The thrill to find El Dorado or to stand anywhere unknown has faded. However, the modern day equivalent of fulfilling this Victorian desire can be had in a city built from scratch so recently, in the proverbial middle of nowhere, that it remains hidden. Khorgas is China’s youngest city. Herodotus imagined that the north wind originated from Khorgas and that it was a place inhabited by creatures like lions but with the heads and wings of eagles.
As it turns out Khorgas is a colossal development zone that is home to a conurbation of national-level projects built on both sides of the Kazakh-China border. It is a passage between the Orient and Europe built for the Belt and Road in a ruthless race for domination. An entire new economy around a plethora of synergistic ventures.
Its sprawling grid of California tree-lined avenues attract futurists from Xinjiang and further afield. Merchandise is tagged in Arabic -the lingua franca of Uighur Chinese, Cyrillic, Chinese and Georgian. On the Kazakh side, families huddle around a picturesque masjid with a flock of sheep. But next to this naive nativity is a commanding train station, a highway, and three 41-ton yellow Gantry cranes bracketing the blue sky. This is the Khorgas dry port, far away from any known ocean and inspired by Dubai’s concept of a port and economic zone combined. Registered companies there pay no taxes for five years and half of the due taxes during the following five years in this visa free zone.
This empty grid of a new city waits for function to fill-in the form with all types of content, which is always secondary and derivative in relation to the grid itself. The grid is an act of defiance. It is an assurance of life against the world, an assurance that everything could be different from what it is now. It is not a cage. It is space of freedom to be filled-in with ever-changing content like the pixelated grid layout of the home screen of your mobile phone where new Apps are downloaded daily and older ones deleted. Like the grid-pages of magazines and newspapers and spreadsheets where business is planned and organised. Khorgas is a grid waiting for content. Henri Lefebvre’s Production of Space describes how the Orders for Discovery and Settlement outlined the grid plan for Spanish first cities like Puerto de España in the New World.
We live in this uncommon moment when the world’s political and economic pendulum swings. The calculus of the global economy’s center of gravity is pivoting to the Orient. Once the precision US economic compass discerns that the West is a project of the past, it will leave Europe living in that past and will be disinclined to remain there itself. The soulless pragmatism of the Orient that stresses state capacity and the proclivity to develop policy and deliver results is the antithesis of the overall weakening of Western states with countless constraints on its authority. The centre of gravity is now resting east of the European Union. By the middle of this century it will be somewhere between China and India.
Once the Qing, the Mughals and the Habsburgs had fenced notions of faith, markets, commerce and feudal hierarchies. Next- we will have to live jumbled together in a toy-box not agreeing on any version of what the common ground is. For the first time, diverse orders must intensely and continuously interface. Different political systems will share the same state-space and believe in interdependency and connectivity but that will be coloured by conflict mirroring Hong Kong (HK) as the paradigm of contrasts coexisting.
British banks in HK provided access to international financial markets and Chinese entrepreneurs excelled at uncovering- what could be made, where the raw materials would come from, how to organize production and where the talent-thick workforce was located. Lee Kuan Yew noticed how HK pirouetted China to have one foot in the Orient and the other in the US and Europe. China’s success rested on operating simultaneously in both a command economy and a liberal enclave. China thrived on contradiction and complementarity between two worlds.
Once a Bamboo Curtain separated Asian economies. Some like Japan and South Korea travelled a Western European path. Others were defined by Moscow and Beijing. In Europe, the Berlin Wall languished as a sad segment of the Iron Curtain separating Western Europe from Soviet territories. In the end, the Berlin Wall proved to be a fleeting segment of a longer struggle to separate Europe from Asia. It was an intellectual divide whose precise demarcation shifted over time because of changing world views, different understandings of history and new knowledge as people swam across the Spree or dug beneath the wall.
Soon the industrialist in Chongqing will have a direct land route to Kyiv that does not include the port of Rotterdam. Toyota may not need Amsterdam to deliver cars in Italy. A network of rail, road and energy and digital infrastructure linking Europe to the Orient through Khorgas will certainly upset existing geopolitical realities and will conjure a nineteenth century world of great-power rivalry.