People-to-people bond in B&R from communication angle

By ZHANG YONGFENG / 09-23-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Representatives from countries along the Belt and Road experience making rubbings at the China Qingdao Han Portrait Brick Museum in Shandong Province. Photo: CFP

The China-proposed Belt and Road (B&R) initiative requires policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people bonds. Among the others, the people-to-people bond, or connectivity, is the only top-level design regarding human communication. However, connecting people of countries along the B&R routes is not simply about human communication. It is a complicated and long-term process. 
This process can be divided into four progressive tiers of the communication path. The first tier concerns people-to-people exchanges, which mean to build communication webs to facilitate engagement between people of B&R countries, in order to enhance mutual understanding. In the second tier, reciprocity and mutual benefits are essential to strengthening the motivation for people-to-people communication. The third tier features affective communication to pull the ties between people of related countries tight. Through measures in the above three tiers, consensus will be built in the fourth tier, thus achieving the goal of constructing the B&R jointly. 
Building communication webs
The people-to-people bond is primarily about human communication. As American historian John R. McNeil pointed out, webs that have drawn humans together in patterns of interaction and exchange, cooperation and competition, are central to world history. 
Through the lens of history, the famed ancient Silk Road exemplified the inclusive development of different civilizations over more than 2,000 years, witnessing endless flows of people, particularly merchants. 
The B&R initiative aims exactly to overcome obstacles obstructing people-to-people exchanges, create more opportunities for people along the routes to communicate, and incorporate them into social networks for joint learning, production, and living. Ultimately an interconnected social communication web will replace clearly demarcated nation states. Their engagement will be more active and mutual trust will grow deeper for the sake of common prosperity. 
In 2015, the State Council of China promulgated the Vision and Action on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, calling for efforts to promote extensive cultural and academic exchanges, personnel exchanges and cooperation, media cooperation, youth and women exchanges, and volunteer services. It also proposed sending more students to each other’s countries, and promoting cooperation in jointly running schools; holding culture years, arts festivals, film festivals, TV weeks, and book fairs in each other’s countries; and holding tourism promotion weeks and publicity months in each other’s countries to jointly create competitive international tourist routes and products with Silk Road features.
Health care, vocational training, social security, poverty reduction and development, and charity are likewise highlighted in the people-to-people bond section of the document. These principles and concrete directions for action draw a communication roadmap that covers a wide array of fields with close people-to-people exchanges. The implementation of the above proposals are weaving a web encompassing transportation, media, humanities, universities, cities, tourism, and people’s livelihoods, forming an interconnected and differently-shaped social communication network. 
As the fundamental premise of human communication, people-to-people connectivity has embraced networked intermediaries that can guide people along the routes of the B&R to exchange on the material and mental level more effectively. 
Seeking mutual benefits
Human communication always happens out of certain motives. Insufficient willingness, even unwillingness, to communicate will hardly bond people of B&R countries. 
Along the routes of the B&R there are more than 60 countries and regions, involving a huge population. It is a significant task to motivate people from vastly different cultures to get together, and acquaint with each other willingly. 
According to the social exchange theory, interpersonal relations should first of all, and most importantly, be grounded in self-interests. In other words, people tend to choose others that will benefit themselves the most. Meanwhile, to receive the benefits, they should also give. Despite its nature of economic rationality, the theory is illuminating to bonding people of B&R countries in practice.    
The B&R is a path for China and countries around the world to develop peacefully and acquire mutual benefits. Since it was proposed, the initiative has contributed to increasingly dynamic trade contacts between China and participating countries, providing important development opportunities for the latter. 
Social exchange theorists argue that mutual benefits will consolidate and further develop human relations, as the two sides will turn from caring only about their own benefits to paying attention to the interests of both. Interpersonal relations therefore become closer and form a sense of “us.” This represents a leap forward in interest exchange to a higher level. 
People-to-people connectivity also follows such a process. When countries along the B&R foster equal and stable mutually beneficial relationships in terms of economic interests, with regard to social mentality, the people will have the motive and willingness to engage in positive and lasting exchanges. Within the framework of reciprocity, mutual benefits, and cooperation, bilateral relations will be cemented, laying the foundation for the subsequent building of the “us” consciousness and the goal of connecting people’s hearts. 
Leveraging empathetic communication
Interpersonal contacts and interest interaction undoubtedly are the basis for furthering relationships, but the people-to-people bond relies on a pivotal mechanism: empathetic communication. 
American sociologist Norman Denzin held that emotions act as a fundamental bond in maintaining social relationships. Emotions are a physical and psychological state shared by all humanity. Such basic human emotions as joy and pain, love and hate, anger and despair, friendship and alienation, normally can go beyond all kinds of barriers and strike a chord among all subjects of interpersonal communication. This is the so-called empathy in psychology. The people-to-people bond is in essence about affective linkage between communication subjects.
Empathetic communication in promoting people-to-people connectivity in the B&R should observe the following principles. The first principle is sincerity. Sincerity is a lofty moral emotion, and also the guarantee for human communication to sustain and develop. Only when practices of the B&R initiative substantively benefit people along the routes, and bring them equality, respect, and sincerity for cooperation as well as notable development results, can they be touched and show their trust. 
Second, due to the complexity of human emotions, the “olive branch” offered by emotion expressers will not necessarily provoke expected responses from communication objects. Therefore, more importance should be attached to the participation of and cooperation between non-governmental subjects, to avoid causing psychological and emotional discomfort, even backlashes, in people of other countries. It is equally important to deliver sincere emotions to people of B&R nations by telling them vivid and warm stories. 
Because emotions are deep feelings, it is not easy to achieve empathy in human communication. Only by putting oneself in others’ shoes can mutual understanding be realized. At the same time, it is crucial to select shared representations of affective communication. The more highly the two sides of communication recognize each other’s expressive symbols and the more deeply they understand each other, the firmer the shared representations are and the broader the space for empathy will be. Accordingly, the emotional communication and bonding between the two sides will be smoother. 
Building consensus 
Emotional communication is ultimately manifested in strong agreement with each other, as well as the awareness of the community with a shared future in which “there is a bit of me in you and a bit of you in me.” This is also what the I-Thou interaction model proposed by German-Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber is all about, which is based on mutuality, empathy, and being together with someone or something in the present moment. It is totally different from Buber’s other concept of I-It that stresses engagement with the intent and expectation of attaining some gain or benefit. What people-to-people connectivity aims to achieve is an ideal state of communication built upon a remarkable degree of consensus between the two sides.
Consensus is also defined as social agreement by Chinese communication scholar Zhao Jianguo. It means that people hold basically consistent or close opinions on social matters and their relations, particularly on key matters, right and wrong, truth, kindness, and beauty, as well as falsity, vice, and ugliness.
Countries along the B&R are confronted with various communication obstacles, such as geographical separation, political disputes, interest conflict, national feuds, regional barriers, and cultural friction. The construction of the initiative necessitates high agreement between people of related countries. 
In this regard, the people-to-people bond is emphasized to enhance understanding, garner support, and foster friendship between B&R countries to reach consensus and forge synergistic power, so as to lay the groundwork of social mentality for the initiative. Efforts are needed to actively promote such B&R concepts as peace, diversity, co-building, sharing, and “win-win” in countries along the routes to gain their recognition, while translating them into material power through practices to build consensus in material and spiritual communication. 
People-to-people connectivity is a long and synchronized process requiring networking, mutually beneficial pragmatic cooperation, empathy, and consensus. In doing so, the B&R initiative will truly benefit people along the routes and the philosophy of the community with a shared future for mankind will take root in neighboring countries. 
Zhang Yongfeng is a professor from the School of Journalism and Communications at Shaanxi Normal University.