April 19, 2018

The Belt and Road Initiative: Visegrad Four’s Chinese dilemma


The Belt and Road Initiative: Visegrad Four’s Chinese dilemma

By Adéla DenkováEdit ZgutKarolina ZbytniewskaLukáš Hendrych and Marián KoreňEURACTIV.czEURACTIV.plEURACTIV.sk and Political Capital

 Mar 22, 2018 (updated:  Mar 28, 2018)

A Chinese dragon dancer performs to celebrate the arrival of the first direct freight train from China to the UK in Barking, London, on 18 January 2017. [EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA]

Languages: Deutsch


China has used the international economic crisis to elbow its way towards a dominant position on the global market. Its New Silk Road is seen as an attempt to create a massive, multi-national zone of economic and political influence, including in Central Europe. EURACTIV Poland/Czech Republic/Slovakia and Political Capital report.

In that context, it is logical that the Central European region should be an important part of Beijing’s Go Global outlook, as it is seen as a “side door” to the richer Western European markets. But Beijing’s flagship initiative has so far failed to attract significant attention in the Visegrad countries, though analysts believe its appeal may grow.

In 2012, China launched the so-called 16+1 framework – a platform for China-CEE cooperation – as a final landmark decision of the outgoing PRC premier Wen Jiabao. It comprises 16 Eastern European countries including all four Visegrad states (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) and 11 EU member states altogether.

Since the current president Xi Jinping announced in 2013 the flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as the New Silk Road), 16+1 has focused mainly on infrastructure to match this cooperation with Beijing’s general global strategy.

But the Visegrad group is also trying to work out the well-known “Chinese dilemma”: Is the opening up to the Chinese presence in the region a unique economic opportunity or a threat?

An umbrella for Chinese activities

The underlying goal of the BRI, with 16+1 as one of its elements, has been to “re-orient the entire economy of Afro-Eurasia toward China as its centre. But the hard economic statistics show that there’s not much in BRI for V4 to get excited about,” according to Salvatore Babones, a professor at the University of Sydney. China is still poorer than all four Visegrad countries, and its modest spending on BRI is diluted among dozens of partners hungry for investment.

Ivana Karásková, a research fellow at Association for International Affairs (AMO), a Prague-based think tank, said the initiative’s main aim is to export Chinese overproduction overseas.

“The New Silk Road is just an umbrella for Chinese activities in Europe, Asia and Africa and does not have any concrete features,” Karásková told EURACTIV adding that it is hard for regional stakeholders to imagine anything particular under the BRI. AMO has launched a website, Chinfluence, dedicated to analysing the Chinese impact in the region.

Despite the quick and significant rise in Chinese foreign direct investments (FDIs) in the Visegrad countries, their volume also remains minor and focuses on mergers and acquisitions, lacking significant infrastructure projects.

In terms of infrastructure investment in the 11 EU members of the 16+1, “cooperation on infrastructure remains close to zero, despite intensive political contacts with China,” due to the incompatibility of the Chinese offer with the EU law (assuming state aid and the lack of open tenders), as Jakub Jakóbowski and Marcin Kaczmarski from the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) explained.

The only exception is the flagship Belgrade-Budapest 336-kilometre rail line investment which ended with the EC’s probe into the Hungarian part of the project and with a final change of cooperation conditions on Budapest’s side.

China's new Silk Road risks unravelling in Hungary

China’s planned railway link between Greece and Central Europe has hit difficulties after the project was accused of flouting EU rules on public procurement in Hungary. EURACTIV’s partner Italia Oggi reports.

Opportunity to diversify export markets

However, the Visegrad governments consider the BRI a major opportunity to strengthen trade flows from both sides. Currently, the relatively small V4 economies run a drastic deficit with China.

“If we are looking for ways to diversify our trade portfolio and reduce our dependency on the European market, this may be one of the solutions, although not the only one,” Czech MEP Jan Zahradil (ECR) toldEURACTIV.

When the first trial train with containers from Dalian – the largest port in eastern China – arrived in Bratislava last year, the Slovak Government’s deputy for the Silk Road project, Dana Meager, described it as “one of the most important pillars of further development of the national economy”.

All V4 governments want to deepen mutual cooperation and attract more foreign direct investment to widen the array of financing and investment opportunities provided by the EU.

If the new EU multiannual financial framework reduces funding possibilities for V4 countries, be it as a result of Brexit and/or reshuffling of financial priorities, “then China’s offer could automatically become more attractive,” warned Jakub Jakóbowski and Marcin Kaczmarski from the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).

But Chinese foreign direct investment in V4 countries is not really growing and has, in fact, decreased in some of them.

“The old model of globalisation is over”

Czech MEP Jiří Pospíšil (EPP) thinks that the whole project is more of an instrument of Chinese propaganda and a reinforcement of Chinese influence.

“If one party is to benefit from the cooperation, it is China and Chinese companies,” he adds.

For example, when joining the BRI in 2015, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán indicated that he is completely unmoved by the reigning political system in China. “The old model of globalisation is over, ‘the East has caught up to the West’, and a large part of the world has had enough of being schooled on, for instance, human rights and the market economy by developed nations,” he stressed.

Moreover, Beijing certainly values political gestures, such as when Hungary, together with Greece and Croatia, blocked a joint resolution on the South China Sea in 2016, as well as the fact that Hungary stopped the EU from signing a declaration standing up for lawyers and human rights activists being tortured in China.

Strengthening cooperation between China and European countries may also be a problem for the EU “because many EU members prevent the adoption of common position towards China, e. g. in the area of human rights, investments screening or a market economy status,” said Karásková.

But analysts also stressed that several other high-level politicians – with Czech president Zeman as the most striking example – as well as officials and the media help the Chinese government expand its power in Europe.

However, most analysts are convinced that political destabilisation in V4 countries is not in the Chinese interest and thus poses no threat to the unity of the European Union.

“I firmly believe that the main aim of China’s influencing efforts is Western Europe and not Central and Eastern Europe,” said Tamás Matura, an expert on China and a professor at Corvinus University in Budapest.

“There is no doubt that the 16+1 initiative will increase Chinese influence in CEE, but it also creates a win-win situation and brings new opportunities to develop the region,” the former Hungarian Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy told Political Capital

What India and China can do to build bridges


New Delhi cannot restrict itself to anyone camp and should try to harness opportunities, as and when they arise.


 |   Long-form |   19-04-2018



The 5th India-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, was held in Beijing at an interesting time. In the past few months, both India and China, despite their deep divergences on strategic and economic issues, and the strains caused as a consequence of the Doklam standoff in 2017, are trying to put relations back on track by increasing the level of engagement at the governmental level.

Significantly, this dialogue, the first after the Doklam standoff -which led to the freezing of dialogue between the two countries in 2017 - was held days after the Boao Forum, where Chinese President and leader for life, Xi Jinping, made an interesting address articulating his vision on a myriad of important, but complex issues, such as globalisation, and geopolitics, especially the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The Strategic and Economic Dialogue

At the dialogue, India was represented by Rajiv Kumar, vice chairman Niti (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog, while China was represented by He Lifeng, chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Apart from bilateral issues - trade, investment, infrastructural cooperation and economic connectivity - the trade dispute between US and China, and possible impact, including opportunities, for India-China relations, also figured in the discussions.

Economic issues

On the trade dispute between Beijing and Washington DC, India was unequivocal, that it would remain neutral in the dispute. India did suggest to China, that it should consider importing soya and sugar from India. China's imports of agricultural commodities, from the US, are to the tune of $20 billion.

Possible Chinese investments in India

For long, both sides have also been discussing the possibility of China setting up special clusters in India. During the dialogue, this issue was discussed again, with the Indian delegation stating that there is great scope for China to set up special clusters in areas such as textiles, food processing, electronic components and pharmaceuticals. It may be pertinent to point out that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was first signed in June 2014 between Indian state governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana and Chinese agencies) for the setting up of industrial parks. So far, not much has been achieved.

In the area of infrastructure, cooperation was sought to be explored in the area of railways (specifically for increasing the speed of the Chennai-Bangalore railway corridor, and upgradation of Agra-Jhansi railway stations). India also invited China to invest in the Housing for all program by 2022.

Connectivity and Belt and Road Initiative

On issues like BRI, differences between both sides persisted, with China stating that Bangladesh China India and Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor was one of the important corridors of the BRI. New Delhi disagreed, and stated that the BCIM project began way before the idea of BRI was conceived.

India also stated that at this point of time, India was more focused on projects such as the Asean trilateral highway project (India-Myanmar-Thailand), which would boost its "Act East Policy".

Even on India's concerns with regard to CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), there was no real progress with China not paying enough attention to India's concerns, that CPEC passes through disputed territory and it is a major sovereignty issue. After the Chinese president's speech at the Boao Forum, some in India had believed that China may be more sensitive to addressing India's concerns on BRI. Commenting on the BRI, President Xi said:

"China has no geopolitical calculations, seeks no exclusionary blocs and imposes no business deals on others."

Interestingly, China did take note of India's Act East Policy and infrastructural projects being upgraded in India's North Eastern Region.

The issue of "soft power" also came up during the discussions with India suggesting that in addition to the current working groups, and additional one be set up on culture. Of late, Indian movies have been doing very well in China, with the latest success being Hindi Medium, whose box-office collection was nearing Rs 200 crore as of April 14. Earlier movies like Secret Superstar (Rs 450 crore) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (Rs 300 crore) had won Chinese heart. Indian film star Aamir Khan, also one of the producers of both Dangal and Secret Superstar has a large number of fans on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website, and has also expressed interest in working with Chinese actors.

Even strained ties between both countries have not been an obstacle to the success of Hindi movies in China. In fact, the success of Bollywood movies in China receives extensive coverage in Chinese media.

Challenges for both sides

Amid US president's insular economic policies, and intransigence on issues pertaining to climate change, there is space for India and China to cooperate.

For any meaningful progress, however, a few steps need to be taken:

China needs to genuinely address Indian concerns on BRI. Indian ambassador to China, Gautam Bambawale, in an interview to South China Morning Post, while commenting on India's apprehensions had said:

"If a project meets those norms, we will be happy to take part in it. One of the norms is the project should not violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country. Unfortunately, there is this thing called CPEC, which is called a flagship project of BRI, which violates India's sovereignty and territory integrity. Therefore, we oppose it,"

At the same time, New Delhi should also have a more pragmatic vision towards BRI. While New Delhi should not give up its stance on the "sovereignty issue", synergies should not be ruled out, New Delhi should be open to the BCIM corridor, which seeks to connect Kunming in China to Kolkata in India.

While New Delhi is working jointly with Japan in projects like the Africa Asia Growth Corridor and even countries in the Indo-Pacific have spoken in terms of strengthening connectivity projects, New Delhi should look at all options. If Japan and China are willing to work jointly on connectivity projects, (during a meeting between foreign ministers of both countries in Tokyo, this issue was discussed) both, there is no reason why New Delhi should be totally closed to the BRI. Considering the fact, that China is planning to extend CPEC till Afghanistan, New Delhi cannot afford to be excessively rigid to participating in the project.

Second, in areas like investments, infrastructure and agriculture, it is important to get Indian state governments and Chinese provinces onboard by rotation.

The Fourth Strategic Dialogue in October 2016, where India was represented by then vice chairman of Niti Aayog, Arvind Panagariya and China, by Xu Shaoshi, chairman of National Development and Reform Commission, People's Republic of China witnessed the participation of India's Coastal Provinces and presentations by them on possible investment opportunities. It was also decided that greater cooperation between both sides in manufacturing is needed. The minutes of the Dialogue are as follows:

"... representatives of different states, viz., Gujarat, Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and CEO, Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation Ltd. made presentations in the Working Group… The State Government representatives gave presentations on the opportunities in the above sector in the coastal regions of India… Mr Li Xuedong (Deputy Director General NDRC) stressed that the Statement of principles on Manufacturing and Industrial Capacity between NDRC, China and NITI Aayog, India to be signed on October 7 by two Chairmen of the 4th India China SED, would mark the good beginning of manufacturing and industrial capacity cooperation between the two sides. With active participation of Chinese local governments and Indian states….

Since in recent years, a number of states and provinces which were not pro-active in the relationship have begun to play a role in the bilateral relationship. Off late for instance, China has shown an interest in Eastern India (especially West Bengal) due to interest in the BCIM project.The Chinese side can also include provinces, like Jiangsu, which have done well in agriculture, and states like Punjab have sought to build linkages with them. While the India-China Forum of State Provincial Leaders has not been able to enhance the participation of states and provinces in the bilateral relationship to the degree possible and feasible, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue should seek to make Indian states and Chinese Provinces important stakeholders.

Third, while China needs to address India's concerns and cannot afford to be dismissive of India's apprehensions, New Delhi needs to move beyond a 'security' mindset. Building a constructive economic relationship will be very tough without a degree of flexibility from both ends. If both sides are not genuinely flexible, the bilateral relationship will not move beyond platitudes and MoUs. China also needs to deliver on its commitments of investment in India. President Xi during his visit in 2014 had said that India would invest $20 billion over a five-year period, official estimates show that till last year, Chinese investments were a little over $1.5 billion.

Fourth, basic issues such as a more realistic - if not relaxed - visa regime, increased connectivity, and more direct flights between both countries are essential for progress in all spheres.

In conclusion, the current geopolitical and economic scenario is interesting, albeit challenging and complex, and India cannot restrict itself to anyone camp, it should try to harness opportunities, as and when they arise.

It is also important for both sides to distinguish between short-term goals, and a long-term vision, which needs to be more holistic

Survival of the European maritime technology sector depends on a firm stance from the EU


Survival of the European maritime technology sector depends on a firm stance from the EU

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"The European Commission needs to adopt a strong industrial and manufacturing policy based on reciprocity, otherwise our European maritime technology industry won't survive competition from Asian shipyards," warned Marian Krzaklewski, rapporteur of the EESC opinion on the LeaderSHIP strategy, adopted at its plenary session on 19 April. 

The EESC urges the Commission to step up the LeaderSHIP 2020 strategy's roll-out and put forward key recommendations for the sector's new LeaderSHIP 2030 strategy.

"Europe needs a specific approach for the shipbuilding and marine equipment manufacturing industry. Like China, the US, Japan and South Korea, European decision-makers must treat it as a strategic sector in Europe's economy", underlined co-rapporteur Patrizio Pesci.

In the EESC's view, such an approach must include

In terms of trade:

Efforts to conclude a comprehensive OECD agreement – including China – which would set out rules on subsidies, potentially also pricing discipline;Reciprocity between Europe and third countries as a guiding principle in both bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations, and issues linked to market access. "Protectionist measures need to be countered with the same means," says the EESC;In terms of financing:

Since the shipbuilding industry requires large amounts of capital, but access to financing is becoming increasingly difficult, the Commission should consider introducing a specific financial instrument that would enhance investment in this capital risk-intensive sector.In terms of development (research/skills):
Environmental protection, safety and security, as well as digitalisation, automation, cybersecurity or the internet of things pose major challenges for the European MT sector but also offer interesting opportunities, provided sufficient capacity for researchdevelopment and innovation is available. The Commission therefore needs to promote and - also financially - support investments in the European MT sector in the area of RDI.Furthermore, there is a strong need to rectify skills shortages. Therefore the Commission should provide substantial support to the social partners in the shipbuilding sector enabling them to continue their work at the European Skills Council for the Maritime Technology Sector.In terms of strategy:
The Commission should ensure that the maritime defence industry forms one of the pillars of the follow-up to the LeaderSHIP strategy.

The European maritime technology (MT) sector is a key industrial sector for Europe and – despite the many difficulties the sector has been confronted with, especially since the economic crisis – it is in relatively good shape. However, 2016 had not been a good year on the order book globally and even worse may still come, as a result of both protectionist policies from East Asian competitors and financial support for their own industry.

In its recent official documents ("Made in China 2025"), China has announced its ambition to become the world's leading producer of high-end ships, including cruise ships and high-tech marine equipment – currently a branch where European shipbuilders and maritime equipment manufacturers are market leaders. This will put even more pressure on one of Europe's key industrial sectors.


The European maritime technology industry sector includes all businesses involved in the design, construction, maintenance and repair of vessels and other maritime structures. There are around 300 European shipyards which have an annual turnover of approximately EUR 31 billion and employ 200 000 people.

Some 22 000 large, small and medium-sized companies produce and supply marine equipment, generating an annual turnover of approximately EUR 60 billion. They directly employ over 350 000 people. Their share of the global market is about 50%.

The European maritime technology sector invests 9% of its profits from sales in research, development and innovation – the highest rate of investment in RDI to be found in Europe.



Related content

Related bodies:

Consultative Commission on Industrial Change (CCMI)

Related events: 

534th Plenary session, 18-19 April 2018

Five ways China's past has shaped its present


Five ways China's past has shaped its present

By Prof Rana MitterUniversity of Oxford

2 hours ago

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

To understand today's headlines about China's approach to issues such as trade, foreign policy or internet censorship, turn to its past.

The country is perhaps more aware of its own history than any other major society on earth. That remembering is certainly partial - events like Mao's Cultural Revolution are still very difficult to discuss within China itself. But it is striking how many echoes of the past can be found in its present.


China remembers a time when it was forced to trade against its will. Today it regards Western efforts to open its markets as a reminder of that unhappy period.

The US and China are currently in a dispute over whether China is selling into the US while closing its own markets to American goods. Yet the balance of trade hasn't always been in China's favour.

Are we on the brink of a US-China trade war?President Xi Jinping warns against a "Cold War mentality"Donald Trump's double threat to global free trade

In Beijing, there are long memories of a period, nearly a century and a half ago, when China had little control over its own trade.


Britain attacked China in a series of Opium Wars, starting in 1839. In the decades that followed, Britain founded an institution called the Imperial Maritime Customs Service to fix tariffs on goods imported into China.

It was part of the Chinese government, but it was a very British institution, run not by a mandarin from Beijing, but a man from Portadown.

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionSir Robert Hart was the inspector-general of China's Imperial Maritime Custom Service from 1863 to 1911

Sir Robert Hart ended up becoming inspector-general of the Customs of China, which became a fiefdom for Brits for a century afterwards. Hart was honest and helped to generate a great deal of income for China.

But the memories of that time still rankle.

It was very different in the Ming dynasty, in the early 15th Century, when Admiral Zheng took seven great fleets to South East Asia, Ceylon and even the coast of East Africa to trade and show off China's might.

Image copyrightALAMYImage captionZheng He's exploits are recorded all over South East Asia, such as on the wall of this shrine in Penang, Malaysia

Zheng He's voyages were partly about making an impression. Few other empires could boast the massive fleets that it sent out across the oceans, and it was also an opportunity for strange and wonderful items be brought back to Beijing - such as China's first giraffe.

However, trade was also important, particularly in other parts of Asia. And Zhen could, and did, fight when he wanted to, defeating at least one ruler of Ceylon. Yet his voyages were a rare example of a state-driven maritime project. Most of China's overseas trade for the next few centuries would be unofficial.

Trouble with the neighbours

China has always been concerned to keep states on its borders pacified. That's part of the reason it deals so warily with an unpredictable North Korea today.

This is not the first time that China has had problems with those on its borders.

In fact, history reveals it has had worse neighbours than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who recently made a surprise visit to Beijing, his first known foreign trip since taking office in 2011.

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionThe Chinese and North Korean governments confirmed Kim Jong-un's visit once he'd leftNorth Korea talks: China cautiously 'cheering on' KoreasKim in Beijing: Why Xi's still the one he needs to seeKim Jong-un visit: What else crosses the China-North Korea border?

During the Song dynasty in 1127, a woman named Li Qingzhao fled her home in the city of Kaifeng. We know her story because she was one of China's finest poets, and her works are still widely read. She went on the run because her state was under attack.

A people from the north, the Jurchen, had burst into China after a long period of uneasy alliance with the ruling Song dynasty's emperor. The elite of China's civilisation had to spread themselves across the country as cities burned.

Li Qingzhao saw her beloved art collection scattered between various cities. Her dynasty's fate was an object lesson that appeasing the neighbours may work for only so long.

For some time, the Jin dynasty ruled Northern China, and the Song founded a new realm in the south. But in the end, both fell to a new conqueror, the Mongols.

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionFounded by Genghis Khan in the 13th Century, the Mongol empire would become the largest contiguous empire in history

The shifting lines on the map show that the definition of China has changed over time. Chinese culture is associated with certain ideas such as language, history and ethical systems like Confucianism.

However, other peoples, including Manchus and Mongols from the north, have taken China's throne at various points, ruling the country using the same ideas and principles upon which their ethnic Chinese counterparts relied.

These neighbours did not always stay put. But sometimes they embraced and exercised Chinese values just as effectively as the people from whom they took them.

Information flow

Today China's internet censors politically sensitive material, and those who utter political truths deemed problematic by the authorities may be arrested or worse.

The difficulty of speaking truth to power has long been an issue. China's historians have often felt they had to write what the state wanted rather than what they thought was important.

Carrie Gracie: The thoughts of Chairman XiChina congress: How authorities censor your thoughtsSocial media and censorship in China: how is it different to the West?

But Sima Qian - often dubbed China's "grand historian" - chose a different path.

Image copyrightALAMYImage captionDespite his disgrace, Sima Qian's works have been extremely influential

The author of one of the most important works chronicling China's past, in the 1st Century BC, he dared to defend a general who had lost a battle. In doing so he was held to have snubbed the emperor, and was sentenced to castration.

Yet he left behind a legacy which has shaped the writing of history in China to this day.

Find out more:

Professor Rana Mitter presents Chinese Characters on BBC Radio 4, a series of 20 essays exploring Chinese history through the life stories of key personalitiesYou can listen to the programmes on the BBC Radio 4 website, or download the Chinese Characters podcast

His Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) mixed different types of sources, critiqued figures from the historical past, and also used the techniques of oral history to find out directly from participants what had actually happened.

All of this was a very new way of doing history, but it set a precedent for later writers: if you were willing to risk your safety, you could write history "warts and all", rather than censoring yourself.

Freedom of religion

Modern China is much more tolerant of religious practice than in the days of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution - within limits - but past experience makes it cautious about faith-driven movements which could potentially spiral out of control and pose a challenge to the government.

Records show that openness to religion has long been part of Chinese history.

Image copyrightALAMYImage captionDuring her 7th Century reign, Empress Wu Zetian embraced and promoted Buddhism

At the height of the Tang dynasty in the 7th Century, the Empress Wu Zetian embraced Buddhism as a way of pushing back against what she must have regarded as the stifling norms of China's Confucian traditions.

In the Ming dynasty, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrived at court and was treated as a respected interlocutor, although there was perhaps more interest in his knowledge of Western science than his slightly wan attempts to convert his listeners.

But faith has always been a dangerous business.

Chinese police detain 'female Jesus cult' membersWhy many Christians in China have turned to underground churchesReligion ban for China Communist Party ex-officialsChina and the Church: The 'outlaw' do-it-yourself bishop

In the late 19th Century, China was convulsed by a rebellion started by Hong Xiuquan, a man who claimed to be Jesus's younger brother.

The Taiping rebellion promised to bring a kingdom of heavenly peace to China but actually led to one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, killing as many as 20 million people, according to some accounts.

Government troops initially failed to tame the rebels, and had to allow local soldiers to reform themselves before they eventually put down the Taiping with great cruelty in 1864.

Image copyrightALAMYImage captionThe Taiping rebellion was eventually defeated with the help of British and French forces

Christianity would be at the centre of another uprising some decades later. In 1900, peasant rebels calling themselves Boxers would appear in north China, calling for death to Christian missionaries and converts, the latter being characterised as traitors to China.

At first, the Imperial Court backed them, which lead to the death of many Chinese Christians, before the uprising was eventually put down.

Through much of the following century, and to the present day, the Chinese state has veered between tolerance of religion, and the fear that it may upend the state.


Today China seeks to become a world hub for new technology. A century ago it went through an earlier industrial revolution - and women were central to both.

China is a world leader when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), voice recognition, and big data.

Will China beat the world to nuclear fusion and clean energy?Should the West suspect Chinese tech?China's AI ambitions

A large number of the smartphones around the world are built with Chinese-made chips. Many of the factories which manufacture them are staffed by young women who often endure horrific conditions of work, but who are also finding a place in the industrial market economy for the first time.

They have inherited the experience of the young women who came 100 years ago to the factories that sprang up in Shanghai and the Yangtze delta.

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

They were not making computer chips, but silk and cotton threads.

Work was hard and likely to cause lung disease or physical injury, and conditions in the workers' dormitories were spartan.

Yet the women also recalled the pleasure of having their own wages, however, small, and the ability to visit a fair or theatre on a rare holiday.

Some made the journey to look - probably not buy - at the shiny new department stores in central Shanghai, one of the ultimate symbols of modernity.

Today, on Nanjing Road in that city, you can still see China's new working and middle class enjoying a wide range of consumer goods as part of China's contemporary tech-driven economy.

The view from future historians?

We are living through another significantly transformative era for China. Future historians will note that a country that was poor and inward-looking in 1978 became - within a quarter of a century - the second biggest economy in the world.

They will also note that China was the most important country to push back against what had seemed like an inevitable tide of democratisation.

Perhaps other factors such as the one-child policy (now ended) and the use of AI surveillance may catch future writers' attention. Or maybe it will be something else to do with the environment, space exploration or economic growth, which is not yet even obvious to us.

One thing is almost certain - a century from now, China will still be a place of fascination for those who live there and those who live with it, and its rich history will continue to inform its present and future direction.

About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

Prof Rana Mitter is professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford, and is director of the University China Centre.