All silk roads lead to China: The techno-political, social, and environmental implications of the BRI

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Project Overview

First announced in 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI; 一带一路) commits USD$1 trillion to massive infrastructure projects, such as roads, rail, seaports and airports. Numerous explanations for China’s massive push for infrastructure development are circulating, and include the expansion of trade routes, the promotion of peace and cooperation, and the provision of necessary infrastructures to developing countries. The scope and scale of the BRI has profound implications for geopolitics, capital markets and the environment: The initiative spans 69 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe, meaning approximately 4 billion people, three-quarters of the world’s energy resources, and one-third of global GDP, promising connection, prosperity, and sustainable development.

The primary motivation of the BRI is to bolster economic growth and as such, reports of new trade corridors and more efficient transportation networks often lead the headlines. By focusing on the economic aspects of development, BRI explanations shroud the very material ways large infrastructure projects transform landscapes and everyday life, carrying significant political and socio-economic implications in recipient locations. Development studies traditionally employs lenses of cultural politics, political economy, and governmentality, and these remain of vital importance to understanding the political ways development operates. However, given the pivot toward Chinese development via large-scale infrastructures, it is worth integrating a new focus to get at the work that these development and infrastructure projects do.

How does do megaprojects like the BRI depoliticize development in new ways? And how does a materialist lens reveal that? Putting infrastructure studies in conversation with Chinese megaprojects probes how this shift in development towards brings the state to a place it has not before been.