The goal of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road, otherwise known as the Belt and Road, is to strengthen the country’s position abroad and change the geo-economic landscape of Eurasia. But the projects also carry crucial importance in Chinese internal politics, and have become inextricably linked to the success and image of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. Never was this more evident than at the Belt and Road Forum that took place in Beijing on May 14–15.

Xi is now fully credited for the idea of the projects, but that wasn’t always the case. The first person to mention the Maritime Silk Road Initiative was actually Premier Li Keqiang during his visit to the China-ASEAN expo in the city of Nanning in September 2013. Xi made a similar announcement during a visit to Indonesia later that year, and Li’s involvement in the project was gradually dropped from party propaganda, which now gives Xi unconditional credit. 
 
In the idiosyncrasies of modern China, with its growing centralization of power, there is ironclad logic about who should set the course within the country, who should articulate the major national initiatives, and who is to be at the core of the decisionmaking process. This is the logic of the regime.

The name of the project was first changed to One Belt, One Road, not to reflect a change in ideology but because the name for the maritime agreement had to be created on the eve of Xi’s visit to Indonesia, in order to emphasize his leadership. It was the first attempt to centralize the new, united concept—and the most important part was unilateral attribution to Xi, not unity in content. The latter would still require some work.

Eventually, the time came for the second phase of centralization. Now known as Belt and Road, the project that first appeared as a regional initiative and a variation on the interconnectivity theme popular in Asia is gaining a completely different amplitude. The new reading of Belt and Road, from an ideological viewpoint, is that it is the manifestation of the “Chinese Dream” about the strong position of China in the world, recognized by all the leading players.

At the head of the initiative’s newfound direction stands Wang Huning, a member of the politburo. In Chinese, he is referred to as the “Mentor of the Three Emperors” and is responsible for the broad political framework of the two previous presidents, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. 

Wang’s becoming deputy head of the leadership small group on One Belt One Road came as no surprise to most experts. Under Xi, the Cabinet wise man had become the new creator of political ideology. Wang often accompanies Xi on his most important trips abroad, and the Center for Political Research in the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which he heads, has great influence in party hierarchy. It provides secret research on internal and international questions to the top authorities, and also plays a deciding role in determining political priorities.

The initiative’s new interpretation came about with his influence, the main point of the pivot being to couch the initially inarticulate Belt and Road project within the concept of a fifth generation of China’s leaders, with Xi, embodying the great revival of the Chinese nation, at its helm.

Paradoxically, in order to accomplish this, the idea of the new Silk Roads had to break free from the incursion of China-centricity, to make it easier to sell as a global idea. The titles announced in 2013 are now mostly defunct. The latest version of the brand, the Belt and Road Initiative, no longer makes comparison with the historic Silk Road, which began in China. In addition, the new title allows the Chinese initiative to gain a global dimension in practically any sphere—from trade and investments to science and dialogue between civilizations.

With a new name and concept for the project, the final piece needed to form the image of Xi as a global leader and one of the key authors of the world’s agenda was a prestigious international discussion platform that would symbolize China’s new role. The Chinese authorities decided to shun existing formats, such as the Boao Forum for Asia, which since 2002 has taken place on the island of Hainan. This was likely because they needed a global, not merely Asian, audience. Besides, the forum had to be initiated specifically by Xi, and his name had to be the first and foremost in the program. 

And so the Belt and Road Forum went ahead in Beijing on May 14 and 15. The forum’s date in springtime was, in many ways, dictated by domestic politics. At the root is a desire to curtail speculation that Xi—despite his apparent power—is not yet in total control, that his thoughts about successors or a potential third term are based on complicated and unfavorable compromises.

“The authoritative and clear formulations of Xi Jinping as initiator of the One Belt, One Road Initiative were quoted and discussed by the world’s leading media outlets,” the Chinese government site China.org gushed with pride following the forum. The aspiration to score more points for Xi in the same year as a party congress (the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, the most important event of this five-year period, will take place in the fall) was an obvious objective for interior propagandists. At times, they even contradicted what China was broadcasting to the world: that the initiative was inclusive, public, and built on principles of equality and popular gain.

Xi was not, of course, shown equally with other leaders on Chinese television. Immediately following his speech, the leading channels interrupted the live broadcast and switched to their studios for expert discussions. The speeches that followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan, and UN head Antonio Guterres went unseen by most Chinese viewers. Chinese TV’s main news program, “Xinwen Lianbo” gave them eight seconds of a twelve-minute segment about the forum. The applause in the segment about Xi’s speech lasted twice as long.

A long-playing and successful global strategy is a good way not only to enter history, but perhaps to remain at the helm for another term. The next meeting of international leaders to discuss the Belt and Road is scheduled to take place in Beijing in two years. The third forum should therefore take place in 2021. According to current practice, Xi should leave the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2022, and the position of Chairman of the Central Military Commission the following year. Will he say goodbye to Zhongnanhai and his Belt and Road project? Or will he remain emperor of the road after all? These are questions that cannot go unasked after the recent forum and Xi’s triumphant performance there.