One Belt One Road
Whether it’s China’s ‘One Belt, One Road‘ series of economically driven initiatives, books* rewriting the history of this exotic-to-the-Westerner region or UNESCO’s growing repository of Silk Road resources, it seems the world can’t get enough of the (new) Silk Road(s) at the moment.
Central Asia is right at the heart of both the ancient trading routes that eventually took on the Silk Road name and intertwined with more recent developments. For example, Professor Timur Dadabaev of Tsukuba University in Japan has written about the use of ‘Silk Road’ as a foreign policy discourse used not only by China but Japan and Korea in their contemporary approaches to Central Asia. Central Asian Analytical Network has some nifty infographics on Central Asia’s place in the new Silk Road [ru]. Guo Huadong has written in the high profile publication Nature on how the Digital Belt and Road Project could support the environment as well as promote economic development.
Examples of this Silk Road mania abound, and higher education has been no exception. Currently getting into the Silk Road spirit in Uzbekistan is the recently established International University of Tourism. Handily, the university has already cottoned (silked??) on to the trend, with its full name being the Silk Road International University of Tourism.
Pro-Rector [Vice-President/Pro-Vice-Chancellor] Bahodir Turaev has announced that the university intends to form a Silk Road network university [ru], bringing together universities from around the former Soviet Union to create student exchanges and support the integration of young people. Turaev deliberately places the emphasis on student mobility given that young people make up the majority of the population in these countries and they are the most progressive and active.
This new network will join the Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road, founded by China in 2015 as the latest in what is becoming a very long and meandering (silk) road.
The might of Chinese businesses operating in Tajikistan is growing, with news emerging of one company alone that will build three new schools in the country [ru] later this year, supporting over 1,000 students. This is not the first such initiative, which is being posited as evidence of Chinese corporate social responsibility. Other road-building companies have already financed the construction of of seven large schools in Tajikistan.
As the article on Radio Ozodi’s website [ru] points out, China is the largest foreign investor in Tajikistan. For a number of years it has been providing goods for markets and financing and undertaking a great number of construction and infrastructure projects for new roads, buildings and factories.
Chinese companies engaging in extra-mural activities to build schools is in keeping with the Chinese government’s foreign policy on education towards Tajikistan and Central Asia as a whole. In higher education, for example, Chinese efforts have led to the creation of initiatives such as the Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road which includes a Kazakh university partner and the Belt and Road Scholarship scheme targeted at students from Central, South, and South-East Asia.
Radio Ozodi also notes a proposed new Chinese-funded International University in Tajikistan which would accommodate an enormous 40,000 students (to put that into context, the entire tertiary student population of Tajikistan is around 250,000, so this new university would be able to teach nearly a fifth of that number!).
On the one hand, this is a clear example of a foreign government extending its ‘soft power‘ to another state, in this case China continuing to grow its influence in the Central Asia region through marketing-friendly projects in education.
On the other hand, there are also indications that the Tajik government is not just blindly accepting foreign cash. From my thesis research, for example, I’ve found that whilst the government is happy to allow such investment, it is far less content to accept Chinese cultural influence, something that often comes as a by-product of soft power initiatives. So yes, the government takes the money – and goodness knows it needs it – and it’s great that it is being invested in education, but once it’s in Tajikistan, the line is drawn and the money/investment is controlled locally.
Oh, and one of the three new schools – the biggest of the trio – will be in the President’s home region of Dangara. That must be a coincidence. Right?