The Silk Road has remained part of our living conscience as a symbol of glamour and power; a thread that tied the East to the West through the practice of trade, the transmission of culture and the exchange of technology and information. President Xi Jinping has tried to invoke this symbolism through China’s ambitious trade and infrastructure initiative, ‘One Belt, One Road’. This seminar sought to strip away at this mythology—both historical and modern.

David Abulafia and Hugh Kennedy examined the long historical perspective. They deconstructed the common conceptions of the Silk Road that are often taken for granted as simple lines on a map, and investigated its origins, scale, purpose and impact.

Kennedy described the Silk Road as “a confection of travel agents” which, in reality, meandered relatively freely, rather than being a structured network of merchants fixed to established routes. This land route was highly subject to political variables, for example, the cessation of trade following the rise of the Islamic empire in the eighth century. The discussion also analysed the economics that shaped the Silk Road. In order to understand its variability, we must pay attention to shifting patterns of demand rather than supply. It is not at the heart of the history of trade so as much as it is at the heart of the history of fashion and taste. As demand in the Islamic world shifted from textiles to ceramics from the 8th and 9th centuries onwards, pack animals quickly became inappropriate vehicles.

Abulafia focused on the maritime routes that are often overlooked as being part of the same history of commerce. The sheer scale of the maritime trade dwarfed that which could be conducted via pack animal, with vast quantities of Chinese porcelain being shipped westwards. Moreover, whilst traffic along the overland routes rose and dwindled over time, the maritime route exhibited a remarkable continuity.

The long-held assumption that the overland Silk Road was of central importance to the history of trade, and thereby places the road at the ‘centre of the world’, is erroneous. Rather, it was the creation of maritime links by diverse peoples—with trade networks eventually stretching from the spice islands of the Moluccas, to the silver mines of Potosí in modern-day Bolivia, to the ports of Venice and Riga in Europe—that was at the true heart of this phenomenon. The first session concluded that the Silk Road—both land and maritime—marked the first era of globalisation and the development of the world economy.

In the second half, led by Kun-Chin Lin and Bill Hayton, the discussion was brought up-to-date with an investigation into the realities of the President Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative and why the legacy of the Silk Road is being so consciously applied.

Lin suggested that OBOR is no more than a “statement of ambition.” Hayton generally agreed that it was more of a slogan than strategy but added that “what is underneath is very real”, since attempts by the Chinese leadership to promote a sino-centric view of history are vital in reinforcing domestic legitimacy. The discussion expanded to examine what it is at the heart of President Xi’s initiative. This includes various interest groups within the Communist Party and state subsidised firms that are simultaneously pushing for and resisting this idea, and an examination of the geopolitics involved with the OBOR initiative.

Is the OBOR initiative a sign of Chinese strength or weakness? Experts used OBOR as a spotlight to examine the various present and future challenges with the Chinese economy, politics, as well as domestic and foreign policy. Chinese over-production and the immobilisation of surplus capital were cited as principal concerns for the global economy and questions were raised as to whether the opportunities opened by OBOR were worth the risks involved. One expert suggested that OBOR was not intended as a long term solution but as a means of softening the necessary transition to domestic economic reform. It is clear that if the initiative is to manifest itself and succeed, China needs cooperation from the outside world. The discussion was brought to a close with tentative predictions about China’s future in light of all that had been examined throughout the day. Throughout the session, historical parallels were drawn to the Silk Road, but it was concluded that the conscious application of the terminology is as much a rewriting of the past, as it is inspired by its legacy.

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About the Speaker

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. Professor Abulafia's interests embrace the economic, social and political history of the Mediterranean lands in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His most recent book, The Great Sea, published by Penguin, explores the history of the Mediterranean from 22,000 BC to AD 2010. In 2011 Professor Abulafia received the Mountbatten Literary Award from the Maritime Foundation for this book, and in 2013 he was awarded a British Academy Medal for the ‘landmark academic achievement' which the book represents.

Kun-Chin Lin is a university lecturer in politics at the University of Cambridge. He received his BA from Harvard and MA and PhD from UC Berkeley, and was a Leverhulme postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford. He has taught at King's College London and the National University of Singapore. He serves on the advisory and editorial boards of top academic publications including Business & Politics and the Political Economy of Public Policy Series (Palgrave MacMillan). He is a member of the Frost Sullivan’s Board of Economic Advisors, the academic board of the newly established Growth, Innovate and Leadership (GIL) University in Malaysia, and a collaborating partner of the Global Biopolitics research group based at King’s College London. He frequently offers expert opinions for the media and at conferences and events around the world on topics of the political economy of China, infrastructure and energy policies, regulatory diffusion, and regionalism in Asia.

Bill Hayton was appointed an associate fellow in 2015. He is the author of The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia published by Yale University Press and named as one of The Economist's books of the year in 2014. His previous book, Vietnam: rising dragon, was published in 2010, also by Yale. He has given presentations about South China Sea and Southeast Asian issues for think-tanks and government institutions in the UK, US, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. His written work has been published in The Economist, the South China Morning Post, The Diplomat and the National Interest, among others. Bill has worked for the BBC since 1998 and currently works for BBC World News television in London. In 2006-07 he was the BBC's reporter in Vietnam and spent a year in 2013 embedded with Myanmar's state broadcaster working on media reform.

Hugh Kennedy is Professor of Arabic at SOAS, University of London.  He specialises in the history and archaeology of the early Islamic Middle-East on which he has written widely. Prior to this he was Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of St. Andrews.  He is currently leading a research project at SOAS entitled, ‘Economic integration and social change in the Islamic world system, 800-1000CE’ which is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

About the History of Capitalism Series​

This series of lectures, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism's characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world's continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. The series' lecturers therefore assess case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations. Further information available here.