The reason the “One Belt, One Road” initiative is going to be so interesting to watch carefully is that its outcome will be a litmus test for governance in China.
More than just a simple question of whether the initiative makes economic sense, the results will determine the degree to which such centrally-planned and -driven initiatives are either workable or relevant in modern China.
Rhetoric about strongmen aside, this is not the era of Mao. China is a larger, more complex, and more decentralized country than it was forty years ago, or even in 1999 when Jiang Zemin launched his “Go West” initiative. If the nation faces challenges with OBOR, it does not follow that the strategy is wrong: what it points to, more likely, is how the role of government in these initiatives must be to instigate and enable rather than to plan and oversee.
That thinking would represent a huge deviation from the Party’s modus operandi, but as Huang Yasheng is fond of reminding us, the greatest leaps in China’s post-Liberation economic progress have occurred when the government sets the tone, and then gets out of the way. Combining such an approach with vigilance over safety, graft, corruption, and the environment will likely emerge as the way forward for the government’s role in development.