China’s president is invoking the Silk Road in diplomacy with neighbors. Does he understand what the Silk Road was all about?

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tags: China, Silk Road



Tansen Sen is associate professor at Baruch College, The City University of New York. This originally appeared in YaleGlobal, the website of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization.

The romantic concept of a historic Silk Road by which camel caravans wend among the mountains and deserts of Central Asia is back in the news. So is talk on reestablishing the maritime networks by which the Chinese Admiral Zheng He steered his naval armada across the Indian Ocean seven times. 

China’s leaders promote the ancient trade routes, most recently during the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visits to countries in Central and South Asia, to emphasize the nation’s historic role as a harbinger of peace and prosperity.

One minor problem in China’s history-based campaign – the history is distorted.

In September 2013, less than a year after assuming the position of general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Xi launched new foreign policy initiative known as the “Silk Road Economic Belt.”  

In an address at Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev University, calling for cooperation and development of the Eurasian region through this new Silk Road initiative, Xi presented five specific goals: strengthening of economic collaboration, improvement of road connectivity, promotion of trade and investment, facilitation of currency conversion, and bolstering of people-to-people exchanges.

A month later, at the 16th ASEAN-China Summit held in Brunei, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed the building of a 21st century “Maritime Silk Road” to jointly foster maritime cooperation, connectivity, scientific and environmental research, and fishery activities. A few days later, in his address to the Indonesian Parliament Xi confirmed this idea and stated that China would devote funds to “vigorously develop maritime partnership in a joint effort to build the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century,” stretching from coastal China to the Mediterranean Sea.

In both speeches, Xi underscored China’s historical linkages with the respective regions and suggested that his proposals were intended to reestablish ancient friendly ties in a modern, globalized world. In Kazakhstan, Xi credited the Western Han envoy Zhang Qian with “shouldering the mission of peace and friendship” and opening up the door for east-west communication and establishing the “Silk Road.” In Indonesia, he praised the Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He for bequeathing “nice stories of friendly exchanges between the Chinese and Indonesian peoples.”

Not mentioned, however, are the backdrops of conflict and the push to spread a Sinocentric world order. In trying to portray the past as a utopian epoch, the purpose of Zhang Qian’s mission to the so-called Western Regions was misrepresented. The Han emperor dispatched Zhang to find an ally to fight the powerful Xiongnu Confederacy, the leading adversary of the Western Han Empire. 

Because of its expansionist policies, the Han Empire was responsible for transforming the originally nomadic Xiongnu people into a semi-state entity that offered resistance to the Han forces. In 138 BCE the empire sent Zhang to Central Asia to locate the Yuezhi people, previously routed by the Xiongnus. His mission was a failure, however, as he was captured by the Xiongnu and forced to marry a local woman. Escaping after 10 years of captivity, he found that the Yuezhi were not interested in a military alliance. Zhang Qian’s only contribution was to inform the Han court about the polities and people in Central Asia. 

Similarly, the portrayal of Admiral Zheng He as an agent of peace and friendship is problematic. In reality, Zheng’s seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 included use of military force in what are present-day Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India to install friendly rulers and control strategic chokepoints of the Indian Ocean. 

He intervened in dynastic politics of Sri Lanka and Indonesia and brought back prisoners to Nanjing, the Ming capital...




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