An Interview with Wade Shepard

Wade Shepard talks about the Belt and Road: Its eventual normalization, how it’s got nothing and everything to do with China, and why Western journalists can’t get it right.

It’s a common complaint of mine that there are too few people spending time on the ground, drinking in the phenomena that they spend their day jobs analysing.

All my favourite political books tend to have weighty sections of travelogue, but one man is taking that travel/politics mix to the next level…

Wade Shepard spends literally all of his time “on the ground” – he set off on his travels around the world in 1999 and hasn’t stopped since. Starting as a fruit-picking high-school graduate experiencing Europe for the first time, Wade later discovered his calling as an itinerant writer, founding Vagabond Journey, authoring a book on China’s ghost cities, and moulding himself into an astute political commentator.

In one blog post, Wade writes that his tripartite expertise – in new cities, intellectual property, and the Belt and Road – are deliberately cultivated to diversify his skill set and give him more resources with which to earn his keep on the road. But, talking to Wade, I’m certain that his interest in the Belt and Road isn’t purely the result of cold, commercial calculation.

For a start, you don’t travel Eurasia for over three years writing a book in order to make money. Secondly, he has some pretty profound and enthusiastic insights, confirming my suspicion that first hand experience is invaluable.

Jacob Mardell: I’m going to start with a dumb question. I recently saw a blog post of yours actually, that said, dumb questions lead to interesting results, so I thought I’d give it a go – What is the Belt and Road? Give us your best definition.

Wade Shepard: Well, there’s a lot of confusion about what this thing actually is, and what it isn’t, and what we think it should be – which isn’t what it actually is, so…

The Belt and Road is an infrastructure building investment scheme designed to deeper interlink China with, I mean, basically the whole world. There really is no limit to this – it’s not just Eurasia, it’s not just East Africa, it’s not just the Middle East – it’s pretty much everywhere in the world.

For the point of, I would say, gaining not only economic, but political leverage. A lot of it’s about autonomy, right – once you have countries so economically, politically dependent on you, it’s very hard for them to oppose you in an international setting, and that kind of allows the Party to do whatever they want, first of all to do whatever they want in their own country, and then also in terms of territorial claims, etc.

Basically, what China seems to have realised, is that by interweaving themselves deeper – with pretty much every aspect of as many countries as possible – they gain more power to do what they want. And, it doesn’t give them the power to take over the world – that’s not really what it’s about… But what the Belt and Road specifically does, is it secures China’s supply chains and it gives Beijing political autonomy. That’s one version of the Belt and Road.

The other version is the “New Silk Road”. Beijing is recruiting this whole New Silk Road concept and – what does Xi Jinping say? “A rising sea lifts all ships”, right? And, I guess you would define what they are trying to do really as the next phase of globalisation.

But it doesn’t add up. Because, if you look at what China is doing, and if you look at its projects, you don’t have a Belt or a Road. Right?

You have, really nothing at all but an ever growing number of Chinese infrastructure and investment projects that are spread all over the world. They don’t connect if you only look at China. And that’s kind of a problem that analysts and researchers often come to. They don’t understand how it works and how it really connects – but the problem is they’re only looking at China. They’re not looking at what Japan is doing, they’re not looking at Russia – especially they’re not looking at Russia – they’re not looking at India, they’re definitely not looking at countries like Azerbaijan, or Kazakhstan, because – these countries don’t really get a lot of press… They didn’t really brand this initiative so clearly, or so boisterously as China did, but they are essentially doing the same exact thing, and they’ve been doing it for decades.

This whole New Silk Road thing is not new. Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, they’ve been setting themselves up to participate in this transport-centered economic development scheme, or diversification. You have all these countries that are working on essentially the same project, and it’s all leading up to the same point, and what Beijing did is – they realized where everyone was heading and they kind of placed themselves at this line where everybody converges and essentially said, “this is our thing, this is our project” – and all the countries that have been working on this for a long time just said… “yeah, well… whatever they say”, you have people who are involved in this project, like, long term, way before Xi Jinping in 2013… they kindah roll their eyes a little bit when you talk about the Belt and Road, but they realize that if China’s going to put up money and if they say they’re gonna do it, they can call it whatever the hell they want, right?

These countries in the middle, they know that they need investment coming in from all sides – not just China… But Chinese investment is one of the major pieces in the puzzle. China is a major part of their plan for economic success, so – they don’t piss off China.

JM: You’ve touched on it already, but… You’re right, even researching, you see the news of China ten billion this, China five billion that, but you look at money invested, in Central Asia, elsewhere, and so much of it is money from multilateral development banks – the Asia Development Bank – so, how is the Belt and Road different from these infrastructure developments that have been going on for years, for decades.

WS: Well, I guess, thinking about how they posit the policy…

How they frame it… It’s supposed to be the interweaving, but… you don’t see that on the ground. I mean, mostly because of how we perceive this.

In the West, we don’t really have… we have a very different mentality when it comes to defining our terms and defining things. Here you can go back to ancient Chinese philosophy, or Buddhist thought. Something can be black and white at the same time. These contradictions – they aren’t really contradictions.

So when China announced this plan, we’re going ask, “What is this?”, “Where is this?”, “Where does this start and where does this end?”, “What are the parameters involved?” “How do we get involved?” And we have all these really specific questions, because that’s how we think about this stuff. But the Belt and Road can just be, you don’t have to define it, and that’s a conflict in the way of thinking. We can’t see it because we can’t define it, and we can’t stamp it and say “this thing here is Belt and Road” – because, with all our policies, we can do that. With all the European attempts in Central Asia, there is structure – “this is where it starts, this is where it ends, and this is the overarching umbrella of rules and policies under which this project falls”. And the Belt and Road – it’s just wide open. It can be anything, or not. And it just goes back to a fundamental difference in philosophies I think.

JM: But that European side, it also has benefits right? That clarity. In terms of transparency, rule of law, etc. and on the other side – that vaguery – that’s the point, it also serves China’s interests – but does it have a dark side? I mean, the critical stuff you see about transparency, lack of competition, domination of Chinese companies. Particularly, I was thinking about your on-the-ground-experience, do you see those dark sides manifest?

WS: Oh yeah that’s like the dirtiest part of this ever, I mean, you’re talking about… At the start you see things as like good guys and bad guys…

Then you realise that there are no good guys and there aren’t really any bad guys, and this is just way governments operate and how businesses operate. At the end of the day, this is a project for big government and big business and they have ways of doing things that…

American and English companies have a hard time, they don’t know how to do business in Africa, etc. It’s a different system, a way of doing business and carrying out governance that is being spread along the Belt and Road. And of course, you have these two systems that are meeting head on, and in terms of competition… the Western model is being out-competed.

First of all, we can’t move as fast. We have a lot of rules that we need to follow. It costs us more money, it takes us more time. There are more protocols that we need to follow. You know, China can do a deal with – let’s pick a country that I’m not going to anytime soon… Kazakhstan! Or like, Pakistan, they can make a deal, and boom. The leaders can sit down, and say, this is what we’re going to do, and it’ll be done. Especially in – in Malaysia. It doesn’t matter what the people say, there are no internal arguments, you can just go and do it.

You can’t do that in Europe. I mean, just look at the Budapest-Belgrade railway… China thought they could just go in there and set this thing up, put up the funding – I mean, all the countries involved want this thing, right? – and so they were just going to do it, because that’s how they think it works. But it doesn’t work like that in Europe. And that’s one of the more interesting things with this project – seeing how these different systems compete, and, at the end of the day, you know – which one ultimately works better.

JM: That’s interesting, so you are really saying – that narrative, of transparent vs. opaque, rules-based vs. corrupt – the one spun in EU response papers, that’s what it’s like on the ground – it’s real?

WS: Yeah, I mean… It’s almost masterful. It is masterful, how China is setting this up.

When you look at the rise of modern empires… I’ll put it like that – ancient empires were a little different, because they could just come in and kill everyone and takeover, right? But basically you still see these blocs of countries – allies and enemies, people we give FDI to and trade with and people we don’t, people that comply to our moral standards and those that don’t, people that match our economic system, bla bla bla. And China doesn’t give a crap – about any of that. They will make a deal with anybody. It doesn’t matter what kind of government it is. They don’t care. Because they don’t have that – I would describe it as a moral hang up. It’s just doing business with people, it’s strictly business. Two parties trying to get what they want, making a deal. And that’s what it’s about.

And it’s really interesting that China’s been able to do this. I know of no other modern state, or even any ancient state for that matter, who’s been able to so cleanly develop advanced ties with – you know, two countries on two sides of a political divide, with enemies, with Israel and Iran, North Korea and Japan, Azerbaijan and Armenia!

Because they established themselves as being 100% not part of any one group of allies, and it appears as if they’re setting up this massive dragnet – all over the world, where the one thing that every nation state has in common is a solid tie with China. You could have countries that are outcasts at the UN, but they’ll have a relationship with China, and China could become this great arbitrator of global trade, and also conflict and politics.

China is going to be the one common denominator that every country has. And that’s what the Belt and Road is. It’s not trade routes. It’s China inter-meshing itself with the mechanism of how the world works.

JM: But there are political strings, right? There’s one political string in fact. And that is, acting in China’s interests.

WS: Yeah, it’s all in China’s long term interests. China can think one hundred years ahead. They’re already getting ready for the hundred year anniversary of the Communist party, right, which is when this whole Belt and Road thing is supposed to mature, to a certain extent –

JM: Ha, that was actually one of my planned, final questions for you – but, I’ll ask it now. Potentially another dumb question, but a big one: If you were to paint a picture of the world in 2049, what would it look like?

WS: Well, in 2049. We’re not talking about the Belt and Road.

We’re not talking about the New Silk Road. Because, it’s just gonna be so normal. China having deep, underlying ties with every other country in the world and being this great global arbitrator – is, it’s going to be so normal, we’re just going to assume that’s the way it’s always been, right?

Because, humans have very short memories when it comes to major changes. Like, I also research new cities, right? And sometimes, in a new city, people who eventually come to live there, it’s only twenty years old, they don’t realise. We have very short memories. And we have these transition periods in the world, where things change very fast, and you have these great movements – but, after these movements mature, people forget that there was ever a transition period at all.

No one’s going to care to remember the day when China was this poor back water, not even in the WTO, and like 80 million people lived in caves – they’re going to think China was always powerful and ruled the world, kind of like how we do with the USA – right? We forgot all about the rise of America and how it did something very similar to what China’s doing, but not even close to the same scale.

JM: So yeah, the supreme normalisation of the Belt and Road.

WS: I imagine that it’s going to be such a deep inter-meshing, we’re not even going to be able to see it on the surface. Like how people talk about white rice – you know?

JM: I’m still holding out for the… what is it, the supersonic flying trains? Those are exciting.

WS: It’s a good idea. But yeah, I could see stuff like that happening.

But, you know, the stuff that’s around now… the physical ties and the physical links between these countries, once you get big investments for this one project that’s a multi decade, multi generational project, that kind of solidifies the bond between these two countries – because, if there’s a major dispute, or even a war, then it all goes down the drain. So it’s interesting to see how physical infrastructure is forcing countries to get a long… which is, in the interests of the world as a whole.

JM: So, I’m going to backtrack and ask a question that I was going to ask before, and which I imagine you’ve already partially answered: obviously what’s special about you, is the on the ground aspect, because, people like me – basically everyone who writes about the Belt and Road, mostly, are sitting on Google and Baidu, relying on Reuters and local media reports.

So, I wanted to ask, if you could articulate to the world at large, something that the Belt and Road literature is missing, that you think is apparent when you are there in these places – what would it be?

WS: Well, the first thing – there are two main things. First of all – it’s not a Chinese plan, it’s international.

When I started, I’d go to these projects and I’d say, where’s China? It’s supposed to be a Belt and Road project and China is nowhere in sight.

Three and a half years ago. It wasn’t clear how international this was, and it wasn’t clear how much development was being made by the countries in which these projects were happening in – and, even today, most of what we call the biggest Belt and Road initiatives are being funded and carried out by the countries and their governments directly, or by multilateral investment banks, and then China is just kindah coming in now, making investments in these different projects, and we associate it all with China – but most of it has absolutely nothing to do with China. Go out to Kazakhstan, most of their transportation infrastructure, we don’t even talk about it, but they built it completely new – it was funded by the government. Azerbaijan: theBaku-Tblisi-Kars railway, projects on the North-South Corridor – they built that. They put all the money up, they put boots on the ground.

Pakistan is one country where China is coming in and laying the groundwork. But that case is kind of an odd example, we don’t see that everywhere – mostly it’s projects that the countries themselves laid down, and then you have China coming in and making investments later on.

So just how multinational this project is… that’s one of the things not really being covered. I mean, obviously we have this bias against newly developing economies… If I write about China, it gets more views than if I write about Azerbaijan, even if it might have a bigger impact – we just don’t care about these countries because we don’t know anything about them, and we don’t take them seriously.

But China gets the credit, because China’s the big brand. And everyone wants to know – what’s China doing, what’s China doing?

JM: Do you think that’s a conscious strategy on their part, you know, being able to ride that China rise narrative – do you think there are people sitting in Zhongnanhai thinking, this is the perfect time for this.

WS: I would say yeah, I mean, they launched the Belt and Road at the perfect moment.

At the point where a lot of this infrastructure has been under construction for over ten years, right? And so they can actually make it happen and get results relatively quickly. If they started this ten years ago, the world media’s attention span isn’t that long…

This kind of development takes a lot of time, it takes years and years and years, and nobody has that kind of attention span. The Belt and Road was announced at a point where they could start taking very fast action on these things and so it would actually look like China did it. But nobody cares about it because they’re promising to put up the money, they control the flow of goods – nobody’s complaining about it, the only people it seems weird to is people like us.

JM: So it’s really just a massive marketing coup?

WS: Yeah, exactly. There’s a soft power aspect that you really can’t deny. First of all – what this means to the Chinese people, which is a very important part of Xi Jinping’s political strategy. He’s the leader of this global movement that’s going to elevate China back to the point it was at the height of the ancient Silk Road – there’s a lot of fable involved here. All of a sudden, China needs not just the Chinese Communist Party, but Xi Jinping – because he’s the visionary. Without him, you don’t have the Belt and Road. They are inseparable.

So it puts a Chinese leader in a position that a Chinese leader hasn’t been in for a very long time. You don’t associate the Belt and Road with the Chinese Communist Party, but with the brand of Xi Jinping. And the Belt and Road is an initiative that’s going to last decades, generations, you know – so it kind of solidifies his leadership position. It’s something you haven’t seen – I don’t want to say since the time of Mao, because, it’s kind of cheesy – but it’s true.

JM: Which begs the question, if the Belt and Road is such a long term initiative, wait, how old is Xi – 61, 64? What happens when he – as all of us will do – he’ll die, and then, what happens?

WS: I see one of two things happening.

Either, like after Mao dies, the country comes to its senses again and tries to clean its slate of this guy, wipe him out of relevance – all of a sudden stop talking about the Belt and Road, do away with all this Belt and Road bragging, the New Silk Road stuff, and just kind of focus on the pragmatic aspects of it, which will be very well set up by this point.

Or, Xi has a successor, who is brought up in the public eye, takes over and carries on in the same way. But, in China, they seem to like being done with their rulers after a while, they seem not to like thinking about them too much. But, like we were talking about earlier, it’s my opinion that this whole Belt and Road thing, as far as the brand is concerned, is going to go away at some point. It’s just going to become so normal.

Or the party might be kind of embarrassed about how much power they put into the hands of one individual, especially in this “era”. When Xi stepped in it was already a very well organised, developed country in some ways – so to see this kind of leadership push in a country at this stage of its political and economic development – it’s a historic oddity. Usually when you see this strongman thing, they rise out of conflict –

JM: Yeah, times of great need.

WS: Yeah, you see these guys, they rise up, they fix everything, or not, and they go away.

JM: I guess it really speaks to Chinese ambition or something.

WS: Yeah. And – but, let me answer that second part of the question – what’s kind of surprising, on the ground, in relation to what’s reported, is – how fast everything is changing.

You know, I initially planned on going everywhere once, go up and down a few routes and finish the book, but I went out the first time and nothing was done! I was going out and looking at empty fields, like 22 countries or something, and it was like – “this is our empty field, it’s behind a big fence”. So I was like, “great man, great” – it’s all about global commerce and there’s just empty fields – so I did that, and felt like I didn’t really have a book.

So I had to go over everything else a second time, and now it’s looking like a third time… But how quickly this development happened from the first time I was at many of these projects, to the second time – it’s just mind blowing. You’re talking about a time-span of like two years, three years sometimes, and you see that these empty fields aren’t really empty fields anymore. Right?

I mean, probably one of the most common things that anyone has said to me during this project is, “five years ago, there was nothing here”. I mean, there’s greenfield development, and then there’s going-out-to-the-middle-of-nowhere kind of development… And a lot of these developments are happening in the middle of nowhere, where there is literally nothing. Sand dunes – hardly even people.

And you go out there and you see – oh yeah, there’s some stuff, and if I just went once I’d assume there’s some gradual process, but no – it really just happens overnight. Especially in the tradition of Western development, we assume these things take a long time.

But China is able to build these things, unbelievably quickly. Nearly a hundred new cities in a matter of years. And foreigners go out and say, well yeah but there’s no people here. But there are no people there because five years ago it was an empty field. It’s not done yet.

I’ve been looking at this for five, over six years now, and it’s something that even I can’t comprehend – how quickly they build. And we talk about Belt and Road being this long term plan, but that physical framework of infrastructure is happening overnight. These things are going to be built – and then – Khorgos dry port, it’s going to have 100,000 people living there, it’s going to grow, it’ll happen and we’ll be like, holy shit what happened?

JM: So you’re kind of saying two things at the same time there. That it’s been there a long time, it’s been happening, and then China’s coming in and imposing their brand. But at the same time China is also building stuff quickly.

WS: It takes a long time to set up. First of all, it takes a long time to get country’s ready to do this. To be prepared, even in China, even with the Go West policy. But once it’s set up on the administrative side – it’s built. After this framework is set up, once the political aspects are straightened out, development can happen, really, really quickly.

JM: Interesting. Okay, now I just have some questions about your travelling personally – first off – when can we read your book!?

WS: Oh, I have no idea man. I don’t know – at some point this year. But I’m having this problem at the moment, with my sources going to jail or being exiled.

JM: Sounds tricky.

WS: What are you going to do? Like I said – there’s a lot of dirty aspects to the project. People that you rely on for information… and all of a sudden they’re exiled for espionage, like, can you still use them? I mean I guess so – that’s part of the project right!?

JM: I mean, it adds flavour to the story.

WS: There’s also a problem with just how massive this thing is in scale and scope, and putting together all the pieces, which a book should do. It needs to be a complete vessel and you should be able to put the cap on the vessel and say, this is a thing, in here – and I still need to do a little bit more work on that.

JM: So you’re still working on pulling it together?

WS: Yeah, I need to see how some of these more obscure projects actually develop and actually come together. The idea of doing a book is giving a trajectory of where things are actually going. So, over five or six years we’re going to see this… That’s what a book like this is about, so people can gauge where it’s going, to make investments, or know where to run – you know?

JM: I’m looking forward to it anyway. My other question was about languages – how do you cope with the language barrier, do you speak any other languages?

WS: I speak Mandarin all right, Spanish, but that’s not really too useful – but most of these projects are pretty international. So you go out there and it’s a whole mix of people from all over the world, and a lot of these people use English. I don’t speak Russian, now that would’ve been helpful. But, Mandarin and English worked fine.

JM: When I think of who’s on the ground – I mean, there are people like Bruno Maçães who include great travel stuff in their books – but you’re pretty much the only person doing it full-time, right?

WS: Yeah, I mean, I travel full-time anyways, so, I’ve been doing it since 1999, so it’s a little bit different. It’s a competitive advantage – it doesn’t really matter if I’m here or there, on the New Silk Road or in Mexico or something.

I’ve got a lot more flexibility, and a lot more time. The time factor – that’s especially a major issue for Western journalists.

The for-profit journalism model means that a lot of reporters don’t have time because time is money. Especially when they have expense accounts and big teams, and all this other bullshit, and these guys don’t have enough time to actually go out and look at this stuff. Nothing against them, that’s just the way the system works, but they can only go out there, look around for a few hours and hop on a jet and go home – but you can’t really see this stuff happening in a couple of hours. You go to hear the men in suits do their men in suits talks and then that’s it, you’re gone, and you’re not going to really take away much.

There’s no time – you know, to sit around and drink a beer and make friends! You know – you stick around for long enough… you hang around the men in suits long enough and you eventually become friends with them, and then they start opening up and start doing more than just the PR pitch. But, in order to do that, you need time.

So instead, what often happens is that journalists go out, take a look at a couple of things, don’t really get a very deep perspective, basically just say “China’s taking over the world” and completely missed the point in my opinion…

JM: Yeah, UK journalists sometimes have a problem with China, where it’s always human rights stuff, it’s always dissidents… which is important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important… And they can miss the bigger story if they’re too worried about that.

WS: Yes, exactly – it’s like we get caught in this narrative trap in Western journalism. Rightfully so, there’s a lot to be critical about in China, but, you know – some topics, it just doesn’t apply.

So all of a sudden, if you start jumping to another narrative about what China’s doing in a neutral, or even a positive tone, it makes your audience a little suspicious. Again, black and white – if you have a critical view, you establish that critical view, and it’s very hard to shift to the other side. And I find it kind of amusing – one minute I’m being accused of being a panda-hugger, the next I’m anti-China.

JM: Well it’s funny, because I guess I fall into that trap too, and reading your stuff, I’m like, trying to position you on the spectrum, you know – is Wade a panda-hugger or a dragon-slayer? And I guess you’re good – because, you have this kind of historical sense, an objectivity.

WS: Well, yeah, when you say something is successful, or it will be successful, it doesn’t mean you support it right! I mean, the Nazis, for a while they were very successful, but you don’t support the Nazis… China has some heinous human rights problems and they’re making some deals with some pretty bad governments who don’t have the best interests of their people in mind, but – what they are doing ultimately works. And they have the means to make it continue working in the future.

This is, it will be an incredibly successful project – this Belt and Road thing… But it doesn’t mean I like it!

Wade Shepard’s book, Ghost Cities of China, was published in 2015. Check out his work on Forbes, and subscribe to his blog, Vagabound Journey. Keep an eye out for his new book by following him on Twitter, @WadeShepard !