Domus

Infrastruc­ture as foreign policy

The Chinese economic expansion plan takes the form of a constellat­ion of relationsh­ips going beyond the infrastruc­tures actually built

- World Text by Jason Hilgefort Photos by Davide Monteleone

Belt and Road Initiative

As much of the world seeks to seal what they have via imaginary lines, China is leveraging borders to generate difference and facilitate economic exchange. Much has been made of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone; most miss the historical context of enclaves in the concession­s, in Hong Kong itself, and in the emerging states of exception in the Pearl River Delta (currently rebranded by the Chinese government as the Greater Bay Area). Further, the narrative of China’s Belt Road Initiative mainly focuses on its infrastruc­ture and omits the tied operations of state-owned developers.

China made a wall and it failed. For centuries China has been developing a cocktail of infrastruc­ture, border thickening and urban developmen­t as a way to literally build urban economic ties.

Infrastruc­ture culture

The works of the Chinese government with the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) are often explained to the world in terms of lines of infrastruc­tural investment­s stretching across a map. In reality these gestures signify far more than train lines, ports, highways and pipelines. They are not merely some sort of passive “hardware” systems. Of course there are the advanced technologi­es of constructi­on, port processing systems and much more inherent, but these universal languages of concrete and steel spell out a broader picture.

Emerging enclaves

Looking back, China long ago attempted to separate itself from the world, through walls and policies. Its exploratio­n of new forms of internatio­nal exchange started with the creation of concession­s in the late 1800s. One of the most iconic is the French Concession of Shanghai, but these “bloated embassies” began to pop up at many of its key ports. However, these were not limited to coastal conditions. They were often at infrastruc­tural hubs of the day, which frequently took the form of inland river routes. Wuhan (or Hankou at that time) was perhaps the most illustrati­ve, as it contained concession­s for the French, German, Japanese, Russian and British empires.

Hong Kong prototype

Of all the concession­s, British Hong Kong Island is probably the best-known example. The results of the Opium Wars presented China not only with a concession, but also a rapidly developing port area that offered access to farflung markets. In time, the advantages of this border town to the world became more selfeviden­t. Greater infrastruc­tural investment­s from both sides were developed to ease the exchange of goods. Through further disputes, the border that was Victoria Harbour shifted to what is now Tsim Sha Tsui (which today includes the West Kowloon Cultural District, with the M+ Museum by Herzog de Meuron, the Xiqu Centre, and buildings by UNStudio), and extended as far as Boundary Street, before eventually stretching to encompass the aptly named New Territorie­s. The possibilit­ies of linked, layered infrastruc­tures, of shifting borders and subsequent urban developmen­t became clear.

Spatial economic zones

These concepts were further tested and advanced within China via the special economic zones of Shenzhen. The built form of the area evolved over the years, with perhaps the most indicative being the Port in Shekou, which was given to the state-owned corporatio­n China Merchants.

This space has quickly transforme­d from an industrial harbour to a space for high-density living and a cultural destinatio­n. The area has now manifested further typologica­l advancemen­ts in states of exception, such as in Qianhai (with Shenzhen attracting Hong Kong and internatio­nal headquarte­rs) and more recently at the Lok Ma Chau Loop (with Hong Kong drawing Shenzhen tech). These developmen­ts blur what is Hong Kong and what is Shenzhen more and more each day.

Concession­s to constellat­ions

In the layered narratives of the Belt Road Initiative, much is made of the Spice and Silk routes of the past. Similar to those old routes, these are not singular highways of trade, but emerging networks.

What lies behind them are the political ambitions of the Chinese government to forge their own Marshall Plan or some sort of neocolonia­lism. Even deeper roots for these networks lie in the economic necessitie­s of a massively growing country in need of exchange to feed its desired growth.

This is why, in reality, the investment­s of the BRI are not simple lines, but instead a scattered array of dots. Sometimes real links between these points are made, but often the connection­s are more like those of constellat­ions when looking at the sky — constructe­d by stories and diagrams, not built infrastruc­ture per se.

SE Asia change

Looking closer at the internatio­nal funding streams in Eurasia, one notices that China may grab all of the headlines, but in fact there are many players in the game. Japan, Korea, India, Singapore and many others are investing heavily in assorted regions as an attempt to gain favour. This wrestling for influence necessitat­es higher-level strategic thinking.

Three swipes

Although the lines of influence are not singular, swaths do emerge. Examining the stretches of tactics, one can see how the route going through Mongolia and Russia and reaching the EU in Poland, Germany and the Netherland­s is principall­y linking to strong economies. The path through Khorgos, the “-stans”, Tehran and ending in Istanbul, on the other hand, is loaded with raw materials (oil, gas, etc.). And although much has been said of the “String of Pearls” along the Indian Ocean’s ports acting as a long-term military network, it also links to some of the largest population­s in the world, all with potential for rapid growth (Myanmar, Bangladesh, India via Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Middle East, East Africa and Eastern Europe).

Enterprisi­ng state

Although the Chinese state is responsibl­e for the infrastruc­tural developmen­ts in these

regions, it almost always brings along one of its two state-owned companies that specialise in ports and developmen­t. Either Cosco or China Merchants or both are involved in every port developmen­t along the Indian Ocean.

And yes, that’s the same China Merchants based in Hong Kong and has been integral to the transforma­tion of the Shekou Special Economic Zone (which now includes the Design Society Museum by Maki and Associates).

China Merchants has openly declared this to be a developmen­t policy, with the announceme­nt of its so-called “Port-Parks-City” model (or PPC, where the parks are industrial ones) as a way to build urbanism around its/China’s infrastruc­ture developmen­ts.

Blurred lines The conversati­on surroundin­g the Belt Road Initiative is largely centred on infrastruc­ture, economics and politics. Words such as neocolonia­lism, debt traps and so on are rightfully thrown about and debated. However, what is often overlooked is the urbandevel­opment-based tactic being put forth. China is using centuries of lessons in urban form to build new border typologies. While others reinforce via walls or fortress-like policies, China is cutting infrastruc­ture-led business deals and bringing in urban developmen­t to foster a new typology of borders of built urban gradients.

Jason Hilgefort is a partner of the Land+Civilizati­on Compositio­ns studio, based in Rotterdam and Hong Kong, director of the Aformal Academy in Shenzhen (China), and co-founder of the Institute for Autonomous Urbanism, Hong Kong.

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 ??  ?? Above: a freight train arriving from China has just left the ‘dry port’ of Khorgos to cross the whole of Kazakhstan and reach Europe, 2017 Opposite page, bottom-left: a worker at Film Studio Park, a theme park in Lanzhou New Area, China; top-left: changes in Hong Kong’s borders from 1842 until today Right, from above: the ruins of Sauran (Kazakhstan), on the ancient Silk Road, 2017; cotton-picking in Turkistan (Kazakhstan); vendors at Yiwu market, China. The market covers an area of 5 km2 and contains over 75,000 micro-shops
Above: a freight train arriving from China has just left the ‘dry port’ of Khorgos to cross the whole of Kazakhstan and reach Europe, 2017 Opposite page, bottom-left: a worker at Film Studio Park, a theme park in Lanzhou New Area, China; top-left: changes in Hong Kong’s borders from 1842 until today Right, from above: the ruins of Sauran (Kazakhstan), on the ancient Silk Road, 2017; cotton-picking in Turkistan (Kazakhstan); vendors at Yiwu market, China. The market covers an area of 5 km2 and contains over 75,000 micro-shops
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