A witness on China’s Belt and Road

Belt and Road Initiative © John Fiedling

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a hugely-ambitious, multibillion-dollar project to improve trade, cooperation and connectivity on a trans-continental level.

The initiative involves construction projects in more than 60 countries along two principal trade arteries: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

SOAS alumnus Jacob Mardell, MA Chinese Studies, completed his dissertation on the subject of the Belt and Road Initiative.  He is founder of The China Road Project and, in March 2019, he plans to embark on a year-long, 50,000km journey from London to Jakarta and back again, by road, rail and cargo ship, following the route of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Jacob Mardell, Belt and Road

What is the idea behind The China Road Project?

“So, the focus is on Belt and Road Initiative projects––railroads, power stations, and ports, etc. being built and funded by China––but I am interested more broadly in how connections are being redrawn and newly forged across the Eurasian supercontinent and what effect this is having on people’s lives.  I want to focus on both the global and the local picture––in visiting 40 odd countries this is obviously a very international trip, but I also want to trek out to the more remote areas of the world to test the limit of this connectivity.

“I’m on the road to conduct research on infrastructure projects, but I’m also there to learn from the places I visit.  I’ll be filming en route, and running a daily Instagram feed with videos and photos, documenting this process and sharing the adventure with friends and followers back home.”

Who will you be talking to?

“I’m building up a contact list of people to talk to on the ground.  For the big construction projects, I want to speak to the companies involved and arrange official visits and have formal interviews with the stakeholders, but I also want to make sure to leave plenty of time in each location to get the feel of the lay of the land, to have less formal talks and to discover the social effects on local people.

There must be some logistical problems arranging such an ambitious trip?

“The visa regime for Turkmenistan has proved rather tyrannical,, so I’ve taken that off the trip.  However, Excel is a friend when it comes to planning, and I’m working on a spreadsheet of dates and locations.  In each place I have a cushion of time, so I have room for flexibility if things do not go to plan.”

And how are you navigating the maritime section?

“On cargo ships.  I’m still working on sponsorship for hitching lifts on ships for free, but as a Plan B there are cargo ship cruises where travellers can pay a fee for bed and board.  It only takes 21 days to travel by sea all the way from Singapore to London, not as long as I imagined.”

Had you been interested in China before coming to SOAS?

“I spent a year in China on a British Council scholarship, which allowed me time to immerse myself in the Chinese language, but I have always been interested in politics and writing about politics, and when it came to studying and finding out more about China and its political systems, the SOAS course seemed like the obvious choice.

“I took Dr Yuka Kobayashi’s modules on International Politics, and I did my dissertation on the Belt and Road Initiative, which has led on directly to my current research.  My time at SOAS was the first step on this journey.”

And when you get back, what next?

“At the moment, I am only thinking two or three steps ahead, rather than a year ahead.  I’ll return in 2020 and a lot will depend on what I find out.  I’ll write articles along the way while I am travelling but, when I get back, hopefully I will have the time to reflect upon the journey, do some desk research and have the material to write something more substantial.”

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