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Charles Stevens: China scholar and explorer

Charles Stevens: China scholar and explorer Charles Stevens
20 Jul
With fellow student Tom Micklethwait, Charles is travelling the route of the New Silk Road to explore the impact the initiative is having across the region

I study history, but specific interests are the historic Silk Road, the relationship between geography and history and questions related to global leadership. My interest in China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a manifestation of this interest. The Belt and Road Initiative represents China’s foreign policy centrepiece and both an economic and geo-political attempt to return to a position of predominance as a regional and, eventually, global agenda setter. 

The New Silk Road Project is interested in understanding this. We will document the ongoing infrastructure integration via the people, places and companies forging this network, gauge perceptions of China’s growing global presence and interview the key thinkers and actors at the individual project level to see how the separate components differ from its overarching theory. 

I think it is easy to forget that Europe sits on the edge of a much larger Eurasian landmass. Danny Quah’s map on the shifting economic centre of gravity shows that the rise of the East is a return to the historic norm. However, in the 21st century this shift of the economic centre of gravity eastwards is taking place at an unprecedented rate. For the first time since the end of the French Revolution, we are entering an age where Enlightenment thinking and Western cultures, languages, ideas and religions will not alone stand on the vanguard of global developments.

China has immense resources and a population it is able to mobilise in a way that other countries cannot. From what I understand, this is in part down to the conformity which Eastern religions such as Taoism and Confucianism imposes. Therefore, China’s leadership can act with a sense of purpose and long-sighted direction which other nations may not be able to. The new Silk Road displays China’s ambition to return to its position as zhongguo (middle kingdom) as Xi Jinping stated during China’s 19th National Party Congress.

At the start of June we are setting off from the Chinese Embassy in London and we will finish in early August in the wholesale market of Yiwu in Eastern China. Our route parallels that of the first direct London-Yiwu train that made its first journey in April 2017. Of course we do not want to follow the train exactly, but more what it represents. We are using it as a conceptual framework to show the scope, bidirectional and forward thinking nature of the Belt and Road Initiative.

During the two months, we will aim to visit two dozen BRI-related infrastructure projects. These will include intermodal terminals, ports, residential developments, new roads and railways across Eurasia. When we visit, we will engage with the workers, managers, strategists and thinkers there to understand the developments.

We are interested in this ongoing infrastructure integration and the promises that Eurasia is forging into a coherent and contiguous whole. Bruno Maçāes argues this in The Dawn of Eurasia. We will be meeting him in Istanbul.

The trip will take 64 days and cover 10,000 miles across 18 countries, and will require three visas. It was going to be five but due the ongoing issues in Russia we decided to cut out this axis and focus more on the developments in Central and Eastern Europe. Our route also intermingles with the historic Silk Road. The Belt and Road Initiative strongly alludes to this but there will be little time to engage with its archaeological legacies as it is not our focus. 

I will travel the entirety of the route with Tom Micklethwait. Tom studies Mathematics and Russian at Georgetown University. His languages skills will be indispensable in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Istanbul we will be joined by Will Chamberlain for two weeks who studies with me at St Andrews University. Rob Krawczyk, whose interest is in the spatial connections emerging from BRI, will also join in the South Caucasus until our terminus in Yiwu. We have a great team and this trip would not have been possible without the hard work everyone has put in.

For more information about Charles and Tom's journey, visit www.thenewsilkroadproject.com

This was published in the July 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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