IN late 2013, China proposed an ambitious strategy to connect two-thirds of the world’s populations via the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road sea route, later known as the Belt and Road initiative.
Chinese president Xi Jinping has said that the project would bring enormous benefits that would lead to the prosperity of the people and countries along the routes.
Almost four years on, the world’s third largest country has shown that it is not just empty talk.
From the launch of the China-Europe cargo train to Africa’s first transnational electric railway, and the assortment of products from around the world on the shelves of local stores, China is making progress in reviving the ancient Silk Road.
In his keynote speech at the opening of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation recently, Xi said the past four years have seen the increase of trade and financial activities as well as people-to-people connectivity between China and countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.
As he has pledged, the initiative would bring more pleasant surprises but what would the ordinary Chinese citizens – the working class, the da ma (elderly housewives) and da ye (elderly men) – hope to gain from it?
Backpacker Xiao Lu wants to see more countries offer visa-free privileges to the Chinese.
“It would be great if I could travel to all countries along the Belt and Road without a visa; this would save me a lot of time and money,” she said.
The young woman also believes that improving road connectivity via rail links means she could travel to more places more cheaply, compared to taking a flight.
Liu Lan hopes the project will raise the standard of living and eradicate poverty, especially in the rural mountainous regions.
The cab driver, who was not very keen on discussing the topic, is one of about 10 million bei piao in the capital city.
Bei piao refers to those who have relocated to Beijing to work or study. They make up almost half of the city’s population of over 21 million.
Liu’s wish is also what most of the bei piao want to see in the future.
Currently unemployed and in his 50s, Liu said he came to Beijing looking for a job with his son and daughter-in-law.
‘I would not want to leave if there were more opportunities back home and I was able to earn more money,” he added.
As China is such a huge country, the journey home for some people could mean a few days of travelling on various transportation modes.
Office worker Xian Yan, who said she spent more than half her salary on shopping, hopes that imported goods, especially clothing and fruits, would be cheaper.
Fruit trader Li Yunping from Urumqi told tianshannet.com, an online news portal about the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest of China, that he was excited and had plans to sell his fruit to the Belt and Road countries.
Li said he got to know about the Belt and Road initiative through television programmes.
“And my son suggested that we set up our online store and expand our business overseas,” he added.
The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, held two weeks ago, was the largest diplomatic event hosted by China.
When all eyes were trained on this ancient and modern city, proud Beijing denizens chipped in to make the event a successful one.
Volunteering to become public guides, they strived to give the best impression and memories of the city and its people to their guests.
A friendly da ma whom I met while struggling to find my way out of the winding maze of hutongs (alleyways) has lived up to the slogan “Be a good host and civilised citizen”.
Dressed in a striking yellow shirt and a red armband, this 60-ish woman had an answer to everything I asked about her hometown, from history to food and the Chinese language.
Not only did she lead me out of the lines of siheyuan (courtyard homes), a traditional type of residence in China, but she also reminded me to drink more water to beat the summer heat.
One thing she didn’t know was that I’m from Malaysia and our “summer” lasts from January to December.
Da ma thought I was from southern China and I did not correct her, a strategy used to blend in.
During the forum, there were some 9,000 of these volunteers stationed at major roads and public transport stations to provide assistance, reminding the public to adhere to traffic rules, especially the traffic light signals.
Many of them carried a small booklet, with basic English phrases such as “Welcome to Beijing”, to greet their foreign guests.
The city cleaners were also required to maintain the city’s cleanliness at its highest standard.
Retiree Madam Zhang, who is also a social worker in her community, said she had recruited her fellow friends and neighbours to volunteer for the programme.
“As the Chinese saying goes, helping others is the source of happiness,” she said. “Welcome to Beijing.”