IN school, I heard from my History teachers about the Silk Road. The famous Italian, Marco Polo (1254-1324), had travelled on it to China and back.
Not until years later did I read more about that road. It’s not a thoroughfare but a network of ancient trade routes passing through several regions of Central Asia. Modern travellers pass through the customs and immigration checkpoints of such countries as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – not so our friend Marco. The main dangers along the road were bandits, sandstorms, and getting lost!
Though he took the trouble to jot down notes of what he saw or heard, Marco Polo did not give any name to the ‘road’. The German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, travelling on one of the routes in 1877, coined the term Seidenstrassen (silk routes), and the name stuck.
Let’s call it Silk Road One. Travellers rode on horses or camels or went on foot through mountain passes and streams. From China, where the road was well established between 130 BCE and 1453 BCE, they brought silk, tea, dyes, precious stones, china plates, bowls, cups, vases, porcelain, spices (cinnamon and ginger), bronze, gold artefacts, medicines, perfumes, ivory, rice paper, and gunpowder to Europe.
Not many traders ever trekked along the whole route. There was dealing and exchanging along the road. Some merchandise that went east did indeed come from Europe, but quite a lot was sourced in Central Asia. You could buy or sell anything on and along the Silk Road: camels, horses, saddles and horse trappings, grapevines and grapes, dogs and other animals, animal furs and skins, honey, fruits, glassware, woollen blankets, rugs, carpets, curtain textile, gold, silver, camels, slaves, weapons, and armour.
End of the road
Actually, there was another trade route in that part of the ancient world before 130 BCE; it was the Persian Royal Road through regions controlled by various rulers. Trouble started when the Ottoman Empire choked off trade with the West by closing the Silk routes.
The merchants from Europe and China had to find an alternative to the overland route. That necessity led to what is called the Age of Discovery. European traders and explorers spread out in all directions to trade, colonise, rule, control trade, and commerce for hundreds of years since the closure of our Silk Road No. 1.
Silk Road no. 2
The modern China’s economic development strategy called “One Belt, One Road” (Obor), is a new trade route – by land, sea and air.
Most of the goods carried on the first Silk Road long ago will now be carried by cargo aircraft, lorries, and ships.
Obor was initiated by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. It’s also called the new ‘Economic Belt of the Silk Road/21st century maritime Silk Road’. Like the old Silk Road, it will have an impact on the various countries it serves. Many countries in Africa, the Pacific, and South Asia (except India) have welcomed Chinese investments in the development or expansion of their ports, airports, railways, and other infrastructural projects.
With these investments come Chinese workers.
After six years of Obor, it is hoped that there will be some transfer of expertise and technology to the locals. Well, we shall see!
These new Silk Road No. 2 is planned to link 41 per cent of the world’s area and affects the lives of some 4.4 billion peoples of all cultures religions and political ideologies.
Remembering the effects of the Age of Discovery, during which the traders and other adventurers not only discovered sea routes but new lands and islands, what do we see on the Silk Road No. 2?
During the Age of Discovery, the European traders and adventurers sailed the seas, landed on lands and islands, and proclaimed them in the name of their kings and emperors as newly-found possessions.
Never mind that there were already people living there; the places were considered terra nullius (no man’s land).
This legal fiction was only debunked as recently as 1993 by the Australia courts in the landmark case of Mabo 2. In other countries, the fiction is till the rule of the day, even in the present day Malaysia.
Colonising land, exploiting its resources for the benefit of Mother countries and subjugating – ‘civilising’ sounds better – the native inhabitants were the order of the day.
With colonisation came outside influences, both good and bad. With cultural, ideological, religious, and economic system came diseases also.
From one point of view, the greatest value of the Silk Road was the exchange of culture, art, religion, philosophy, technology, language, science, architecture, and other aspects of modern civilisation.
From another perspective, an excellent example of this bad influence was the spread of bubonic plague from the 6th century onwards. The disease, believed to have reached Constantinople by the Silk Road, resulted in the decimation of populations wherever it struck. What do we learn from all this?
Our stake in Obor
In May 2017, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak participated in a 28-Nation Forum on Obor in Beijing. After that meeting a few infrastructure projects under the scheme were approved for Malaysia; one of them is the East Coast Rail Line (ECRL), at one stage was a subject of controversy over costs. Now the project is on. Hopefully, the needs of the people in the east coast will be satisfied.
All Malaysians want to make sure that this and other projects under the Obor scheme will not incur a huge debt for the nation.
Hopefully, the long leases (60 years or 99 years), if any, issued in respect of ports and other infrastructural projects will not cause any trouble in future. In the construction of all the facilities under Obor, which are being funded by Chinese money, the countries involved must make sure that the local Malaysians are employed at all levels of management, and that after the completion the locals will be recruited to manage the projects properly to avoid creating too many white elephants in the country.
President Xi and other Chinese leaders must have calculated all the possible risks of Obor before they started funding those projects, especially in the countries with economic and/or political problems.
The first Silk Road was closed by the Ottoman Turks. Who can look into the future? We can just hope that the new Silk Road won’t be choked off by commercial or cultural rivalries, and that no hitherto unknown epidemic will creep along it and infest those 41 per cent of mankind living within its reach!
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