinese labour abroad, see Made in China Journal 2021.) (more…)

April 12, 2021

Infrastructure as a Planetary Sculpture: The Future of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Anthropocene

Author: Hai Ren (University of Arizona and Sichuan Fine Arts Institute)

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a planetary set of future-oriented projects. Announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013 during visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013, it calls for the development of a “Silk Road Economic Belt” (丝绸之路经济带) and a “Twenty-First Century Maritime Silk Road” (21世纪海上丝绸之路), which together comprise the “Belt and Road” (一带一路) Initiative. At the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in 2017, President Xi highlighted the BRI’s “Silk Road Spirit” as a vision of infrastructural development[1] that would bring prosperity to relatively poor countries across Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. (more…)

March 18, 2021