Dreams of a Green Silk Road, Part 2: Matters of Perspective

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the 5-day conference on environmentally and socially responsible international investment held at Duke Kunshan University this October.

Part 1 introduces the context of the Belt and Road and asks some of the burning questions raised at this fall’s meeting.

The foundation of any meaningful and responsible attempt to influence the outcomes of a situation must be, first, to listen: to earnestly try to understand the bigger picture, in all its messy complexity, rather than charging forward to act on assumptions that don’t fully reflect reality. It’s not possible to care about factors we aren’t aware of, much less to correctly assess their weight compared to other issues. It is ironically easy, as an expert in any field, to miss critical pieces of knowledge that fall outside ones own specialization, and therefore develop a skewed view of what a good solution looks like.

The two days of panel sessions and talks at the start of the 5-day event provided an incredible overview of the different angles from which researchers, government officials, consultants, activists, business owners, students, and others see the tangled policy and scientific issues linked to environmental and social responsibility in project-level economic planning. It also laid the foundation to help each group understand the needs of the others and to start thinking about solutions to bridge those gaps. Panel sessions brought American experts in satellite mapping face to face with pollution activists and scholars from Kazakhstan. It allowed top consultants in country-level economic strategy to learn from biologists and political scientists. It enabled a high-ranking representative from the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission to directly hear from, and ask questions to, civil society organizers who advocate for the rights of communities closest to major development projects.

The diversity of subject expertise among the participants at October’s 5-day responsible investment events corresponded to a diversity in perspectives on the likely benefits, costs and outcomes of the Belt and Road push as well as the significance of the BRI strategy to the broader picture of global governance. For example, the invited National Development and Reform Commission official gave a long presentation on the morning of the second day, restating many of the government’s formal goals for the strategy, including its previously declared commitments to green development. It’s not some conspiracy, she said pointedly midway through the talk, referencing the distrustful or defensive stance that some non-Chinese observers adopt when discussing the BRI. (‘To get wealthy, build a road.’ To help others get wealthy, help them build a road that benefits everyone. To get some perspective on the goals of a large industrializing nation now lending heavily to its neighbors, consider why your own country does it.) But national security is hard to separate from economic strategy, and soft power is still power, at a time when much of the Washington-Consensus world is caught in a tumultuous identity crisis.

Meanwhile, other sessions of the conference shed light on topics such as mixed public opinion regarding Chinese development in some of the Central Asian nations where these projects are actually being carried out, and the implications (from a European perspective) of the state’s rhetoric of guiding and facilitating development rather than imposing it. There are far too many interesting angles on the discussion of the optics, reputation, and realities of China as both a major development investor and as a developing country itself to do these conversations justice in passing in a blog post. There is also too much to be said about what it means to respect a host country’s sovereignty in guiding its own path to development, when the governments of many BRI host countries are stricken with high levels of corruption (and may therefore act somewhat at odds with the interests of their people). All of these questions and more came up over the course of the weekend’s presentations.

It also became clear that a deeper understanding of Chinese politics, law, governance and even culture is still extremely limited for many outside observers, for reasons ranging from government transparency challenges to basic language and translation barriers. Highlighting gaps in knowledge is the first step to filling them, however, and most of the participants at the conference willingly pointed out the information and expertise they still feel they are lacking to work more effectively toward better outcomes.


Another spectrum of diversity among participants’ perspectives might be described as a focus on different types of project impacts. Some of the economic experts and consultants who spoke during the weekend’s panels explained the context of big-picture strategies for countries aiming to build their capacity in various export sectors, to improve their relative position in the global value chain. This group tended to focus more on the potential positive impacts brought by specific projects, related to economic growth: jobs, and an increase of welfare across an average population, which can bring with them food security, sanitation and health services, energy access, education, and other major quality of life improvements to a country as a whole.

In contrast, many of the sustainability specialists and civil society representatives raised concerns more related to the detailed impacts to people and land in the countries receiving investments. The latter group, by sheer virtue of the nature of their work, tended to focus on the potential negative impacts of the same projects, if they are executed poorly: cultures and communities displaced or disrupted, air and water supplies tainted, forests and fisheries opened to increasingly rapid degradation. The tension between these two perspectives—between expanding access to higher quality of life, generally, and avoiding careless damage to essential resources and the politically powerless, locally—is at the heard of most discussions of sustainable development.

Climate change, however, also loomed large in the background of most of the sessions, and in more than one panel was a topic of major discussion. The uniquely global threat posed by climate change provides a backstop against any notion that the tradeoffs of development matter only to those living close to a given project. Local deforestation may have immediate physical and social repercussions for a forest-dependent community, for example—but at the end of the day, an increase in deforestation also contributes to the rising climate threat to the globe as a whole, through its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The choice between a solar project and a coal plant may have immediate implications for a community’s air quality or a mining company’s decadal success, but its lifetime carbon dioxide footprint also has ramifications for the rest of the world. The reality of climate change brings global stakes and context to the planning of individual large developments, and forces us to consider impacts from a given project as part of a cohesive global whole.

Painting a picture of what sustainable development might mean, and striving for a green and equitable future, require an awareness across all of these lines and levels of perspective, and more besides. Those whose work requires that they live and breathe the details of any single piece of this story may have a less clear understanding of some (or all) of the others—this is the nature of specialization. But to truly leverage the value of their hard-won expertise, there must be venues to share specialized insight across specialization boundaries. There must be networks and infrastructure to get this wealth of information from the experts to where it needs to be: in the hands of decision makers and in the hands of those empowered to hold decision makers accountable.

This critical need for communication and sharing of information is where the remaining 3 days of the conference come in, which I’ll cover in part 3 of the series. The conversation focused more directly on environmental issues and how to bring them to the forefront of the development planning process.


Thanks to the more than a dozen participants and conference organizers who took the time to speak with me over the week of the conference, sharing their perspectives on the event itself and the topics discussed in this post.

Top Image: Gansu section of the Beijing-Xinjiang Expressway (ChinaDaily via State Council of the PRC)

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