The aim of the Silk Road Project is to retrace the ancient Silk Road, recording and discussing the effects of globalisation and development initiatives, namely the Chinese 'New Silk Road' plans, on local people along the way.
Explorers have travelled and documented the Silk Road since at least 800 BC. But these were typically traders, diplomats, merchants, anthropologists, geographers and historians. The 'edge' of our expedition - our comparative advantage - is that we are economists who will not only retrace the ancient Silk Road, but also explore the beginnings of the ‘New Silk Road’.
We feel that this project is timely. The forces of globalization are accelerating as China turns from an inward looking power to an outward looking one. At the core of the Chinese wave of globalization is the ‘New Silk Road’, and the use of soft power to create a sphere of influence from the Balkans to the Hindu Kush. At the same time, there is an emerging identity crisis in Europe and the United States, as populist politicians take stage to promote isolationism and to denounce other cultures, globalization and the impacts of liberal economics (things that were long conceived of as forces for good). In effect, this is a new chapter in the tale of globalization itself, as the push for a more integrated world comes from China, rather than from its former champions: Europe and the United States.
From the top-down perspective, the key to the narrative of the Silk Road Project is China's role in redeveloping the nations along the Silk Road, bringing them out of the stasis they have been in since the collapse of the USSR. China's investments in the area make the Marshall plan look small: (See: http://thediplomat.com/2014/11/chinas-marshall-plan-is-much-more/).
From the bottom-up, we aim to write about the communities along the way, and discover how they are affected by these macro trends. There are unanswered questions around how the communities and people who live along the Silk Road are adapting to the great changes brought on by globalization. A 21st century Silk Road is being paved on top of age-old cultures and traditions, and our expedition will give a voice to the communities along the way who are experiencing these changes.
The method of our project is to observe and record what we see along the way, creating a patchwork of accounts to explain the new Silk Road. By using photography and interviews of the people and places along the way, we intend to tell the contrasting stories of rapid modernization and the tales of those people left behind by this modernization.
Fieldwork has long been part of the economist toolkit. Nobel-prize winning economists, from Elinor Ostrom to Joseph Stiglitz, Angus Deaton to Amartya Sen, employed this technique to add colour and tangibility to a discipline, which is often dismissed as bland and intangible. The Silk Road Project will deploy economic theory and rigor in combination with first-hand evidence to explain how economic processes are affecting real people.
China's ‘New Silk Road’ aims to transform central Asia, connecting it to the world. A number of places are undergoing particularly rapid transformation, including some of the most ancient Silk Road cities: Bishkek, Samarkand, and Kashgar.
Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) - The capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek borders Central Asia's Tian Shan mountain range, acting as a gateway between Russia to the North and China to the South. While it was a caravan stop in the ancient times of the old Silk Road, today Bishkek is the recipient of huge sums of Chinese investment, who see Kyrgyzstan as the first step on the road to European markets. In 2015, the Export-Import Bank of China was Kyrgyzstan's largest creditor, with a credit line worth c. $1.3bn (about 1/3 of Kyrgyzstan's total external debt). One important project is the construction of a road (Bishkek-Naryn-Torugart) where reports indicate that around 30 per cent of the workers were local, with the rest Chinese, demonstrating the China-centric relationship of projects on the ‘New Silk Road’.
Samarkand (Uzbekistan) - One of the most ancient cities in Central Asia, there is evidence of Silk Road traders having stopped in Samarkand as early as 800 BC. The city prospered due to its location on the road between China and the Mediterranean. More recently, Chinese investment has led to a high-speed railway being built connecting the northwest Xinjiang region in China to Iran, via Samarkand in Central Asia. The project is reported to have caused a boost to local economic development, yet recent tensions between Kyrgyz people and the Kyrgyz government led to protests over what many Kyrgyz people are calling a Chinese land grab.
As well as ancient sites, new cities like the Khorgos 'Gateway' have risen out of the desert. Khorgos is a dry port on the Chinese border with Kazakhstan, where China-Europe trains stop to relay their cargo. The city is being built as a new cargo town on the Silk Road, following investment by Chinese authorities of around $600m. Khorgos is being made into a multi-cultural hub where European, Central Asians, Russians, and Chinese people come together to trade. Out of nothing hotels, banks, casinos, restaurants, and trade forums for visitors are springing up to serve the visitors, who are permitted to stay in the 'Gateway' zone for 30 days visa-free.
Success for the Silk Road Project can be measured in the answers to three questions. First, how good are the stories? Have we accurately captured a particular moment and time on the Silk Road. Second, what have we learnt? Travel is about experiences – success would be to return having acquired a portfolio of new experiences, as well as, the broadened horizons and deeper knowledge that accompany those experiences. Third, where to next? The Silk Road is a journey, and we intend to keep the journey going beyond the Silk Road trip far into the future.