Behind BRI: the Chinese Cultural Elements

Ideology plays a role in a country’s overall development. What are most clear have been over the past decades the differences between socialist and capitalist countries.

China has been, however, a mix of both: socialism with Chinese characteristics, or rather capitalism with Chinese characteristics. Admittedly there’re factors of ideology.

But what often understated or missed out entirely is the role cultural elements plays in shaping a country’s outlook of the world and of itself. China is case in point.

Coal-Fired Power Plant, Hub, Balochistan. Photo by Xu Qinduo.

For example, China’s outstanding success of lifting some 800 million people out of poverty over the past four decades may find its root in the Chinese belief that “不患寡而患不均,”meaning “the problem lies not in the scarcity but with uneven distribution.

“People don’t need to wear the same shoes; they should find what suit their feet. Governments don’t have to adopt the same model of governance; they should find what benefits their people. (履不必同,期于适足;治不必同,期于利民。)” Such a saying, while fully demonstrating Chinese pragmatism and its respect for diversity,  also helps explain why it is against  the interference in the internal affairs of other countries.  

Behind the Belt and Road Initiative are rich Chinese cultural elements too.

Some of the ancient Chinese teachings are well reversed by most of the Chinese. One of them is “穷则独善其身,达则兼善天下,” meaning “be good on your own when you are poor and share with others when you are rich.” 

On a state level, it means when a country get prosperous and more powerful, it’s expected to grant a hand to those who are lagging behind so more could benefit from its power and wealth.

Part of Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway. See here are giraffes crossing the underpass. Photo by Xu Qinduo.

As the second largest economy, China has contributed to 30% of global economic growth over more than 10 years. It has accumulated rich experience, technology and capacity in poverty alleviation and development during the past decades of rapid economic expansion. Why not share those achievements with others?

That’s why the Chinese government has presented BRI as a global public goods to serve the needs of developing countries to boost their infrastructure construction. Make the world a better place if you’re rich, as said by Confucius.

Some 126 countries have so far signed up to BRI. How does China conduct cooperation with such a large number of countries with different cultural backgrounds, political systems and various religious practices?

“Harmony in diversity (和而不同)” is the answer. 

As Chinese President Xi Jinping noted in a recent speech at the dialogue of Asian Civilizations, “each civilization is the crystallization of human creation, and each is beautiful in its own way.”

Take the so-called “golden rule” of BRI for example: “extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.” Differences among partners have obviously taken into consideration in implementing BRI projects. As a matter of act, the Chinese have taken pains to explain that BRI is not China’s “solo” but a “symphony” of all partners, revealing the emphasis Beijing gives to harmony.

There’re concerns from developed countries, in particular Washington, if the Initiative embodies a grand master plan to promote Chinese geopolitical interests and to dethrone the US dominant role in the world. Or why are the Chinese busy with projects around the world?

There’s a popular Chinese saying which is often literally translated as “All men within the four seas are brothers.” In another words, people from around the world are families.

For those in want of investment, the international financial institutions are often off limits due to their restrictive conditions for issuing loans. China then often means an attractive alternative source to finance their roads, bridges, ports and so on.

China sees no reason to say no to those in need. In fact, one of the principles of BRI touted by China has been its openness and inclusiveness. The Initiative is indeed open to countries in Africa and Latin America, far beyond the traditional Silk Road. We’re one family. Or Community of shared future for mankind.

Cultural alone may not be able to explain everything about BRI. But it does offer an angle to gain more insights of the Chinese initiative.

Written by: Xu Qinduo (China Media Group, the Pangoal Institution )

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