International communication of BRI in cultural perspectives
Actors perform at the China-Philippines Cultural Festival on Oct. 24 in Manila, Philippines. The event featured various performances, including a Chinese Peking Opera and a Filipiniana-Hanfu fashion show displaying a fusion of traditional clothing from the two countries. Photo: CFP
After 10 years of development, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has produced significant results on multiple fronts, and its international communication efforts are also starting to bear fruit. According to a 2021 survey on China’s national image conducted worldwide in 22 countries by the Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies, overseas respondents have significantly increased their approval of the BRI at personal, national, regional, and global economic levels. Notably, respondents from developing countries expressed the highest praise for the BRI’s positive impact on regional and global economies.
Currently, the common cultural genes of Eastern culture are integrated with Western culture, and these jointly form a cultural foundation for the BRI’s global communication policy.
Eastern culture mainly refers to the historical and traditional cultural legacy of the Asian region, including parts of Africa. Eastern culture shares common elements, such as the “genetic heritage” of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The Chinese nation is known for its love of peace. The ancient Silk Road, spanning over two thousand years, transported Chinese silk and porcelain, traded goods, and spread friendship and culture. China never led with war and aggression, reflecting the peaceful aspects of Confucian culture. Eastern culture thus has a broad audience and can offer breakthrough perspectives in a new round of cultural exchange led by the BRI, enhancing the cultural identity of countries en route.
At the same time, the need for clear communication and integration among Eastern and Western cultures has become evident. While there are differences between the East and the West — in terms of historical backgrounds, geographical environments, and national circumstances — these differences do not mean that there are differences in human nature and human hearts. Fundamentally, Eastern and Western cultures share commonalities, both reflecting a shared human worldview, philosophy, and values, with a similar core of reason. For example, both cultures believe that peace and integrity are virtues that should be upheld.
Countries along the BRI share common origins in terms of ethnicity, religion, language, and more. With shared or similar historical origins, cultural backgrounds, and languages, ethnic groups who live in one country easily identify with similar groups in different countries, since they share behaviors and thinking patterns. This can lead to a shared sense of cultural identity. Throughout history, some ethnic minority regions in China have maintained traditional connections with neighboring countries and regions, often by sharing language, cultural practices, customs, and religious beliefs. For example, in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, home to a diverse spectrum of ethnic groups, languages, and religions, people share commonalities with several countries in Central Asia and the Western Asian region. This gives Xinjiang an important advantage as a cultural bridge for China’s interactions with Central Asia, Western Asia, and many other regions.
The BRI is the world’s longest economic corridor, originating in China and spanning across Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and parts of Europe. It connects the Asia-Pacific economic zone in the East and the European economic zone in the West, involving dozens of countries and several billion people. These countries represent four distinct civilizations, hundreds of languages, and diverse ethnicities and faiths. Over time, these nations developed different cultural forms and styles, and that diversity continues to this day. These differences should not be overlooked, as that might lead to misunderstandings or friction, presenting a significant challenge for the Belt and Road cooperation.
First, if we look around the world, we can see that sectarianism is a common cause of friction and conflicts between different countries. One of the key challenges that Belt and Road cooperation faces is overcoming psychological barriers among the people of Belt and Road countries, such as conflicts of interest, cultural clashes, and religious divides. As mentioned earlier, the common cultural origins, languages, and religions in China’s border regions and other countries can be an advantage when conducting BRI cultural dialogues. However, if not managed effectively, these factors can also become obstacles.
Second, cultural differences often lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Geographic environments profoundly shape people’s ways of life, which in turn affects the way people think, which eventually forms a range of different cultures. Eastern civilizations, with China as a primary representative, originated in river valleys as agricultural civilizations. They are typical natural economies that rely on the land for sustenance, constantly pursuing a state of stability. China has long upheld the idea that “Heaven, earth, and man are united as one.” The term represents the Chinese world outlook — that heaven, earth, and man are interconnected. It highlights the fundamental importance of nature to man or to human affairs and describes man’s higher goal of pursuing life, order, and values through interactions with nature.
In contrast, Western civilizations, such as the ancient Greek civilization, originated along the coasts of the Aegean Sea and began as maritime civilizations. Due to the limitations of geographical scope and agricultural products, these ancient people were more likely to engage in trade, which required exploration and expansion to larger markets. Western civilization thus emphasizes individual will and sees everything, including nature and other beings, as subject to exploration or conquest.
Thus, Western culture remains concerned with thoughts of expansion and conquest, and national interests. Occasionally, deep-seated ideological biases have led to misunderstandings of the BRI. Some Western countries have spoken against the BRI for years, presenting a public relations challenge that needs to be addressed.
The BRI serves as a bridge to connect different cultures, religions, and civilizations. Going forward, to promote the international communication of the BRI from diverse cultural perspectives, it’s essential to commit to facilitating dialogue between different civilizations, mutual respect, and resolving domestic and international differences through discussion. This approach will allow people from different countries to live together peacefully and foster common development.
One way to advance the international communication of the BRI, from a cultural standpoint, is to emphasize the establishment of cultural exchange hubs. While the construction of physical infrastructure nodes is important, the development of intellectual and cultural exchange hubs is equally vital. For the BRI, the most crucial factor is human activity, and the thoughts, beliefs, and spirits of individuals along the BRI travel with them wherever they go.
China’s border regions in particular have deep historical ties, shared religious beliefs, similar folk customs, and cultural traditions that align with the people of Belt and Road countries. Many ethnic minorities in these border regions play a significant role in the construction of the BRI. We need to support all departments involved in religious studies and cultural exploration while also making room for patriotic religious and cultural figures. All these efforts will be conducive to turning these border regions into cultural exchange hubs to better facilitate people-to-people communication.
The cultural influence of Chinese “harmony” has not yet taken effect. The countries jointly building the BRI bring together almost all forms of religion in the world, and peaceful coexistence among multiple religions requires tolerance, integration, and mutual learning. Therefore, it is necessary to properly handle religious policies and dynamics in Belt and Road countries, so that different religious and cultural traditions play a positive role in the interactions between different geographical regions, interests, lifestyles, and customs. Overall, we need to better leverage the positive influence of religion on the BRI to dispel negative energy.
In history, the appeal of the ancient Silk Road lay not only in Chinese products, but also in Chinese philosophies and civilization. Today, the BRI should focus on promoting Chinese culture and Chinese thoughts. While engaging in cultural exchanges with other countries, it’s essential to maintain the appeal of our own culture. For Chinese people, the values of harmony, benevolence, peace, and unity are not just habits but integral aspects of cultural identity. It’s crucial to clearly communicate these ideas and harness the international influence of the value of Chinese “harmony.”
To advance international communication of the BRI, it’s important to construct new forms of international communication channels. Media is the most direct avenue for dialogue among civilizations. Therefore, we should enhance our own external communication efforts to increase global influence. We need to better promote Chinese perspectives — to tell the China story well. We should also strengthen exchanges and cooperation with the media from countries along the route. Many of these countries need platforms for media development, additional professional training, and the adoption of modern communication technologies. China can actively contribute to areas such as personnel training, technical assistance, and content provision to help improve local media.
As more and more young people access information via the internet, we should consider the internet a key gateway for cultural exchange with countries involved in the BRI. Content and formats should be tailored to online platforms, adapting to the needs of local users and targeting the younger generation.
Furthermore, it’s crucial to promote dialogue using diverse forms in the spirit of openness and inclusivity. This includes facilitating multilateral dialogue within international organizations, bilateral dialogue with government institutions, folk dialogue through non-governmental organizations, dialogue involving think tanks, and intercultural dialogue with religious groups.
Properly training researchers who specialize in regional and country studies, particularly in smaller and medium-sized nations, is essential. While the BRI has been widely discussed in academic and professional circles within China, much of the discussion tends to view partner countries as a collective and focuses on macro-level strategies. More in-depth, substantive research, tailored to the specific characteristics of each country, is needed.
Within the BRI, each country has unique national conditions, cultures, and interests. When dealing with countries in the Arab world, Central Asia, or Southeast Asia, a one-size-fits-all approach is not adequate. Our understanding and research of countries participating in the BRI have not kept pace with the changing times and circumstances. Therefore, new talent training should include proficiency in languages spoken in smaller BRI countries, which will serve as the foundation for cultivating researchers who can provide cultural insights and explanations in response to the specific needs of different partner countries.
Wang Mei is the director of Center for Survey and Evaluation Studies at the Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies.