I was thrilled to publish a piece for the London Review of Books on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Instead of wanting to look at it through the eyes of the Chinese or -more egregiously- US policy-makers, I was really interested in thinking about how the countries where the BRI’s infrastructure investments and constructions take place are experiencing the process. And it was really important for me to situate the BRI in a longer historical trajectory – of Chinese labourers and traders spread across the globe at the end of the 19th century, on to the South-South solidarity projects of the moment of decolonisation, to today’s BRI.
In a short story called ‘The Chinese Road’ written in the 1970s by the Yemeni-Ethiopian Mohammad Abdul-Wali, a Yemeni man befriends a Chinese construction worker on the new road from the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea, ‘cutting through the mountain’, to the capital, Sanaa, more than two hundred kilometres away. Abdul-Wali describes the competent and friendly Chinese labourers who live in tents with the Yemenis. They all learn Arabic, unlike an earlier group of foreigners: the British, sweaty and florid, with their colony in Aden, who remained aloof from the locals, and departed ‘leaving nothing behind but the hatred of [the] people’. The Chinese construction workers, by contrast, leave a lasting legacy.
The completion of the first paved road in Yemen in 1961 was commemorated in a series of stamps that also celebrated the building of a modern port in Hodeida with the help of Soviet engineers. By that point 1100 Chinese construction workers and engineers were building roads in Yemen. Work on the Sanaa-Hodeida road had begun in 1959, the same year China started blasting through the Himalayas to build the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan. In 1967, China completed the sky-high ‘friendship road’ between Lhasa and Kathmandu, and between 1970 and 1975 it built a railway between Tanzania and Zambia. Chinese railway experts were remembered respectfully by their local counterparts for passing on their skills.
To read more, you can find the piece here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n06/laleh-khalili/growing-pains