E.g., 09/29/2020
E.g., 09/29/2020

China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Boon, Bust or Maybe Just a Slow Burn?

By: Diane Wagner

06 November 2018

Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a modern-day Silk Road, going to drive a new wave of investment in language services?

Yes, say industry watchers, noting that Asia-Pacific languages are steadily outpacing all other language groups, up two percent worldwide this year to 11 percent, according to CSA Research’ 2018 Language Services Report: 2018. Chinese Simplified also now owns the second largest share—10.5 percent—of online GDP and 19.4 percent share of online audience worldwide, CSA Research’s Digital Opportunity: Top 100 Online Languages for 2017 notes, growth that is only expected to continue in the decade ahead.

All this optimism comes with a strong dose of caution, however. BRI-fueled growth will come over time: think slow burn rather than big bang.

“This year English continued to be the dominant target language from Simplified Chinese; but Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian and Japanese are steadily growing,” says Jamie Punishill, Chief Marketing Officer for Massachusetts-based Lionbridge Technologies, Inc. “The diversity of target languages has definitely gone up. In 2017 versus 2018, European languages fell out of our top five languages in terms of volume. That’s the first ripple in the pond.”

While the name of the Belt and Road Initiative name may be rooted in China’s past—antiquity’s Silk Road—today’s Silk Roads—there are two of them—are all about China’s ambitious vision for the future. Over the next decade or so, China expects to fund as much as US$8 trillion in infrastructure—roads, airports, bridges, train lines, ports, pipelines, power plants, refineries and more—across Southwestern and Central Asia, the Near East, Africa and Europe. One road, the Silk Road  Economic Belt (SREB), is a land route that stretches from inner China to Southern Europe. The second road, the Maritime Silk Route (MSR), is a sea route, which connects the port of Shanghai with Venice, via India and Africa. Not coincidentally, Belt and Road is viewed as China’s attempt at reshaping the world, using its soft power of economic development.

And indeed, the Belt and Road’s geographic scope is immense—70 countries—as is its linguistic scope: some 2,500 languages, touching perhaps 60 per cent of the world’s population. Most of these languages will not be economically viable, of course, but many will be, including, predicts the Social Sciences in China Press (CSSP), which publishes journals for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Modern Standard Arabic, Russian, Malay and Tamil.

So surely all of this economic activity will be an economic bonanza to the companies that provide translation, interpretation, localization, marketization and speech services, right? After all, all this work requires massive amount of materials to be created, communicated and negotiated. Local governments will need contracts, regulators will need regulations, companies will need finance and HR systems, engineers will need software, and everyone will need to get paid. Add to this the ‘trickle out’ requirement for housing, feeding and entertaining all those workers, and that’s the scale and volume of work language services providers crave.

Not so fast says Don DePalma, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Boston-based CSA Research.

“If the Americans were doing this, if the Brits were doing this, they would use local labor,” DePalma says, which would create demand for local languages. Unfortunately, he says, that’s not typically the Chinese development model.

“What the Chinese don’t do is create local demand,” DePalma says. “They bring in armies of Chinese workers to work on vertically integrated projects—Chinese workers, working with Chinese cranes, Chinese steel, Chinese concrete, Chinese parts, Chinese tractors.”

The result, he says, is not a lot of demand for commercial language services. Not until after the infrastructure projects are complete and much of the Chinese workforce has moved on is there the potential for the kind of economic activities—regulation, finance, manufacturing, tourism—that have the potential to drive demand for translation, interpretation, localization and marketization.

Net, says De Palma, “growth won’t be a boom—more like a slow burn.”

With China’s ability to drive investment and expansion from the top down, not surprisingly China’s native language services sector is experiencing significant visibility and support from the government . Five years ago, just three Chinese-headquartered LSPs showed up in the industry’s top 50 companies. Today, there are many new Chinese and regional players, representing the strength—and diversity—in Asian-Pacific languages.

And, as the Belt and Road work matures, demand for language pairs will also evolve, with Chinese at the forefront.

Given BRI’s scale, the initiative not unexpectedly has hit some bumps along the way. Much of China’s funding is through grants and loans, rather than direct investment, fueling potential debt-traps for small countries eager for investment. Earlier this year, for example, Sri Lanka handed back its new Hambantota port to the Chinese, unable to repay its loans. Malaysia cancelled several projects and Myanmar reduced the scope of it planned Kyaukpyu deep water port, both due to cost concerns. Pakistan too, is currently reconsidering the stalled US$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, to ensure local economic benefit.

Still, B&R is good for the language industry, CSA’s DePalma says. “These two avenues—the road and the maritime waterways—open up opportunity in a parts of the world that haven’t had a lot of attention from large powers since the Brits and Soviets left. China is now jumping into the breach. They increase their power but also increase opportunity. That will also create opportunity for language services too.”

Diane Wagner writes about language topics from Seattle.