Last week The New Yorker published a series of amazing photos by Richard John Seymour. Taken in the almost unknown Chinese town of Wuyi, a couple of hundred miles south of Shanghai, the photos show shops so overstuffed with merchandise that there is hardly space for shoppers – indeed, none can be seen in the photos. The only people who are visiting these places are businessmen who come to negotiate big overseas orders. What we see in the photos are not at all retail shops, but showrooms filled with samples of merchandise, ready to be produced and exported. The merchandise fills in hundreds of thousands of containers loaded on trains and on ships.
Through his photography, Seymour shows a clear fascination with these scenes of commerce, but appears unaware that his images capture the departing point of the New Silk Road, an ambitious project with which China intends to conquer the western markets.
For the last two decades, China has been considered the world’s biggest factory. Huge foreign investments, spin offs and venture projects have transformed the former egalitarian state into a country with a highly efficient and very competitive economy, all while still run by a one-party system. The cheap workforce has made both foreign investors and the local economic and political elite rich. But while the western democracies are losing time in the complex process of decision making and political infighting involved in trying to define their economic priorities and goals, the tiny polit bureau of the Chinese Communist Party decides everything silently and quickly behind the closed doors. And yet, in spite of all the secrecy, the decisions of this small authoritarian group of billionaires in party uniforms are tightly linked to the plan that will make China an absolute superpower. This idea lies deep in the roots of Chinese national interest. There has been no wavering about this plan since the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen.
It is because of this framework that we are witnessing construction of the new empire today. For two decades China has been building and projecting its power by securing the raw materials, energy, natural resources, and maritime and land transport routes. This project is now being called the New Silk Road.
Historically, the Silk Road was the most enduring trading road in human history. It had an immense impact on shaping civilizations and cultures as we know them today – merchants not only exchanged expensive merchandise like silk, spices and perfume but ideas, religions and cultures along the road, which lasted as a trade route for 1500 years.
Launched carefully by top Chinese leadership, the New Silk Road reveals a very ambitious plan, which may yet find some serious obstacles before reaches its destination. But regardless of the outcome, the project is already well underway.