China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” campaign (一带一路, OBOR) is a development strategy and framework that seeks to foster connectivity and cooperation between China and the countries along the ancient Silk Road that passed through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It also includes the lesser-known Maritime Silk Road.
This global initiative has many governments excited, because it implies a helping hand from China in infrastructure investment for items such as transnational railways. And as I noted recently in Translators Get Piece of the Pie, the cultural component in this campaign is also wide-reaching, including translation subsidies, translations between Chinese and various foreign languages, international exhibitions, and a database of Silk Road publications. The goal would be to stimulate the translation and publication of great literary, historical and cultural works that are grounded in the cultures of peoples along the ancient Silk Road.
Since 1949, however, the People’s Republic has often focused its research on the US, Europe and Japan, and badly lacks basic expertise concerning many regions worldwide. This is apparent even in the field of literary translations. See Turkish Novels, Honor Killing and China’s English-language Complex for one representative example.
No need to take my word for it though. In One Belt, One Road, One Frenzied Debate, Dingding Chen (Assistant Professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau, Non-Resident Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) Berlin), points out one of the “main problems with the current frenzied discussion on OBOR”:
First, there is simply a lack of academic expertise on most developing countries in China. Unlike the U.S., area studies as a discipline has never been seriously treated by the government and the result is that very few scholars in China are respectable experts in regions like South America and the Middle East. Many of China’s so-called experts on the Middle East simply don’t speak Arabic languages and cannot read Arabic texts. And many of China’s Africa experts have never traveled to Africa to do field research. How can you give sound advice to the Chinese government if the experts themselves are not knowledgeable about their respective regions? This is a huge problem in China.