The One Belt One Road initiative launched by the Chinese government in 2013 is a gigantic infrastructure investment plan that will connect more than 60 countries to China. Defined by many as the largest project of economic diplomacy since the American post-war Marshall Plan, it provokes a lot of controversy, because despite Chinese assurances that it is based on the “win-win” principle, many consider it a hegemonic project mainly benefiting China. The project, often dubbed “The New Silk Road,” involves the construction of, amongst other things, roads, railways, ports and power stations on two main routes from East to West, both either starting or ending in Europe: a railway that passes through Central Asia and a maritime route that crosses the Indian Ocean to Africa, before heading north.
Italy is one of the countries that have signed up to be a part of the project; the journalist Pio d’Emilia, an expert on East Asia, decided to report on the railroad route that is already in operation. Starting from the city of Chongqing in Sichuan – the city with the highest population in the world, 35 million inhabitants – it arrives at Duisburg in Germany, and from there to Italy, or more precisely the logistical hub of Mortara in the province of Pavia, carrying huge quantities of Chinese products. In physically following the route of these trains, d’Emilia – accompanied by Andrea Cavazzuti, an Italian cameraman who knows China intimately – crosses the provinces of north-west China and then the other countries crossed by the railway, talking about the economic and political impacts that the Chinese project will have on the western world. But at the same time, he uses his vantage point to observe different aspects of traditional Chinese culture, meet Chinese people whose lives have been radically changed by the perspectives opened by the railway and representatives of the worlds of Italian diplomacy and business who are directly or indirectly involved in the project. He also clashes with bureaucracy, both in China and in neighbouring countries, something that is par for the course for journalists in these nations.
China is presented as a modern, efficient, and cutting-edge country in many fields, including environmental protection – in the eyes of the West over the past century, the China was considered first a yellow threat, then a red one, and now it has turned into “green hope.” But the railway also crosses Xinjiang, a region rich in raw materials but tormented by the troubled coexistence between the Han ethnic group and the Muslim Uyghur, where d’Emilia and his crew are subject to restrictive measures that hark back to another era – the distrust and lack of cooperation from the authorities towards the media becomes even more evident when the crew crosses Russia. At the end of the journey, a cold shower: the commercial exchange that the railway should facilitate for the moment is unilateral, in the sense that compared to the four thousand convoys that arrived in Europe in 2018 containing Chinese goods, only one left Italy with Italian goods bound for China. Is the short-sightedness of Italian business causing this imbalance, or are the defeatists who do not trust the Chinese declarations of principle right? The question is still wide open and the interviews carried out by d’Emilia in Italy with representatives of the government and the business world do not put an end to the controversy over the future of the Eurasia “continent.”