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16.30  The Silk Roads or Economic Belt: An Analysis of the Interaction Between China’s World Heritage and its Economic and Political Ambitions

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This paper aims to map how the Silk Roads World Heritage listing has been utilized in diplomatic ways to construct both internally and externally a vision of China that facilitates and frames Chinese economic and political aspirations. 

The term “Silk Road” (Seidenstrassen) was coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Rechthofen in 1877. Today this geographical term is endowed with a heritage connotation that serves to accommodate China’s economic, political, and security interests in Central Asia. In June 2014, a 5000-kilometre property of the Silk Roads from Xi’an to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia was inscribed on the World Heritage List, covering thirty-three heritage sites along the route’s network. The listing was inscribed in the name of the People’s Public of China, the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Kyrgyz Republic. This nomination was strongly supported by the Chinese government, for the cultural heritage concept was explicitly linked to China’s economic and political aspirations in Central Asia. Under the new President Xi Jingping, the Chinese government unveiled a major piece of strategic conception, “the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” (the Belt and Road for short) in 2013. An action plan for “the Belt and Road” was issued in March 2015. The image suggested by the initiative’s name harkens back to a perceived “glorious past” of China, which resonates with the image of the country envisioned in the nomination dossier, a large proportion of which focuses on China in the Han and Tang Dynasties in terms of economy, diplomacy, religion, and culture. Taking Beijing’s geostrategic thinking in terms of energy security and territory integrity in the bordering regions, for example Xinjiang, I will explore how the past is selected to form a diplomatic heritage discourse, to connect or reconnect China and the neighbouring Central Asian countries. This paper will examine an uncharted area of the diplomatic uses of the Silk Roads heritage,and,  in particular, how the Chinese government is constructing a notion of heritage, specifically around the Silk Roads, to facilitate and frame its economic and political aspirations in an international context. 

The argument developed draws on a critical discourse analysis (CDA) of the nomination dossier. In mapping the discourse used by different levels of government in China in framing the nomination, I identify how China’s perception of itself has been constructed through the selection and emphasis of certain historical myths from periods such as the Han and Tang Dynasties in the nomination file. Ultimately, I employ the CDA to examine how the discourse of heritage is constructed and used to fit different political and diplomatic contexts.

Jieyi Xie


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