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China draws on art to depoliticize Belt and Road plan

Free train rides for performers may help Beijing soften project's image

Hong Kong artist Frog King Kwok, right, will be among those creating works as part of a special train journey along the "Belt and Road" from Germany to China. (Photo by Jens Kastner)

DUISBURG, Germany -- In a park next to the River Rhine, Kwok Mang-ho, also known as Frog King Kwok, shakes his shaman gong against the backdrop of a sprawling abandoned industrial plant while workmen set up exhibition tents.

Promoted as China's first-ever performance artist, Kwok describes Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative to improve infrastructure links between China and Europe as bringing goodwill and prosperity to the many countries along the so-called New Silk Road.

"I am an artist from China, live in Hong Kong and am here in Duisburg to do the simple job of being an ambassador for harmony and sharing happiness," Kwok said. However, his main role appears to be helping China to assuage suspicions about the BRI, which many Europeans fear will extend Beijing's influence over regional politics.

Several direct cargo train services between China and Europe have been launched with much fanfare in recent years, with operators such as Germany's Deutsche Bahn positioning New Silk Road services as cheaper than air freight and faster than ocean shipping.

Trains bound for Germany carry mainly high-value electronics, while those heading for China typically transport German infant formula, bathroom furniture, chef's knives and premium car models not normally sold in China, according to GFW, the economic promotion agency of the city of Duisburg.

Containers are stacking up at Duisburg Intermodal Terminal as demand for shipping back to China lags far behind incoming traffic. (Photo by Jens Kastner)

The services have expanded fast. There are now 25 direct trains per week between Duisburg, Europe's hub for China trains, and Chinese cities such as Chongqing and Yiwu. That compares with one in 2011. However, although containers arrive fully-loaded from China, train operators often struggle to fill them for the return trip.

That mismatch has provided an opportunity for China's drive to make the BRI more acceptable. The Association of German-Chinese Cultural Exchange for Art and Design, a group founded by Germany-based Chinese expatriate Guo Jian and known by the German acronym DCKD, is making use of four of the under-booked containers by painting them blue and turning them into an artist dormitory, a workshop and a gallery.

Following an inaugural exhibition at Duisburg's Rhine Park from June 2-12, with the participation of artists from China, Germany, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the blue containers will embark on a 180-day journey to Beijing.

Along the way, they will be unloaded several times for 10-day stints, during which local artists from New Silk Road countries will be invited to participate.

European regulations forbid passengers on cargo trains, so the artists will join the blue boxes in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, near the halfway point of the train's journey. From Uzbekistan to Beijing they will travel in the containers in groups of 12 -- taking turns, since none are willing to spend the entire journey boxed up.

The project is sponsored by Henan Suda Electric Vehicle Technology, a Chinese electric car-maker, which in March received approval from Beijing for an electric car facility to produce 100,000 units a year. Suda's involvement comes amid unconfirmed claims that it is establishing a technology research center in western Germany in partnership with Forschungszentrum Juelich, an interdisciplinary research center focusing on health, energy, the environment and information technology.

DCKD says the project has been endorsed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited Duisburg in 2014 to promote the BRI. Duisburg is home to Europe's biggest inland port and has good connections to Germany's autobahn network.

"When President Xi was here, we conceived the idea of connecting the Belt and Road to art, and in 2016 the state parliament [of North Rhine-Westphalia] made the unusual move of inviting us to do a presentation of the project, signaling full support also from their side," said Gerhard Philippen, DCKD project director.

Located in Germany's industrial heartland, Duisburg was hit hard by the downturn in the country's steel and coal industries in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since Xi's visit, the number of Chinese companies with local operations has risen from 38 to 100. The port of Duisburg reported 6.8% year-on-year growth in its cargo train business in 2017, reaching 18.8 million tons, with its holding and management company attributing the gain mostly to the China trains.

Jacopo Maria Pepe, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said the BRI is helping Duisburg to transform itself into a modern logistics and industrial services hub, adding that the Chinese infrastructure drive has put the city and the Ruhr-Rhine metropolitan area on the map for Chinese investment. "BRI has a positive effect on employment, direct and indirect, as reflected by the port employing already 40,000 people, from roughly 35,000 in 2006," Pepe said.

"However, prospects are somewhat clouded by the fact that China is heavily subsidizing the service, and that the Chinese provinces plan to reduce the subsidies step-by-step. In this case, the success for Duisburg will even more depend on a rapid increase in reverse traffic from Europe to China," he added.

Michael Suessmuth, sales manager at Duisburg Intermodal Terminal, which handles the loading and unloading of the China cargo trains, said that with only about 50% of container capacity going back to China loaded, a 20,000-sq.-meter area had been leased as an interim solution to the storage problem posed by boxes waiting to be filled.

"We all work diligently on making the outbound volume match the inbound volume, but full parity will never be achieved," Suessmuth said. "It is an uphill battle, given that more and more Chinese regions and cities try participating in the cargo trains, so as to get a share of the fees associated with the loading and unloading of the containers."

When a few dozen containers have piled up, they must go back to China to avoid the costs of sitting idle, he said. The cheapest option is usually the sea route from Rotterdam to Shanghai.

DCKD's next blue container project will involve the maritime BRI, in an attempt to expand its cultural outreach to the Indo-Pacific region.

Mareike Ohlberg, an analyst with the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, said that Chinese government support for the project is attributable to a desire to depoliticize the BRI. European policymakers are wary of China using the BRI to gain political influence, she said, and are concerned about undermining European standards for public tenders for infrastructure projects.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited China in late May, she refused to sign anything that endorsed the BRI.

"The Chinese government is trying to communicate that the BRI is super-positive, super-harmless and a big win-win," Ohlberg said. "Culture and arts are always good in this context, so it is promising for artists to apply for Chinese government support by linking their projects to the BRI."

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