This paper focuses on the “culture of space” in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For «space» we intend the empty living environment, physical or virtual, private, semi-private or public, where people have mutual social interactions. This is a direct expression of a society’s culture.
Space has a fundamental importance for mega-infrastructure projects like the BRI. The BRI intends to physically unify several countries, which are separated by distance and culture, to a common destiny. This unification will be implemented using large scale infrastructure (railway, harbour, airport, etc.). China will create “physical signals”, space-structure, space organization, modelled by their culture of space. In this precise historical moment, the logic of this “space-strategy” in BRI is not really evident because China is following the complex process of wéiqí, putting some “pawns” in key positions around the world.
World-Strategy, World-Management, World-space toward infrastructures
BRI is a project of $ 4-8 trillion, touching 65 countries, 62% of the world’s population, 40% of its economic output (1), 75% of energy resources, and 30% of Global GDP (2). This implies that China will have a radical influence on half of the world, in terms of economy, culture, social and organization of the territory, and at the urban scale.
The map of the BRI shows that China is only partially following the historical Silk Road. Unlike the previous iteration from the past, BRI has not only commercial interest but indicates also a larger geopolitical strategy. BRI follow six key corridors:
- China-Mongolia, Russia on the North,
- Eurasia Land Bridge, in two branches,
- China-Central Asia-West Asia and
- Bangladesh-India Myanmar and China Indochina Peninsula on the South;
- Africa and up to the Mediterranean Sea, joining with the Central-Asia path.
Along these corridors, China will have remarkable influence on harbours, bridges, landmarks, irrigation systems, mountain passes, historical cities and towns. For example, in the Central Asia corridors, many historical cities will be effected, such as Benaras, Kapilavastu, Lumbini, Butwal, Ridi, Kagbeni, Lo Manthang, Guge, Puhrang, Leh, Laddakh and Kashgar; in the Western route the historical cities of Bodhagaya, Surkhet, Jumla and Simikot will be implemented by Chinese investment. This raises many questions regarding the preservation of a number of historical sites, many of which are protected by UNESCO.
In addition to concerns for historical towns, there are many challenges in terms of intervention at the urban scale concerning BRI in important cities along the corridors. For example, the Northern area will touch Xi’An, Urumqi, Khorgas, Almathy, Bishkek, Samarkand, Dushanbe, Tehran, Istanbul, Moscow, before finally arriving in central Europe. To the South, the project will touch Fuzhou, Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Zhanjiang, Haikou, Beihai, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Kolkata, Colombo, Karachi, Dubai and Muscat, Lamu, Djibouti, before flowing into the Mediterranean Sea.
The investments have already started, and some results have been accomplished in many countries. Since 2013, President Xi Jinping led China to invest more than $450 billion in nearly 140 countries (3). Prominent among those are: Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenia, Hungary and Serbia, which have all important investments from China in several infrastructure initiatives (1, 4, 5). China intends to create and control all of these Ports, airports, railways, and will definitely influence the logistics of the use for the cities involved with BRI. The land-use strategy, the value of the urban areas close to the infrastructures, the corresponding strategy of investments and consequentially the new logic in the use of the city – new CBD, top-end residential area, and on the opposite, area of segregation – are all direct consequences.
There is a note concerning Covid-19. President Xi proposed “Health Silk Road Initiative” to Chinese’s “friends”, in front of the World Health Organization. It will concern the construction of healthcare facilities (3). The creation of hospitals and factories for medicine will increase the GDP of the local cities. This will influence the immigration from countryside to bigger cities which can offer better services.
We have to mention that the idea of infrastructure may concern also virtual infrastructure. China is investing immensely in the creation of Big Data centers, 5G, IoT, Cloud Computing, and Quantum Computing. Since 2017 China created the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei, Anhui, with a surface of 37 hectares and with an investment of 10 billion of US$. This is technically called Quantum Supremacy. In many European countries 5G technologies are based on Chinese products. And this is destined to be even more influential in countries along the BRI, especially where there are no local competitors. This infrastructure generating virtual space will have radical influences on the life of people along BRI, even more than any of the physical infrastructures.
Chinese’s city cluster and urban space
«Space» definitely concerns living space in architecture and cities. This is particularly important after Covid-19.
Chinese cities follow many forms of organization, but some key rules exist. One universal logic could be used to describe them with the term «living unit» (family, building cluster, residential, district). It can be recognized in the traditional structure of the family. Sìhéyuàn in Beijing shows that the courtyard-unit is based on a common space where different pavilions are located (6); the most well-known example of this concept is seen in the Forbidden City. Life happens inside a closed space, separated by the external world. This logic is typical of the living habit of this population since their origin.
At the end of 19th Century, Shanghai was open to the influence of the Western culture thanks of foreign architects and Chinese designers who studied abroad. Shanghai has residential units called lǐlòng (7). They are a combination between Western and Chinese residential architecture organized in units. These forms represent the culture of space in China.
After 1949, as a result of rapid industrialization, the idea of dānwèi become fundamental. They were self-sufficient units where the workers operate, live and spend much of their time.
A very important case is Tianjin. This city has probably the largest examples of foreign concession districts in the world. There are eight districts: Austro-Hungarian, Belgian, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Russian. What is extremely important is the remarkable catalogue of urban structures and architectures. Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Qingdao are all remarkable examples.
We highlight those cases because the contemporary Chinese cities have been radically redesigned, partially following those historical buildings, typologies, styles. The changes are so big that even the structure of the districts changed; the logic of Beijing itself has been radically modified, if we consider the use of the Russian super-blocks in the re-configuration of the Capital during the last 50 years (6).
This is important in the BRI logic because, besides the big infrastructure, the initiative will include the design of residential districts and part of the cities made by Chinese. Those will be created according with what can be called a “second-wave” of stylish architecture. In Africa, for example, several residential districts were created by Chinese developers using a re-interpreted “Spanish” or “German” style.
There also are fundamental influences touching the social habits and process of life. In all these cases, the residential unit – or the working areas – has only one entrance. This allows a strict control of the events inside and outside. Social control, security systems, emergency management, cannot be separated and represent a feature of Chinese architecture. During the crisis of Covid-19, this organization of space has performed well, becoming a winning strategy to limit the spread of the virus. When the outbreak explode, the local authorities put a very strict control on the gate of the clusters.
China’s influence over countries participating in the BRI, may also extend to the process of space-organization.
Space of Chinese families abroad
It is important to note that over the centuries China held an enormous influence over the ancient silk road. In Thailand as in many other countries, many people are a mix between Chinese blood and that of the local population. A similar mix is common along the historical Silk road, and it represents an element of aggregation and support for the development of BRI. This point is at the same time social (it touches the ethnicity of million people) but also economic (many of them are businessmen and leaders).
The case of Malaysia is an important detail. Here, many towns are made only by Chinese families with Malay nationality. Traditionally the Chinese-Malay live aggregated into a sort of Chinese cluster with similar characters to the local Malay architecture but with their own unicity. There are currently 613 villages nationwide, including 436 traditional new villages, 134 restructured villages and 43 fishing villages, such as New Salak South Village in Kuala Lumpur, Jenjarom in Kuala Langat District, or Sungai Chua, Kajang, both in Selangor (source: Lim Piu San).
Here, space is always compact, based on inclusiveness, well defined in their boundary. This structure of “organic space” and typology needs to be considered in the BRI’s perspective.
(1) Jeff Desjardins, Visualizing China’s Most Ambitious Megaproject, 15 March 2018. Source: Visualcapitalist. In:
(2) Wade Shepard, How China Is Losing Support For Its Belt And Road Initiative, 28 February 2020. Source: Forbes. In:
(3) Sébastian Seibt, Covid-19 creates bumps in China’s ‘New Silk Road’, 20 May 2020, originally in French. Source: France 24. In:
(4) Yang Han, Wen Zongduo, (2019), Belt and Road reaches out to the world, 30 September 2019. Source: Chiadaily. In:
(5) No author, Why Belt and Road Initiative is anything but debt trap, 14 April 2019. Source: Xinhua, published in Chinadaily. In:
(6) Paolo Vincenzo Genovese, Harmony in Space. Introduction to Chinese Architecture, Libria, Melfi, 2017.
(7) Peter G. Rowe and Seng Kuan, Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China, The MIT Press, 2002.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI