‘ROADWORK: An Anthropology of Infrastructure at China’s Inner Asian Borders’ is a four-year research project (2018-2023) funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and based at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich. The project team will conduct ethnographic fieldwork along roads that have been designated as key links at the Sino-Inner Asian interface of the China-initiated Silk Road Economic Belt. Archival research and GIS analysis, two further research methods employed by the team, will help to identify social relations and temporalities that are difficult to capture through ethnography, but which nonetheless powerfully affect roads and travel in this region of Asia. The conceptual aim of the project is to propose a novel framework to theorize the social life of roads through a dialogue with the concepts of place and time, and to bring decay and maintenance to the centre of anthropological enquiry.

Contours of enquiry

In 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping formulated the idea of the Silk Road Economic Belt (丝绸之路经济带), which is to transform East, Inner and South Asia, the Middle East and Europe into an interconnected space of exchange. The networks of infrastructure — roads, railways, pipelines — are to embrace the Eurasian continent and ‘break the connectivity bottleneck’ in Asia (Reuters 2014). Since the plan was announced, the Economic Belt and the connectivity it promises have attracted massive international attention. This promise, and the nearly magical powers ascribed to transport infrastructure to generate peace and prosperity, and unite the states and people along the Economic Belt, are at the very core of the Chinese discourse around it.

For the past fifteen years, China has invested massively in long-distance transport infrastructure connecting eastern provinces and the long-underfunded western and northern border regions. Parallel to this, the scope of China’s infrastructural activities has expanded on an unprecedented scale into the territories of its western neighbours. Since 2013, all these projects at the westward arc have been discursively subsumed under the label of the Silk Road Economic Belt. While China has been intent on such construction efforts in order to enhance its GDP and create technological, labour and capital dependencies across Eurasia, the questions of inevitable material decay, as well as the politics of infrastructure maintenance are virtually absent from the debate.

Though decay and mundane maintenance lack the freshness and appeal of construction, discussing them in the context of the Economic Belt is crucial for a number of reasons. First, Chinese border regions abound in ruins produced by earlier developmental campaigns: villages to which people never moved, urban neighbourhoods that stand empty, development zones that have not attracted businesses and bombastic museums that do not house any exhibitions. These omnipresent ruins suggest that construction in China is often linked to speculation, corruption and short-sighted megalomania. The question which thus must be asked is: How many of the projects pursued in the name of the New Silk Road will turn into similar, unmaintained ruins when the major thrust of construction is over? Second, unlike construction that is a one-time intervention, maintenance implies a prolonged presence, an endeavour that is bound to create governance issues. Third, existing research on China-built infrastructures demonstrates that the objectives of road construction, and likely also road maintenance, cannot be captured in any simple functionalist arguments. Road construction may not aim at establishing connectivity, and maintenance at upholding such connectivity, both being rather part of larger business dependencies, loyalty entanglements, political agendas, export of surplus labour and steel, and attempts to boost domestic production. Hence, while road planners and engineers may have normative visions of how roads should be built and how they should be maintained to ‘function’, the present project will focus on what actually happens ‘on the ground’, that is, where these normative ideas become entangled in social relations that transform the intentions, often unrecognizably, and where grand strategy disintegrates into situated social practice and local idioms.

Steven Jackson (2015) emphasizes the importance of discussing repair as a way to deconstruct ‘seemingly unassailable systems’ such as market, capital and modernity. ‘To forget repair is to risk … granting them a power and permanence they may not … deserve.’ Rephrasing Jackson’s postulation for the purpose of the present study: Does the omission of decay, repair and maintenance in the discourse of the Economic Belt grant it a power that it may not, or not yet, deserve? And further, how does the fact that things inevitably decay relate to the belief in the transforming power of infrastructure permeating China’s leadership and exported in the idea of the Economic Belt? Amongst the currently booming interest in the Economic Belt, the present project provides the largely missing ethnographic focus on transport infrastructures that should carry the vision of the Economic Belt, and it studies them in their ambiguous complexity. By pushing time, decay and maintenance to the centre of the inquiry, it offers a radically new perspective on the current construction boom and its sustainability.