Research Projects

Chinese Modernity and Soft Power on the Belt and Road

(Funded under Research Fellow Scheme 2020 – 2021 Exercise, Research Grants Council, Hong Kong)

Principal Investigator

David A. Palmer, Professor, Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences and Department of Sociology

Total Fund Awarded

HKD 5,155,380

Project Duration

60 months

Project Description

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), involving investments of over $1 trillion in over 100 countries in Eurasia, Africa and Latin America, is literally redrawing the map of interconnectivity in much of the world, situating China at the centre of an expanding web of ports, railroads, highways, bridges, economic zones and trading hubs. It has been described as the largest infrastructure and investment project in history. Until now, most discussion and research on the BRI has focused on physical infrastructures, financial investments and commerce. This discourse ignores that the new routes will not only facilitate the flow of goods and funds, but also of people, ideas and culture. Indeed, the BRI strategy includes exporting culture and influence, in the form of Chinese “soft power”.

This project will assess the nature and dynamics of Chinese soft power in the context of the BRI, by using ethnographic methods to identify the factors which, in local contexts, enhance or restrain the socio-cultural influence of “Chinese modernity.” The project’s ethnographic and qualitative methodology will shift the focus of research away from the abstract and general tenor of most studies on Chinese soft power, to the lived experience, perceptions and transformations of people in specific local communities. Case studies will investigate the dynamic interaction between Chinese modernity and local cultures and societies, in the context of formal Chinese Soft Power (CSP) strategies and programmes including scholarships, language and culture programmes, humanitarian projects, and media presence.

The project will conduct five case studies to be located in different countries of the Asia-Pacific or Africa, covering a representative geographic range of countries and building on the regional expertise and capacity of the highest quality postgraduate students and postdocs selected for the project. Each case study will focus on a single town or city, building on ethnographic research and interviews with participants in CSP programmes, and extending to the communities and networks within which these programmes and their participants are embedded.

The case studies will be compared to build models on (1) the attributes of Chinese modernity as they are perceived and experienced in different local contexts; (2) the local reception and impact of CSP programmes; (3) the factors that enhance or restrain the influence of both the CSP programmes and Chinese modernity more generally; (4) the new types of social networks and cultural forms that emerge out of the interaction between local socio-cultural realities and those Chinese influences.

The empirical case studies will contribute to theory building in anthropology, sociology, political science and international relations: developing the theorization of “multiple modernities” through the conceptualization of “Chinese modernity” in its dynamic relations with non-Chinese, non-Western societies; and enriching theories of soft power and Chinese geopolitics through insights from the empirical cases.

The project will generate expertise on China-local cultural dynamics in BRI nations, that can be translated into policy and operational recommendations for governmental, educational and community organizations.