BARF (Belt and Road Forum)

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We are currently in the midst of a massive propaganda barrage unleashed upon the world by the People’s Republic of China.  It’s all about something that started out being called “Yīdài yīlù 一帶一路” (“One Belt One Road”), at least that’s what it was named when I first heard about it a year or two ago.  The Chinese publicists writing about it in English may have just styled it “The Belt and Road”, but everybody I know spoke of it as “One Belt One Road” — “OBOR” for short, which reminded me of Über.

The “Belt” part stands for an economic trade zone across Eurasia that attempts to revivify the so-called “Silk Road” of old.  Never mind that the whole concept of a “Silk Road” was the recent invention of a Westerner; it does not have a deep history in China.

Let’s get this straightened out right away.  The idea of a “Silk Road” was a late 19th-century invention by the great geographer and naturalist, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905), and it was he who coined the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road(s)” or “Silk Route(s)” in 1877.  All modern terms for “Silk Road”, including the English, such as Chinese “Sīchóu zhī lù 丝绸之路” and Japanese “Shirukurōdo シルクロード”, ultimately derive from the German.  Incidentally, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen was an uncle of the renowned WWI flying ace Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918), whom we all know from reading “Peanuts” (or from history books!) as the “Red Baron“.  Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen was also the Doktorvater of the daring, distinguished Swedish explorer, Sven Anders Hedin (1865-1952), who led repeated expeditions to Central Asia, especially the Tarim Basin, where the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age mummies that I’ve been investigating since 1991 were discovered.

OBOR is very much a Chinese imperialist enterprise.  It is founded on and continues the vast Manchu expansion during the Qing Dynasty.  See Peter Perdue’s magisterial China Marches West:  The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Harvard University Press / Belknap Press, 2010).


A German imperialist paved the way for China to revive the ‘Silk Road’” (Quartz, 5/13/17)

The “Road” part of “One Belt One Road”, oddly enough, refers to the oceanic route that stretches from China to the Middle East.

As we’ve been subjected to the mind-numbing propaganda concerning OBOR for the past few months, there has been a bewildering proliferation of names for this pet project of the Core Leader (Xi Jinping).  Thus we have “One Belt One Road” (OBOR), “Belt and Road” (BAR, B&R), etc.  But the full, official designation of the project is this cumbersome title:

Sīchóu zhī lù jīngjì dài hé 21 shìjì hǎishàng sīchóu zhī lù 丝绸之路经济带和21世纪海上丝绸之路 (“The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road”)

See the English and Chinese Wikipedia articles here and here.

But that’s not enough!  In a comment to another post, TheStrawMan asked how “One Belt One Road” came to be renamed the “Belt and Road Initiative”.  Indeed, I seem to have been hearing “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) more often than OBOR during the last few weeks of the crescendo building up to the climax of the BARF / BRF itself this past weekend.

I have a hypothesis about how the name “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) came about.  So far as I can determine, it appears to have arisen in English writing about OBOR, not from the Chinese propaganda machine itself.

Of course, you can translate the “initiative” of “Belt and Road Initiative” into Chinese as “chàngyì 倡议”, but it’s only done on an ad hoc basis in reaction to the English designation.  I haven’t seen an official, fixed Chinese equivalent of “Belt and Road Initiative”.

As far back as August 13, 2015, there was this detailed discussion of English terminology for OBOR in a publication of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which was reissued on November 24, 2015 by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party, that was fully cognizant of the use of “initiative” in connection with OBOR / BAR.  It is striking that, in the entire piece, even though it mentions “initiative” seven times, it does not once translate it into “chàngyì 倡议”, nor does it propose a Chinese equivalent for “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”, despite the fact that it warmly endorses use of “initiative” in English, as in the rather bizarre final paragraph:

Cǐwài, bǐzhě jiànyì, jiāng “Silk Belt and Road Initiative” suōxiě xíngshì dìng wèi SBRIN, yǔ “spring” (chūntiān) hé chángyòng Yīngwén rénmíng “Sabrina” yīn jìn, bùdàn jiǎndān yì jì, érqiě ràng rén fù yú zhèngmiàn liánxiǎng.

此外,笔者建议,将Silk Belt and Road Initiative缩写形式定为SBRIN,与spring(春天)和常用英文人名Sabrina音近,不但简单易记,而且让人富于正面联想。

In addition, the author suggests that “Silk Belt and Road Initiative” be abbreviated as “SBRIN”, whose sound is close to “spring” and the commonly used English personal name “Sabrina”.  Not only is it simple and easy to remember, it is full of positive associations.

Cf. this article in Chinese from Taiwan for additional lucubrations concerning how to say “Yīdài yīlù 一帶一路” (“One Belt One Road”) in English.

It looks as though the Chinese thoroughly approved of “initiative” being attached to OBOR / BR, but didn’t bother to come up with something equivalent in English.  When they did add an explanatory or amplificatory extension to OBOR / BR, it would be something like the following:

jīngjì zhànlüè 经济战略 (“economic strategy”)

zhànlüè gòuxiǎng 战略构想 (“strategic vision”)

gāofēng lùntán 高峰论坛 (“forum”)

[References here and here]

Notice the militaristic overtones of the first two items.

When Xi Jinping appeared at Davos in January of this year, it was already clear then that he had grand aspirations for China to displace the United States as the leading force for economic globalization.  With BARF this past weekend, it was evident that he had no less than a new world order in mind.

Xi and his minions are pouring enormous energy and funding into OBOR.  This is nowhere more evident than in the vast amount of resources that have been devoted to propaganda promoting this ambitious initiative, including bedtime stories for little children:

Chinese propagandists are using adorable kids to take on Donald Trump” (Ana Swanson, WP, 5/18/17)

Embedded in this article are three saccharine videos.  The first pounds into your brain what “Yīdài yīlù 一帶一路” (“One Belt One Road”) is all about.  The second, from the notorious Fuxing (blush!) Studio (see here and here) strives to inform you that the road is on the sea and the belt connects the land.  The third has a father telling his little daughter stories about how “China’s president, Xi Jinping” (the name is muffled / garbled) is recreating anew the fabled, so-called “Silk Road”.

As though we haven’t had enough of this gushing about China’s imperialistic dreams, Xi is already planning for the 2nd BARF to be convened in a couple of years.  I think that I will go into hiding for a few months during the leadup and convening of the next one.

For those who want to learn more about OBOR and BARF, here are some readings:

The Economist explains:  What is China’s belt and road initiativ?  The many motivations behind Xi Jinping’s key foreign policy” (5/15/17)

China’s new world order: Xi, Putin and others meet for Belt and Road Forum” (5/14/17)

India Objects To China’s One Belt And Road Initiative — And It Has A Point” (5/15/17)

Don’t believe China’s lies” (Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, The Week, 5/16/17)


One Belt, One Road, One Corruption

This important article by Chang Ping 长平 appeared in the Chinese edition of Deutsche Welle’s online service on May 17, 2017.  The complete English translation of this important article will appear in a forthcoming issue of China Change.  We are fortunate to be able to present it here now, thanks to the generosity of the translator, Scott Savitt.

So as not to make this long post even longer, in this instance I will forego the usual LLog practice of providing Romanization for all Chinese characters.


One Belt, One Road, Total Corruption

by Chang Ping


“…the lack of democratic supervision of ‘One Belt, One Road’ is a mechanism for corruption.”


God said: “Let there be light,” and then there was light. Xi Jinping said: “A ‘Project of the Century’ must be undertaken,” and then there was “One Belt, One Road.” At the just-completed summit in Beijing, Xi Jinping announced that China will invest hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars in 60 countries to lead in the construction of bridges, railways, ports and energy projects. This venture is known as “One Belt, One Road,” and involves more than 60 percent of the world’s population. It’s projected to transform the global political and economic order, and can be said to be the largest overseas investment project undertaken by a single country in history.


Where does such an unprecedented, magnificent, and spectacular plan come from? How many Chinese were aware of it in advance? Was it critically evaluated? And what was the outcome of the evaluation? Other than Xi Jinping, there is probably no one who can answer these questions. And no one knows if he himself has carefully thought about it. People can at least learn about almighty God by reading the Bible. But the “One Belt, One Road” plan of renewing the world only consists of a few pages of empty speeches and some conference documents. According to Chinese media descriptions, the whole world is heralding the birth of a new savior.


‘One Belt, One Road’: Don’t Ask Me Where I Came From

马丁·路德发起的宗教改革已经五百年了,可是在中国,一个腐败的”教会”仍然可以垄断一切。理性的欧洲人投出了怀疑的目光。默克尔总理没有亲临论坛”共襄盛举”,与会的德国经济部长齐普里斯(Brigitte Zypries)对中国收购德企部分资金的来路不明提出了批评。齐普里斯部长还应该看到,来路不明的不只是部分资金,而是整个”一带一路”工程。

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, but in China a corrupt “church” still monopolizes everything. Rational Europeans cast a suspicious eye. German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not attend the forum and “join in the festivities,” and the German Minister for Economics and Energy, Brigitte Zypries, who attended the event, criticized the unclear source of capital in China’s acquisition of German companies. Minister Zypries should also see that the lack of clarity does not just apply to the origin of part of the capital, but the whole “One Belt, One Road” project.

中国欧盟商会主席伍德克(Joerg Wuttke)近日在接受媒体采访时表示:”我希望中国不仅仅是想接触世界,而是真的要拥抱世界,开放对外贸易。”风险分析专家吉尔霍姆(Andrew Gilholm)分析说:”我认为,很多人都不相信这一切真的都是为了自由贸易和全球繁荣。” 布鲁塞尔南亚民主论坛主任沃尔夫(Siegfried O Wolf)则说得更清楚:目前在欧盟同中国之间就”一带一路”问题仍然缺乏一个有效的平台。只要中国不愿构建这一桥梁,不愿走向多边机制以及不顾建立在良政、法治、人权、民主基础上的欧盟价值观,欧洲方面对”一带一路”的怀疑态度就会继续下去。

Joerg Wuttke, President of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said in a recent interview: “I hope China is actually embracing the world and opening up to foreign trade instead of just reaching out.” Risk analyst Andrew Gilholm said: “I don’t think many people are buying the spin that this is all in the name of free trade and global prosperity.” Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at South Asia Democratic Forum in Brussels, was even more candid: “At present there is a lack of an effective platform for ‘One Belt, One Road’ cooperation between Europe and China. If China is reluctant to build this bridge, and is unwilling to move toward multilateral mechanisms and disregards the values of the European Union based on good governance, rule of law, human rights, and democracy, then European skepticism of ‘One Belt, One Road’ will continue.”

欧洲之外的国家并非就不理性。生意人出身的美国总统特朗普对中国的创世工程保持了观望态度,仅派出国家安全委员会亚洲高级主任马修·波丁格(Matthew Pottinger)出席会议。澳大利亚则拒绝了中国的邀请。印度抵制了这一峰会,表示”一带一路”计划忽视了”有关主权与领土完整的核心关切”。出席峰会的领导人中很多是独裁者,他们不会在乎中国资金的来路不明,也知道中国政府也不会在乎他们拿到投资之后去路不清。

Countries outside Europe aren’t irrational either. U.S. President Donald Trump, a businessman, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward China’s Creation Project, and only sent National Security Council Asia Director Matthew Pottinger to attend the meeting. Australia rejected China’s invitation. India boycotted the summit, saying that the “One Belt, One Road” project ignored “core concerns about sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Many of the leaders attending the summit are autocrats who don’t care about the questionable origin of China’s funding, and know the Chinese government doesn’t care how the investment is actually used once it’s given.


Buy One, Give Two Away: Corruption and the Deterioration of Human Rights


Many Chinese believe that Xi Jinping is leading a fight against corruption. What is corruption? Corruption is not just the result of money being misused, but the lack of a fair and transparent mechanism itself. In this sense, the lack of democratic supervision of “One Belt, One Road” is a mechanism for corruption. As with all large projects in China, there is no restriction on power, and this inevitably results in the criminal activities of corruption, rent-seeking, giving and taking bribes and money laundering.


While the Chinese media was obediently singing the praises of “One Belt, One Road” and its benefit to all mankind, a Chinese netizen posted the comment: “Some people lamented that overnight we’ve returned to the Song Dynasty [translator’s note: Song is a homonym for “give away” in Mandarin]. Others asked: the Southern Song Dynasty or the Northern Song Dynasty? Answer: No, it’s not ‘Southern Song Dynasty or Northern Song Dynasty,’ it’s the ‘Eastern Song [Give-Away] Dynasty’ and ‘Western Song [Give-Away] Dynasty!” Without public oversight, an unelected leader can take hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars in taxpayers’ money and give it to authoritarian states. The only thing that taxpayers can do is sneer at and mock it. Can a sane person believe that this is a good thing?


In the process of cooking up “One Belt, One Road,” China’s human rights situation has significantly deteriorated and threatens the whole world. Can all these—the kidnapping of Hong Kong booksellers, the coerced confessions of journalists, NGO workers, dissidents, and activists on China Central Television (CCTV), the disappearance of a Taiwanese human rights worker, and the cruel torture suffered by a large number of Chinese human rights lawyers—make you believe that such a government, which is expanding its economic and political clout through the “One Belt, One Road” program, will bring a New Gospel to mankind?


Chang Ping is a Chinese media veteran and current events commentator now living in political exile in Germany.
This is a Deutsche Welle column.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    May 19, 2017 @ 7:06 pm

    This section seems (not surprisingly) to have lost something in translation, which is the almost inevitable fate of all puns:


    The meaning seems to be: “There is a skit popular amongst Chinese netizens that goes: “Some people lament that almost overnight we’re back to the Great Song dynasty (in Chinese pronounced the same as ‘great giveaway’).” “Which one, the Northern Song or the Southern Song?” “Neither, they’re giving away east and west!”

    This is a great comic use of puns, but how do you get the English speaker from “Northern Song” and “Southern Song” to “giving away left and right” (that is, east and west) in translation?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2017 @ 8:35 pm

    This website from the PRC Ministry of Commerce does mention “Yīdài yīlù” chàngyì “一带一路”倡议 (“‘One Belt One Road’ initiative”) five times, but note that the “initiative” is not part of the name. Note furthermore that this article, which is titled “Yīdài yīlù” chàngyì de tíchū “一带一路”倡议的提出 (“proposal for ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative”), also mentions — twelve times, and almost exclusively after the beginning part — “Yīdài yīlù” jiànshè “一带一路”建设 (“construction of ‘One Belt One Road'”).

    The article mentions “一带一路” (“One Belt One Road”) without any extension nine times.

    It mentions “Yīdài yīlù” chàngyì zhànlüè “一带一路”倡议战略 (“strategy of the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative”) one time.

    It mentions “Yīdài yīlù” zhànlüè “一带一路”战略 (“‘One Belt One Road’ strategy”) one time.

    It mentions “Yīdài yīlù” de chàngyì “一带一路”的倡议 (“initiative of ‘One Belt One Road'”), with the “initiative” clearly separated from the “One Belt One Road” by the attributive particle “de 的”, one time.

    The article is not explicitly dated, but judging from internal evidence (last date mentioned), it was probably written toward the end of 2015.
    All in all, this article does not provide convincing evidence that “Yīdài yīlù” chàngyì “一带一路”倡议 (“‘One Belt One Road’ initiative”) was considered to be one of the official titles of OBOR during the first few years of its existence.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    May 20, 2017 @ 11:59 am

    So many Christian metaphors… here in Germany, it would be difficult to cram that many into such a short article, despite the Luther jubilee exhibitions.

    Straßen is just the plural of Straße (“street”, “road”), in this case expressing the existence of more northerly and more southerly routes along some stretches of the Silk Road.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    May 20, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

    Incidentally, the official logo for the Belt and Road Initiative (it never occurred to me that the Road part actually refers to the sea) carries the letters BRF. BARF is just a little uncharitable.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2017 @ 5:33 pm


    Yes, it is BRF on the logo, perhaps to save a little space, but you will see BARF around aplenty.

    Most people instinctively think that “Road” refers to the land route and “Belt” refers to the sea route. I had to keep checking the long Chinese official title to make sure that was wrong, and it was actually the other way around: the road is on the sea and the belt is on the land.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

    @David Marjanović

    Conceptually, we have this problem in English too, and people argue over it: Silk Road or Silk Roads.

  7. John Swindle said,

    May 20, 2017 @ 6:00 pm

    A shelterbelt (Great Plains, 1930s,, hello?) can also be called a windbreak, a potential counterpoint to BARF.

  8. Smut Clyde said,

    May 22, 2017 @ 3:12 am

    I suppose “Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” was already taken.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

    From Eidolon:

    Wait a minute, what exactly is imperialist about the One Belt One Road initiative? Isn’t it an economic infrastructure project designed to link up the underdeveloped western regions of China with Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe? Plenty of objections maybe raised over the transparency and intentions of such a project but how can it be considered an instance of Chinese, much less a continuation of Manchu, imperialism?

    Xi Jinping is obviously an economic nationalist who is more interested in what benefits China – and especially the CCP – than what happens to the rest of the world. But we shouldn’t throw around terms like ‘imperialism’ without justification.

  10. Bathrobe said,

    May 22, 2017 @ 8:03 pm


    Surely this is just an exercise in semantics. And since you haven’t defined ‘imperialism’, it’s hard to know exactly what your point is. Web sources give definitions ranging from ‘the extension of power by the acquisition of territories’ (Wikipedia) to ‘gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas; broadly : the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence’ (Merriam-Webster). That leaves us with a very broad target for criticising ‘imperialism’.

    Given that the Chinese initiative 1) involves the expansion of influence into areas that were traditionally controlled by the Russians, 2) attempts to secure Chinese access to the Indian Ocean by outflanking India through China’s ally Pakistan, 3) involves Chinese economic involvement in ways that are not always to the benefit of the host country (see Guyana, Sri Lanka, Myanmar), and 4) is couched in terms of bilateral frameworks whereby the locus of coordination lies entirely in Beijing, accusations of ‘imperialism’ (in its broad sense) are not necessarily unjustified. Whether you agree with them may depend on your politics and sympathies.

    Since, as you say, plenty of objections may be raised over the transparency and intentions of the initiative, and imperialist projects are no longer trumpeted as such, perhaps your protest could do with a little more clarification.

  11. Eidolon said,

    May 26, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

    @Bathrobe I was not aware that “imperialism” has nowadays been extended to mean economic influence/investment/involvement and bilateral treaty frameworks, as opposed to its original semantics having to do with the imposition of outside sovereignty. Generalizing the four criteria you gave – almost every major country is engaged in “imperialism,” and call me old-fashioned, but that just cheapens the term and renders it much less useful.

  12. Bathrobe said,

    May 26, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

    @ Eidolon. I appreciate your attempt to impose what you call “the original semantics”. However, the “imposition of outside sovereignty” is itself a vague enough definition with plenty of room for dispute. And dispute there is aplenty about how “imperialism” can be defined. I’ve dredged a few definitions from the Internet: Acquisition by a government of other governments or territories, or of economic or cultural power over other nations or territories, often by force. Colonialism is a form of imperialism.

    Britannica: Imperialism, state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas.

    Michael Parenti: the process whereby the dominant politico-economic interests of one nation expropriate for their own enrichment the land, labor, raw materials, and markets of another people.

    Edward Said (via Wikipedia): any system of domination and subordination organised with an imperial center and a periphery.

    Wikipedia’s definition of “American imperialism”: the economic, military and cultural philosophy that the United States, either directly or indirectly, affects and controls other countries or their policies. Such influence is often closely associated with expansion into foreign territories.

    Most definitions are more expansive than “the imposition of outside sovereignty”.

    Note also that the imperialistic nature of OBOR has already been put forward by others. From the Monthly Review, an “independent socialist magazine”:

    “In late 2013, Chinese premier Xi Jinping announced a pair of new development and trade initiatives for China and the surrounding region: the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road,” together known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR). Along with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the OBOR policies represent an ambitious spatial expansion of Chinese state capitalism, driven by an excess of industrial production capacity, as well as by emerging financial capital interests. The Chinese government has publicly stressed the lessons of the 1930s overcapacity crisis in the West that precipitated the Second World War, and promoted these new initiatives in the name of “peaceful development.” Nevertheless, the turn to OBOR suggests a regional scenario broadly similar to that in Europe between the end of the nineteenth century and the years before the First World War, when strong nations jostled one another for industrial and military dominance. The OBOR strategy combines land power and maritime power, bolstering China’s existing oceanic hegemony in East Asia.”

    Are they biased? Almost certainly. But no more than attempts to tailor the definition of imperialism to support a personal view that OBOR is simply “an economic infrastructure project designed to link up the underdeveloped western regions of China with Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe”.

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