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One more for the Silk Road
Updated: 2019-02-15 08:13:50
( China Daily )

Peter Frankopan's new volume, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World. [PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY]

Historian Peter Frankopan adds a new volume to his best-selling book, Andrew Moody reports from Oxford, England.

Oxford University historian Peter Frankopan has recently had to live down being placed in the same category as great authors such as Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Frankopan's best-selling 2015 book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, was chosen in December as one of the 25 most influential books to be translated into Chinese over the past 40 years by Amazon China alongside Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby.

"It was a poll with some 20,000 respondents. I nearly fell off my chair to be mentioned in the same breath as these authors," he says.

Frankopan, who was speaking over morning coffee at the Rooftop Restaurant of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, is still coming to terms with the success of his first book.

Previously laboring away in what might seem the obscure field of Byzantine history, his history of the ancient Silk Road network that connected Europe, Central Asia and China, coincided with a renewal of interest in these links and was an international best-seller.

"It went viral and global very quickly. It was published in Chinese at the beginning of 2016 and I was very lucky, timing wise, since it also coincided with even greater interest in China's Belt and Road Initiative," he says.

Frankopan is now back where the other book left off with a new volume, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, which was released in November.

Whereas the previous book was an epic history spanning millennia, the new one is much more journalistic, taking in events as recent as the Forum on China Africa Cooperation meeting in Beijing in September and the ongoing trade conflict between the United States and China.

Like the first, however, it is superbly researched bringing in everyday examples such as the ownership of football clubs and Bordeaux vineyards to illustrate a more complex connected world.

"I initially set out to write a new up-to-date chapter for the first book but soon realized it would be better to try a shorter book that was a bit more journalistic," he says.

"I wanted to explain the Belt and Road (Initiative). I also wanted to look at countries like India, Pakistan, Iran and Russia. These are big second-tier countries, which have large populations and are quite big militarily. They are not superpowers yet but may well turn out to be that."

Frankopan says his approach is to join the dots that others do not tend to do when looking at the countries on this important axis.

"We don't tend to look at different parts of the world and how they are linked and the implications of that," he says.

"This book is a sort of snapshot of what is going on right now and is particularly useful for policymakers and journalists who don't always actually look at these connections."

Peter Frankopan, historian [PHOTO BY NICK J.B. MOORE/FOR CHINA DAILY]

One of the biggest connectors is China's Belt and Road Initiative, launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, and which is one of the central focuses of the new book.

The second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation is set to be held in China later this year and already $1 trillion has been committed to 1,000 projects since the initiative was launched.

"Five years is not a great period of time in historical terms to assess it. The key test will not be whether infrastructure projects look good but whether they can actually significantly improve the GDP and productivity of China's neighbors," he says.

In the book, Frankopan quotes Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as saying: "Other countries have lots of ideas but no money. But for China when it comes with an idea it also comes with the money."

"I think he is right," says Frankopan.

"These projects, for the large part, do have the capability to raise living standards and do the kind of things that large-scale international development does."

At one point Frankopan contrasts the Belt and Road Initiative with the Northern Powerhouse, a British government initiative to improve infrastructure in the north of England, which was launched at the same time. Its main achievement, according to Frankopan, seems to be just a new second entrance to Leeds railway station.

"Yes, that is right. There is a different scale of ambition. Belt and Road (Initiative) has had some criticism for lacking definition. As a historian I quite like that because many things in history are open to interpretation. Belt and Road (Initiative) is not saying here is a highway and this counts as being part of the belt and this other one doesn't. The fact that it is abstract, inclusive and adaptable seems to be quite a good thing."

Although British, Frankopan, 47, also has a distinction of being a Croatian prince due to his Dalmatian ancestry.

He was educated at Eton College, the top British public school, and initially read Russian at Jesus College, Cambridge, before eventually specializing in Byzantine history.

In 2016, following the success of his book, he was given the impressive and somewhat portentous title of professor of global history at Oxford University.

"I was giving a talk in Vienna and the translator got a bit carried away and I was referred to as the 'professor of universal history' when I got up to speak, which made me feel as though I had nowhere else to go," he says, laughing.

"All it really means is that I am director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research here but it is global in the sense that if you work on the history of Constantinople or Baghdad, you can't do it without looking at China, Russia, Africa and so on.

"Global history is highly recognizable to a Byzantine historian because it is important to understand plural and different systems which are often thousands of miles apart, and then to try and work out how they configure together," he adds.

Frankopan is also an accomplished linguist but despite his increasing interest in China, he has yet to take on Chinese.

"I am sort of thinking I might be too old. I can get (in terms of languages) from Portugal to more or less the Himalayas with a few gaps here and there. I can't read Hungarian, for example.

"I wouldn't necessarily want to be interviewed on TV in all of them (languages) but reading newspapers is not a problem. People in England think that speaking foreign languages is a miracle and that you have to be really clever, which I think is great. I am very lucky they think like that."

One aspect the book touches upon is Brexit, which in some respects is a breakage in the links in the new connected world.

"It is very hard to know what is going to happen. I don't like change as a historian. I also don't like volatility because it produces unpredictability and unforeseen consequences. I think the solution we'll get will weaken the European Union and will weaken the UK significantly," he says.

Frankopan says what he wanted to demonstrate in the book was how cities on the new silk roads are no longer backwaters.

"If you want to see the best art in the world then the Loevre in Abu Dhabi and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha are hard to beat," he says.

"You have only to look at the ownership of football teams, with many of them coming from China, Russia or the Gulf, to see that the center of gravity of the world is shifting eastward," he adds.

Frankopan says many people in Asia now have a sense that "tomorrow will be better than today" something no longer felt in the West.

"According to the Gini coefficient (which measures inequality in societies), if you are born in Kazakhstan or Sierra Leone in the bottom 20 percent, you have a better chance of getting out than if you are born in the US and the UK," he says.

"No one here in Europe thinks that in 10 years' time we are going to be significantly richer than we are."

Frankopan says China is aware the world is changing.

"They (China) are preparing themselves for a more open outlook on the world. Like in any relationship a lot depends on developing a communication where you talk as well as listen. We are not very good at listening here in the UK or in Europe right now."

The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury)

Contact the writer at andrewmoody@chinadaily.com.cn

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