The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched by the Chinese government in 2013 with infrastructural investments of over 1 trillion yuan, will lead to a historically unprecedented intensification of links between China and over 65 nations in the Eurasian region (Meyer ed. 2018). 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 and ideas. Other than business, religion is probably the main motivation for organized and sustained circulation between Asian countries. In the past, the lasting impact of the Silk Road was primarily in the realms of commerce and religion: between the Han and Tang dynasties, it was the conduit for the introduction of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity into China (Folz 2010). An unintentional effect of the BRI will be to facilitate and intensify religious circulations between the nations of Eurasia. Religion is central to the culture and national identity of most BRI and adjacent countries, and, often, their political system and ideology as well. These religions include, primarily, Islam, Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism, and Orthodox Christianity. As China’s – including Hong Kong’s -- presence in Eurasian countries increases, so will it be forced to engage with their cultures, cosmologies and worldviews. Increased links between these societies and China, including Hong Kong, will inevitably lead to a greater circulation of these religious networks and their practices, both inwards and outwards, with significant cultural and geopolitical implications. In the longer term, the BRI will provoke a paradigmatic shift in the ethnic, religious and civilizational identity building of China and BRI nations and cultures, as the intensifying inter-Asian links pull them out of the Western-centred binaries (“China-West”, “Islam-West”, “India-West”) that have framed Asian identities and cultures for the past two centuries (Chen 2010).
However, the knowledge base in China and Hong Kong on the above-mentioned religions, and on the societies and civilizations of the Eurasian land mass – measured by the number of academic specialists and university centres and departments -- is very weak. There is thus an urgent need to develop an inter-disciplinary, inter-institutional and international research programme on the religious implications of the BRI. This increasing circulation is taking place just as counter-terrorism and securitization have become increasingly prevalent paradigms for managing borders and populations, and xenophobia, prejudice and Islamophobia are on the rise. While the increasing mobility triggered by BRI might create the conditions for increased cultural mixing and cosmopolitanism, it might, conversely, increase the risk of tensions, fear and religiously-inflected conflict within or between nations. Under such conditions, China and Hong Kong cannot afford to remain ignorant of the religious reality of the societies and networks that are being integrated into its BRI infrastructural web. This project, through its research and educational components, as well as through the trans-Asian research network that it will build, will contribute to overcoming the profound ignorance that, otherwise, could be the cause of serious tensions and conflicts.
This project, which will build a collaborative platform for scholars in anthropology, sociology, geography, history, Islamic Studies and Buddhist Studies at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Education University of Hong Kong (HKUEd), will meet this pressing need while bringing significant theoretical and methodological advances to the study of inter-Asian circulations and of religion and society in general: (1) it will combine macro-level mapping of circulatory paths with micro-level case studies of routes, borders and hubs; (2) it will break conceptual and methodological barriers between studies of China and South, Southeast, Central and West Asian societies, and between studies of China and different religions; (3) it will be deeply grounded in historical perspectives, attentive to how emerging religious circulations, identities and strategic orientations are shaped by imaginations and networks dating to pre-modern times or to barriers and links dating from the 20th century; (4) it will develop theories of transnational religious and cultural mobility by drawing on and adapting new approaches to the intertwining of material and religious infrastructures; (5) it will provide a foundation for empirically informed policy proposals and Knowledge Exchange relevant to issues of migration, ethnic and religious minorities, religious radicalism, and inter-cultural relations.
The project will provide a historical context for the role of the BRI in the reconfiguration of religious, ethnic and civilizational identities, connections and boundaries within the region. This involves not only the BRI itself in a formal sense, but reactions or alternatives to the BRI from countries and entities, such as India, which are not formally part of the BRI but deeply affected by their own increasing ties with China and by China’s intensifying relationships with other Eurasian nations. Owing to the large and growing number of countries enlisted under the banner of the BRI or surrounded by it, the cases in this project will focus on the following ten countries: China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
We hypothesize that the BRI involves reviving a Sino-centric cosmology and civilizational imagination of the Silk Road – but that it will also provoke a rethinking of the place of China in other religious and cosmological visions centred in other parts of Asia. The “pivot to Eurasia” implies a fundamental re-imagining of China’s positioning within the world. Indeed, for the past 150 years, “China-West” has framed China’s modern history, its development and its cultural identity construction. The same has been the case for other Asian countries in both the colonial and post-colonial periods. The BRI, however, is leading to the emergence of new geopolitical and inter-civilizational frames, which will no longer be defined primarily in relation to the West, but by inter-Asian relationships. The increasing presence of China in BRI countries is increasing the importance of China in the imagination, networking strategies or missionizing goals of religious organizations in those countries. This increased circulation will impact on China’s internal religious ecology and complicate China’s policy of preventing foreign religious infiltration, “Sinifying” religion in China, and using “patriotic” religious associations and leaders as diplomatic tools. At the same time, the BRI offers opportunities for the international expansion of Chinese religious and spiritual networks and organizations. These imaginations, strategies and identity formations are often inflected by a resurfacing of historical imaginations and networks. This project will bring historical scholarship on religion and the silk road, as well as on inter-Asian religious circulations in recent centuries, to bear on interpreting and raising questions on the emerging trends in the context of the BRI.