Spatial representations such as maps are instrumental to understanding and interpreting China’s policies. Official maps are available for some policies, while researchers and observers have also created their own spatial representations of policies. Either way, spatial visualisations help to translate policies into potential impacts on people and places and to cement the way in which regions can be conceptualised for political purposes.

 

Spatial representations such as maps are instrumental to understanding and interpreting China’s policies. Official maps are available for some policies, while researchers and observers have also created their own spatial representations of policies. Either way, spatial visualisations help to translate policies into potential impacts on people and places and to cement the way in which regions can be conceptualised for political purposes.

In the past decades, China’s regional policies have vacillated between focusing on the eastern coastal region and helping the inland region. Beginning in the 1960s, Mao promoted the ‘Third Front’ (sanxian) programme, which was aimed at shifting key industrial bases inland for the purpose of national defence. China scholar Barry Naughton famously mapped the different phases of the Third Front, centering on the inland provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, Hubei, Shaanxi and Gansu. Avoiding the militarily vulnerable eastern coast, remote locations that were hard to access were singled out by the Chinese government to receive large amounts of investment. By and large, however, these activities have not produced satisfactory returns.

Deng’s rise in the late 1970s made it possible for the Open Door Policy, which enabled export-led industrialisation via coastal ‘Special Economic Zones’, the 14 ‘Open Coastal Cities’ and preferential policies aimed at attracting foreign investment. A new political conceptualisation for the regions was presented via the new ‘Three Economic Belts’ (sanda jingji didai) division, which was introduced during the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1986-1990) and which assigned different roles to the eastern, coastal, central and western regions. This division legitimised the rapid growth of coastal provinces such as Guangdong, literally manifesting the first part of Deng’s famous quote: “Let some people and regions get rich first; the others will follow.”

The ‘Western Development Programme’ (xibu da kaifa), announced in 1999 by Jiang Zemin, aimed at boosting the economic growth of 12 inland provinces, which together accounted for more than 70% of China’s territory.

By the 1990s, it was clear that the second part of Deng’s quote was nowhere in sight. The perceived and documented rise in regional inequality necessitated a new vision of regional development, one that focused on helping the poor, inland yet resource-rich provinces. The ‘Western Development Programme’ (xibu da kaifa), announced in 1999 by Jiang Zemin, aimed at boosting the economic growth of 12 inland provinces, which together accounted for more than 70% of China’s territory. However, despite considerable state investment in these provinces, they continued to lag far behind their eastern coastal counterparts. In short, a regional vision of balanced regional development remained little more than in the imaginations of policymakers.

Compared with the above, the spatial conceptualisation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is bigger, broader and less geographically precise. By virtue of its title, BRI connotes spatial relationships and activities. While official media such as Xinhua has published maps on the modern ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’, which make up the BRI, they are by no means final or definitive. Instead, the two BRI belts are fluid, unrestricted and evolving spatially. Although the spatial conceptualisation of the two belts has primarily encompassed parts of Eurasia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, they are already extending rapidly to Oceania, Latin America and beyond. In short, no maps can accurately identify, define and limit BRI’s geographical expanse and geopolitical potential. In fact, the concept’s flexibility and fuzziness precisely represent how China is building diplomatic and economic relationships with countries in all directions, as the two imaginary belts grow across lands and seas.

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Also, compared with previous regional policies, the BRI is not designed to prioritise certain regions within China over others. Rather, the entire country is expected to be involved and maps of China related to the BRI tend to be regionally inclusive rather than categorical like the ‘Three Economic Belts’. Nevertheless, since central and western Chinese cities including Yiwu, Xi’an, Chongqing and Urumqi are identified as destinations of the Silk Road Economic Belt, the BRI is expected to boost urbanisation and economic development in their adjacent regions. Such development may also help alleviate the migration challenge in China, as hundreds of millions of people, most of whom live and work in eastern coastal cities without urban hukou, are separated from their left-behind families. Although hukou reforms, including the recent announcement by Premier Li Keqiang of giving urban hukou to 100 million migrant workers by 2020, are intended to help migrants settle in cities, rural Chinese tend to prefer large coastal cities and shun urban hukou in smaller and inland cities. If the BRI is successful in making inland cities more attractive, it may become an effective tool to solve China’s migration problem.

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