Ancient routes and new directions: The 21st century Silk Road

Professor and Tier I Canada Research Chair in Political Economy of Global Communications at the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Yuezhi Zhao will speak at the next SFU Presidential Lecture Series on January 31. Her talk, entitled China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’: A Critical Communication Perspective, examines the project’s challenges and possibilities.

For many, the Belt and Road Initiative represents China’s global ambitions and the project generates its share of controversy. Nevertheless, Zhao chose this topic because she felt that members of the Vancouver public would find it both relevant and interesting.

“I set myself up for a challenging topic,” she says. “But if I don’t do that, I feel that I would not live up to the expectations of a president’s lecture or the role of an academic.”

An economical, political and cultural initiative

“[The Belt and Road Initiative] is economical in the sense that it is the Chinese government’s initiative on trade investment and infrastructure building,” says Zhao. “It has geo-political implications as an alternative, or at least something complementary to the existing patterns of global integration. It is cultural in the sense that it invokes the historical silk road, which calls up images of cultural exchange from an earlier era.”

Yuezhi Zhao, professor and Tier I Canada Research Chair in Political Economy of Global Communication, SFU | Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

The initiative provides loans to build roads, railways and ports mainly in emerging and developing economies. At a cost estimated to eventually total between CA$5 to $10 trillion, the project is a disruptive force to the status quo and raises more than a few alarms.

Zhao’s advice is to remain openminded. Many question the sustainability and inclusiveness of postwar globalization. In contrast, the spirit of the Belt and Road Initiative, highlighted by Chinese President Xi Jinping at its opening forum last year, are peace and cooperation, openness and inclusion, mutual learning and mutual benefit.

“If you agree that the current order is not sustainable, and unless you find hard evidence that this project is doing harm, then give it a chance,” she says. “The question for the audience and the average citizen is to analyze who has things to lose and who has things to gain. And what kind of global order would you like to live in?”

Shifting geo-politics and the rise of new media

Zhao argues that the post-2008 financial crisis era is characterized by global disorder and by large shifts in geo-political power. For example, the Belt and Road Initiative is arguably a product of China’s economic rise. Simultaneously, there is an explosion of new forms of media. The interaction of these two forces creates an environment where people are on edge and are addicted to news.

“On the one hand, the volatile nature of the world is real and there are benefits that new media brings,” she says. “On the other hand, all these new media gadgets and services we are hooked on are commercial, profit making enterprises. They have a vast interest to make us feel that if we don’t check the news, the world will be different tomorrow or we will miss something.”

Zhao’s research focuses on the interdependence between communications, economics and politics in a global setting. Recent debate on the use of social media and its influence on political institutions is leaving an impact in her field of study. The assumption that people process information in a rational manner that take into account the source of information is challenged.

“The ideal situation is that everyone absorbs all kinds of different information with informed judgement,” explains Zhao. “In reality, people are driven by emotions, by sensationalism and even by false information. [Current] rhetoric raises fundamental questions about previous assumptions on the nature of propaganda, democracy and the idea of a free marketplace of ideas.”

For more information on Zhao’s lecture, visit http://www.sfu.ca/publicsquare/upcoming-events.html

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