Streamlined Silk: On Offshoring And Material Interference Along The New Silk Road



The New Silk Road exists in many forms, its layers slowly updated through software and hard concrete. In 2012, Hewlett-Packard negotiated the construction of an alternate rail route “defined not only according to business logic, but also with certain strategic calculation.” (“Battle of the Silk Road: Kazakhstan reformats the map of Eurasia Logistics,” 2017). Faster than slow-ocean, cheaper than airfreight, this rail route from Chongqing cuts through the Xinjiang Province into Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Poland, before reaching its destination in Germany, 11,179 kilometers later. Translated as “the flowing of goods,” “物流” (wuliu) expresses the naturalized desire of unhinged flow. Here, streamlined circulation is permitted through the displacement of sovereign borders, installing a new framework of transnational regulation, labor management, and security measures along with standardized units across various platforms. But as the rail-route speeds through the growing deserts in its regions, the arid, shifting lands attest to ongoing exploitation and resistance.

This article takes as a starting point the corporate beginnings of the Silk Road economic belt. Through a continuous time and motion study, the infrastructural feat propagates an ever-shifting race for cheaper and faster supply-chains. Within streamlined inventories and automated security checks lingers a sedimented history of colonial governance. The increasingly turbulent atmospheres and its sand-filled movements attest that such practices of offshoring can no longer be thought of as an elsewhere.

Turbulent Drag ///

In the wake of slowing economies, geographies of supply and demand currently spread themselves across vast spaces in mutable forms. Capable of absorbing peripheral communities at the edges of markets, logistical networks assist the drive of states and corporate conglomerates to continuously seek the extraction of capital in places otherwise untouched by its capture. Logistics carves itself out as
a geography of smoothness, where landscapes are organized to be topologically connected to each and every other part. “The poetics of liquidity demands a revolution of form and content and of modes of production and distribution.” Paul Virilio describes the “increasing speed of transport and communications on the development of land-use” as a form of dromology. By this, he means that layers of people and things move faster, driven by the “competitive advantage of speed,” mobilization and fortification follow the essence of logistical expansion (Speed and Politics, 1986). Speed fuels economic production towards distribution and maintains a level of metabolic intensification in central nodes or global cities.

Used now as a tool to stave off slowing economies by “bringing the outside in,” “由外至内” (youwai zhinei), this catchphrase amongst planners of the New Silk Road economic belt reinforces the logistical and infrastructural as a new method of governance. When recasting geographies of law and violence through the arranging of the inside and outside of state space, actions like land grabs, military actions, and dispossessions are all part of its territorial reconfiguration (Deborah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics, 2014). Deregulated environmental and labor laws offer legal independence from the domestic laws of the host country through the creation of “zones.” “The zone typically provides premium utilities and a set of incentives — tax exemptions, foreign ownership of property, streamlined customs, cheap labor, and deregulation of labor or environmental laws — to entice business.” (Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft, 2015). Particularly within the Chinese Communist state system, zoning technologies are devised as a distinctive way to re-territorialize national socialist space whilst generating a controlled development of capitalism.

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NASA’s Aqua satellite took a photo of a dust storm blowing over the Taklimakan Desert in China on February 1, 2014.

In the case of the New Silk Road, the transnational tech company Hewlett-Packard (H.P.) initiated the inter-governmental negotiations for saving two weeks-worth of transportation time. It was seen to be an alternative to the Pacific Ocean route, which was filled with chokepoints and perils. This followed a move made by the company, as well as others including Foxconn and Volkswagen, to shift their factories towards China’s western border. As part of the “Go West” program, state-led encouragement was offered to develop these western regions. These regions also host large reserves of energy and raw minerals, including coal and iron ores from the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region which is currently occupied as a police state. With more speed and less cost of transporting Chinese-made goods to western markets, large incentives allowed transnational corporations like H.P. to leverage geo-politics to its favor. The H.P.-initiated rail-route later became part of the Chinese state’s centralized framework of the New Silk Road Economic Belt initiative in 2015, ironing out any potential forms of bottlenecking.

One does not have to look far to see that the flow of goods and capital means the arrest of movement for others. In 2016, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang were told to hand in their passports to local authorities for “examination and management”; the area had been heavily policed for forms of separatist activity. Police checkpoints dot the area, targeting local inhabitants during the duration of the developmental works. Since the New Silk Road economic belt, the faster trade through these overland lines means more restrictions and containment for the Uyghur minorities in the area. The area is filled with checkpoints interrupting movement every few kilometers, providing only the surface of the extremities of the police occupation and colonization in the province as big as France and Germany combined. Ethnic-specific targeting through identity and mobile phone screenings are part of the close watch of the state.

The fantasy of logistics, and where it accumulates its power, is in a guise of the all-encompassing smooth operator, adept at hiding the fact that it needs friction in order to stay in business. Deborah Cowen writes that the neoliberal management of life and death and its anti-political calculations, cost-benefit analysis and market-driven logics embed themselves in the most minute of measures. Time and space are designed with technologies of efficiency and standardization, eliminating resistances including possibilities for political claims or ruptures. Yet there is an in-determinant encounter that defies these pre-emptive efforts to mitigate risks. Rail-routes have been known to be riskier due to overland possibilities of insurgencies and extreme weather events, especially those which traverse deserts. They cannot be easily governed due to shifting lands. With China’s rail-network spanning across a wide range of climatic zones, sandstorms frequently disturb routes like ones which cross the desertified areas of Xinjiang. “The climate has always been a project for colonial powers, which have continuously acted to engineer it.” (Fazal Sheikh & Eyal Weizman, The conflict shoreline, 2015). These self-organized structures are disruptive because they are increasingly unpredictable.

Uneasy States ///

The low pressures in the atmosphere over the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts create windy conditions in the area during late winter and early spring. Loose top soils are picked up by westerly winds, pulling these sands into an increasingly intense Asian dust storm. Freezing all activity in its path, such storms have become an annual occurrence, compared to half a century ago when each phenomenon struck only once every seven or eight years. A few months ago, in August 2017, a storm started, sweeping around areas in southwestern Xinjiang, covering cities including Aksu, Kashgar, and Hotan in its heavy yellow dust haze. Disruptive for the eyes, visibility was down to five meters in some parts of the storm. The particulate matter delayed trains traveling along the New Silk Road for several days. People were forced to take shelter indoors and all flights in and out of Aksu and Kuqa were cancelled. Activities froze as sand threw place into a turbid haze.

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Stills from videos of a sandstorm in Kashi Prefecture (Xinjiang), on May 30, 2017. / CCTV+.

All along the New Silk Road economic belt, the infrastructure rushes through vast landscapes which clearly suffer from high degrees of aridity. Its landscapes are crisscrossed with various methods designed to keep dust and sand grounded, to prevent particulate matter from being mobilized by the winds, from transitioning its phase into suspension. Netted materials are pinned to the ground, both in grids and as vertical walls. Many artificially planted trees dot the regions as their roots hug the ground. Train tracks undulate on and above ground, the heights determined by the intensities of the landscape’s sand composition. 463 kilometers of windproof walls were built along the Gobi Desert stretch of the line, as well as the 3,600 meter-high Qilianshan tunnel in Gansu Province. Delaying its future, governmental
efforts have been organized to predict and slow the terrain’s relentless movements eastwards, against the current of the Western economic tide. As each train carries around $US 6 million-worth of goods when heading towards Europe, strong winds remain a major threat to the rail-line, particularly around the Xinjiang-Lanzhou-Urumqi 710-kilometer stretch. The faster the trains, the more of a threat they become.

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Sand management methods along the Chongqing Xinjiang Europe rail-route. / Photographs by Solveig Suess, 2017.

The sands are close reminders of the expanding deserts from the nation’s modern peripheries, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Over the past few decades, utopian social-agricultural experiments of high Maoist socialism completely drained groundwater and many lakes across Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, quickly receding its water tables. Lop Nur, a lake that disappeared forty years ago, is now one of the four sources of sandstorms in China. Twenty percent of the country currently exists as desert, whereas in 1975 desert lands were 54,000 square kilometers smaller. Anthropologist Jerry Zee writes that the mobile dunes of the deserts are “sites and material forms where we can trace emergent alignments of politics to the inorganic afterlives of the broken land.” (“Holding Patterns: Sand and Political Time at China’s Desert Shores,” 2017)

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These displaced sands have become products, manufactured as an accumulation of soil degradation, labor practices, atmospheric sways, political ideologies, and geological grinds. In a turbulent flow of agency, sandstorms irritate the calculated journey of the train. Maintaining an all-encompassing algorithmic oversight while traversing westwards towards Europe, the route has become one of the most monitored areas within China. The political landscape is governed by various competing surveillance, mobilization, fortification technologies, building a nervous attentiveness when movement and time are governed so tightly.

Sedimented Elsewheres ///

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A chart of the Gulf Stream by Benjamin Franklin (1785). /

“The oceans and the atmosphere form a nonlinear dynamic system that contains ten times more solar energy than plants capture through photosynthesis.” (Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, 2014). European empires, through their ability to observe atmospheric conditions, used wind and currents as force multipliers of trade, engineering it alongside managerial strategies of the supply chain. They were able to use these conditions to allow for cheaper modes of production and extraction elsewhere, while speeding up nationalist, transnationalist, and corporate interests within their imperial centers.

Logistics originates as a military term, hegemonic on a global scale when the first shipping container was designed as a way for the U.S. army to supply materials and arms in the Vietnam War. (interview with Charmaine Chua, 2017) During the burgeoning of the military industrial complex in the 1960s, new surges in state funding funneled into developments relevant for military applications. This includes the emergence of fluid mechanics as a department that was seen as an extension of mechanical engineering within university institutions such as MIT. It was dedicated to research for the designs of faster trains, jet engines and re-entry physics for spacecraft and ballistic missiles. Eighty percent of graduates from these departments found employment in the defense industry. It was at this time that nonlinear dynamics became popular amongst various fields of mathematics, physics and engineering. Spilling across disciplines, its equations of the Chirikov criterion or the Butterfly Effect became relevant from industrial design to meteorology.

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Douglas Kiser of the Vietnamese Welfare office arranges the loading into Sealand container trucks for shipping throughout South Vietnam under project HandClasp (1972). / National Archives D.C.

It was also during this period when the military science of logistics was developed and digitized. Designs of containers, along with IBM’s involvement in the development of a centralized network, helped usher in a transpacific militarization. The supply chain management in Saigon was the first to be automated, streamlining decision-making processes which made the distribution of commodities extremely efficient. IBM-applied computer technology and calculations were supplied through cooperation with RAND.

The topology of the fluid motions scales up and into a becoming-modern dream of fluidity — movements of people, of containers, organizations of warehouses, of just-in-time and of offshoring to “elsewhere.” Non-linear dynamics of climates scale into strategies of movement on ground, streamlines, and fluid dynamics into the efficient management of objects. What was promised and delivered with the understanding of flow enabled the design and construction of modernity’s bullet trains and military designs, and the formulation of computational climate modelling. Louise Amoore highlights the “twinning of science and technologies of perception with geopolitical sovereignty,” in particular, how it rendered the perceptible which appeared on the horizon of possibility. Along with the Cold War and all its uncertainties, the time period nurtured a desire for U.S.-led technological advancement, to aim for “crystalline definiteness” of algorithms that could “cope with a world on the brink.” (“Cloud geographies: Computing, data, sovereignty,” 2016) From 1965 onwards, the Vietnam War’s military backlog allowed for faster mobilization, which transported commodities into Vietnam, mitigating bottlenecks. But as these systems ran through experience, when implemented, scalable data along with its differences are reproduced. Hierarchies amongst racialized labor became pronounced, along with the ability to mobilize certain U.S. power relations in South-east Asia (interview with Wesley Attewell, 2017). It was also claimed that the experiments in management led to the sudden boom of Asian economies, nicknamed the Four Asian Tigers.

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Laminar flows break up into a turbulent wake, An Album of Fluid Motion by Milton Van Dyke. / Department of Mechanical Engineering. Stanford University.

During the 1970s, firms in the industrial north were experiencing a downturn in profits due to the rising costs of production and wages, so they had to find cheaper production costs elsewhere. The logic returned to colonial modes of production, where seeking extraction and cheap labor sources internationally, allows for value generation to happen in the north while offshoring production to the global south. Calculations for the least amount of resistance across spaces — from a missile or the shape of the train — translate forms into quantifiable nodes and allow for these designs to further perpetuate global modes of production foundational to power dynamics today.

(Re)configuring Flows ///

With an optimization of commodity movements, the counter-efforts of slowing the desert have become increasingly pressing as Asian dust storms ride air currents sometimes as far as California, blind to jurisdictions. “The dust aerosol mixed with pollution aerosol, such as industrial soot, toxic materials, and acidic gases” as they travel over China’s heavily industrialized zones. Particulate matter is then scattered, congealed into a whole new series of constellations, embroiled with manufactured and chemical residue. “What emerges, then, is a contest between the tenacity of corporeal memory and the corrosive power, over time and space, of corporate amnesia emboldened by a neoliberal regime of deregulation.” (Rob Nixon, “Neoliberalism, Slow Violence, and the Environmental Picaresque,” 2009)

The formations of these studies on managing weather behaviors must be understood alongside methods of containment and economic calculative growth. Telling the New Silk Road through sand and global air currents offers entry points into the re-reading of offshoring practices which acted foundational to current global logistical capitalism. It is particularly urgent to relink these histories now as we see an increase of logistical practices used as tools to remake and rescale territories. As logistics is premised on a form of control, it centralizes the power of capital in monopolistic companies which rely on the state’s cooperation in aspects of development. Hewlett-Packard scaled up their operations to include monopolizing the entirety of their supply-chain, where their moves contributed to the state’s overall efforts to move industries towards the western, most arid parts of China. These activities often lie paradoxical to the efforts of slowing the increasing environmental problems in the area, forming a different reality on the ground to that of liquid modernity.

Storms force multiply cruel differences inherited through an amalgamation of global-scale industrial, modern, capitalist practices. Together, they demand that we interrogate fundamental logics to how we make sense of unnatural phenomena — knowing that these storms do not merely trouble global scale ambitions, but that they are as much part of it.