17 November 2018
'Cow Apa' (L) from Kazakh artist Saule Suleimenova and 'I Carry on Living with the Pumpkins' from Japan's Kusama Yayoi are among works displayed in a One Belt One Road arts exhibition. Photo: Sotheby's HK
'Cow Apa' (L) from Kazakh artist Saule Suleimenova and 'I Carry on Living with the Pumpkins' from Japan's Kusama Yayoi are among works displayed in a One Belt One Road arts exhibition. Photo: Sotheby's HK

One Belt One Road: Where even propaganda fails

When CY Leung gave his fourth policy address in January, the phrase “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) was mentioned as many as 48 times during his two-hour speech.

It was an exercise in tone-deaf bureaucracy, more concerned with pleasing those on higher rungs than addressing the actual concerns of constituents.

Never mind more pressing issues, like political reform, or the friction between Hong Kong and the mainland that is manifesting in multiple ways. And forget about the entrenching localist attitude, because the only thing on the chief executive’s mind was President Xi Jinping’s pet project.

Leung’s point was that Hongkongers could also benefit from Xi’s plan, that locals should proactively embrace the grand strategy and seize the opportunities that it provides.

The concept of OBOR was unveiled in 2013. Superficially, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promoted the plan as an initiative that focuses on physical connectivity and economic cooperation, as well as a means to push for wider global adoption of the renminbi.

It’s true that massive infrastructure build-ups are taking place, kicking up dust to convert dirt roads into proper highways, lay new gas and oil pipelines, expand port capabilities, and nail down railway tracks for high-speed trains.

Countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Oceania are involved, and the much-hyped Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is one important component of the plan.

The CCP is eager to have a greater say in global affairs, and the party believes it can accomplish that goal by physically linking China with a multitude of nations. It also hopes to offload its glut of cement and steel. Moving in the other direction, China will import much-needed natural resources from its partners under OBOR.

There is pushback. Hong Kong business leaders have lambasted the plan by pointing out travel and language barriers that prevent Leung’s interpretation of OBOR from coming true.

His promises of Hong Kong having an “important role to play” sound hollow.

On a grander scale, some worry about China’s role in shifting geopolitical calculus.

Will Chinese companies honor existing standards and international laws? Will the huge expansion of infrastructure bring jobs to locals, or will Chinese companies ship in their own labor? How will China’s rapid military development impact its relationship with smaller nations?

Already, some feel left behind. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a showcase component of OBOR, is riddled with controversy. Its finances are a black box. Ethnic tensions in Pakistan strain the deal. The government of India sees it as part of a siege on their own nation.

Nevertheless, Beijing is on a charm offensive. The continued push to recruit yet more nations for the AIIB, and to seal more deals to build roads and railways and other bread-and-butter things, is still going strong.

Following that vein, Sotheby’s is hosting a One Belt One Road Visual Arts Exhibition in their gallery, organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Women.

The collection on display is curated by Pansy Ho, and includes works by artists from Hong Kong, China, Kazakhstan, Iran, the Middle East (though it is unclear why Iran isn’t folded in here, and why “Middle East” seems to be found in a list of countries), Russia, France, Poland, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.

Sotheby’s says the exhibition “unites the voices of today’s women who trace their own heritage to this region.”

Supposedly, it also embraces the spirit of the Belt and Road Initiative, and “reawakens the diversity of culture, language, and art”.

The curator’s efforts fail on all counts.

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‘Crab’ from Portugal’s Joana Vasconcelos is also on show at the event. Photo: Sotheby’s HK

‘River of History’ (top) from Taiwan’s Chang Song Lian and ‘Distant Letter’ from China’s Peng Wei are among other works on display at the exhibition. Photo: Sotheby’s HK

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