Five ‘Pillars’ of the New Silk Roads

An introduction to the component parts of China’s multi-billion dollar plan to rebuild our world

Five ‘Pillars’ of the New Silk Roads

In Chinese discourse there are five pillars (wu tong 五通) supporting the New Silk Roads (also known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and One Belt One Road (OBOR)). These are Policy Coordination (zhengce goutong 政策沟通) , Facilities Connectivity (sheshi liantong 设施联通) , Unimpeded Trade (maoyi changtong 贸易畅通) , Financial Integration (zijin tongrong 资金通融) , and People-to-People connectivity (Minxin xiangtong 民心相通). ‘Five pillars,’ however, like much translation, loses the original Chinese sense of wu tong, which translates literally as ‘five channels’ or ‘five connections.’ Tong is a component character in all five of the pillars: goutong 沟 通 (coordination), liantong 联 通 (connectivity), changtong 畅 通 (flow), tongrong 通 融(integration), and xiangtong 相通 (connectivity ). I propose that rather than ‘pillars’ holding up the roof of an overarching structure; these five tongs configure as a hub of People-to-People connectivity; around which four main spokes of policy, infrastructure, trade, and finance revolve.

All five of the English translation terms: coordination, linking, flow, integration, and connectivity refer to continuity and connection, just as their original Chinese terms do. Yet the subtle differences between them are worth noting. Goutong is an old word, appearing in the Luo Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals as the act of digging out ditches in order to bring two bodies of water into confluence with one another. Thus, Policy Coordination takes on this sense of altering the topography of the land, in order to bring about confluence, such as one would do to bring two or more rivers into mutual flow with one another. Liantong is a relatively new word, with no classical precedent, not appearing until contemporary Chinese times. This linking is verb-oriented, an activity of connecting segments of trade and supply chains. Facility connectivity is being built with thousands of infrastructure projects already breaking ground. Changtong is an adjective describing, indeed, an unimpeded movement, either through a space, or of speech and diction. Its use was popularized in the late Qing, by early Republican intellectuals such as Guo Moruo (1892-1978), writer, communist party intellectual and cultural apparatchik, as well as Cao Jinghua (1897-1987), professor at Peking University and essayist as well as translator from Russian. Unimpeded Trade (maoyi changtong) requires the recalibration of obstacles into regulated channels, such as visa restrictions for tourists as well as workers. Tongrong, of Financial Integration belongs properly to the financial vocabulary of China today, used to denote the lending of a short-term loan. However, it also refers to flexibility, accommodating, and stretching to get around regulations, in order to make something happen. ‘Rongtong’ would have seen all five terms as symmetrical and rhyming evenly, which is common in Chinese rhetoric and speech. Rongtong is indeed a word of integration, an integration born of circulation, flow, intermingling, merging and being assimilated into something larger. It’s curious why the term ‘tongrong’ was chosen instead. Perhaps it was because of its currency within the financial lexicon of today. There may have been intentional avoidance of imperial or tributary connotations attached to ‘rongtong’ in China’s branding of the initiative’s ‘Financial Integration.’ Lastly, xiangtong has to do with People-to-People connectivity. It is as old as any of the other five words, occurring in the Records of the Historian by Sima Qian (145-86 BCE). It does indeed mean to interlink, connect, and more importantly to communicate, but by the Song dynasty, it was used by a major proponent of the Neo-Confucian school of lixue 理学 (School of Principles), Zhu Xi (1130-1200) to connote ‘mutual burden’ as well as ‘mutual benefit.’ The significance of xiangtong leans into an awareness that everyone shares not only in the effort of bringing something into being; but that everyone also bends their own original shape or trajectory to find mutual workarounds for otherwise unworkable mutual challenges. Thus People-to-People connectivity works to cultivate a global Community of Common Destiny, wherein mutual sacrifices will lead to mutual benefit, all brought about through interlinking and connecting the hearts and minds of people who have a stake in the projects at hand.

While the fifth pillar of People-to-People connectivity seems on the surface to address only the human and cultural element of the New Silk Roads, we see that by looking just a little closer at the language, all five pillars involve connecting and interlinking aspects of people-centric projects. For example, Policy Coordination involves peoples of a nation’s government travelling to meet and communicate with one another. The service and media industries that are attendant to the pomp, circumstance and logistics of policy-coordination are also important categories of People-to-People connectivity. In the case of the media reporting on meetings and summits, these people have a great deal of influence over not only populations ruled by policy makers, but also upon the policy makers, themselves, who are also consumers of broadcast information. Facilities Connectivity involves a great deal of infrastructure building, and generally China imports a varying portion of labor into the regions where infrastructure is being built. While this portion was larger in the past, labor disputes in some of these regions have encouraged China to rethink this practice, or to ameliorate it, bringing in only those managerial workers who can impart skills to native populations, thus more seamlessly handing off control and operation of dams, roads, and container shipping ports. Whether in the former case, where all or most labor is imported from China, or in latter cases where only enough labor is exported to constitute vocational training and to guarantee outcomes, infrastructure on a scale as large as the New Silk Roads sees large-scale human migration. Populations of Chinese people develop connections with large and small populations of various regions throughout the world in developing the infrastructure for Facilities Connectivity. It goes without saying that trade, whether impeded or unimpeded, trade constitutes a category of People-to-People connectivity. The old Silk Roads, with trade routes through Eurasia, saw the rise of a mercantile class that was responsible for a great portion of cultural flow in these regions; and this as a by-product of the People-to-People nature of trade and commerce. War, famine and natural disasters caused other large portions of these shifts in cultural and human geography; but trade and commerce are responsible for the flow of material culture from region to region. In this flow of materiality, technological knowledge also transfers from region to region, affecting how we think about ourselves and the world. Lastly, Financial Integration is also a category of People-to-People connectivity, if we understand economics as integral to politics, and politics as the management of a political body made up out of people. In financially integrating regions, there are financial values which fluctuate according to cultural values.

Figure 1: Red: China, Blue: Countries which signed cooperation documents related to China’s New Silk Roads (Belt and Road Initiative)* 

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