Chinese investments are changing cities around the world. Do the residents have this impact under control? City governments need to be aware of the challenges that the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative brings, say Jonathan Silver , senior researcher at the University of Sheffield, and Allan Wiig , assistant professor of urban planning and community development at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
A huge development project transforms the docks of the old Royal Albert Dock in East London into a brand new business district. It forms, as it were, a city within the city. It will house 325,000 square meters of premium offices for Asian firms specialized in finance and technology.
By investing in infrastructure in and between major cities, China is changing the lives of millions of people around the world.
In Kampala, Uganda, the authorities celebrated in 2018 the first cargo of goods from the Indian Ocean that could be transferred from a ferry across Lake Victoria to a train to the capital. This transport project was the final piece of the Central Corridor initiative, which now connects the enclosed land with Dar Es Salaam and the ocean.
To most infrastructure projects
These two giant projects are part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) . China’s ambition to rearrange the global economy has led to huge investments worldwide, from Western Europe to East Africa and beyond. The country is doing what we call Silk Road Urbanism in our research: the historic, transcontinental trade route becomes part of a global project to include the cities of Southeast Asia, East Africa, Europe and South America within the acreage of the Chinese economy.
By investing in infrastructure in and between major cities, China is changing the lives of millions of people around the world. The initiative has also caused a new race between the United States and China, setting up large-scale infrastructure projects and connecting all corners of the planet.
Silk Road urbanism
In this geopolitical competition, the Silk Road urbanism will exert an important influence on the development of cities in the 21st century. Just as the old Silk Road once led to the emergence of cities such as Herat (in current Afghanistan) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan), the BRI will entail new investments, new technology, infrastructure and trade relations in well-defined cities in the world.
The BRI is in its infancy and it has not yet been investigated what impact it will have on the urban landscape. What we do know is that the Chinese project will change our cities enormously, to an extent that we have not experienced since the end of the Second World War.
City governments must become aware of the challenges posed by the Chinese BRI.
Silk Route urbanism selects certain places in the urban fabric very precisely. It focuses on what is far away rather than proximity. It opts for distant trade routes and for worldwide circulation of money, goods and knowledge. The BRI will therefore not only have an impact on infrastructure works around the world. It will also bring global changes for city dwellers. City governments must become aware of the challenges posed by the Chinese BRI. They will have to compromise between their need for investors and the rights of citizens, the power to shape their own future.
Developments in cities such as London and Kampala illustrate those challenges. In London, the Chinese investor Advanced Business Park is converting the Royal Albert Dock – now renamed Asian Business Port – on a site that he obtained for 1 million British pounds in 2013, through a highly concretized deal with former London mayor Boris Johnson . This infrastructure project is estimated to contribute £ 6 million to the city’s economy when it is finished.
But the project contrasts sharply with the surrounding communities of East London, where many people live below the poverty line. It will be a real challenge for the authorities and developers to build a good relationship with local residents by entering into an open dialogue. All the more so given the context of major urban developments such as the Olympic Park from 2012, which brought few benefits to the locals.
The Ugandan capital Kampala is part of the Central Corridor project that aims to improve transport and infrastructure between five countries, namely Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The project is funded by the Government of Tanzania through a loan of US $ 7.6 million from the Chinese bank Exim.
While these changes are underway, poor residents of Kampala have even more uncertainty about their incomes, shelter and place in the city.
The growth of the new Port Bell cargo port, on the outskirts of Kampala, with modern technology and facilities for international trade, is a key element for Uganda’s vision for the future, Vision2040.
That national plan alone provides for ten new cities, four international airports, a high-speed rail line and a road network with multi-lane roads. While these urban changes are happening, residents of Kampala who are already living in difficult circumstances have even more uncertainty about their incomes, shelter and place in the city.
During fieldwork for our ongoing investigation into Silk Road Urbanism in 2017, we saw hundreds of homes and businesses in the popular Namiwongo district being destroyed because a 30-meter zone on each side of the railroad had been cleared for the Central Corridor.
As Silk Road urbanism gives new shape to our global infrastructure and urban spaces, the local population will be displaced, which will probably reinforce existing inequalities. It is crucial that city dwellers have a democratic say in the evolution of their living environment.