In the barely inhabited steppes of Central Asia, it is establishing the next foothold in its trillion-dollar campaign to transform global infras

China’s B.R.I. ambitions have transformed Xinjiang from a fringe territory into what party leaders call a “core region” of development. That’s why awareness of the camps among people in places like Kazakhstan was such an issue, Zenz said. “It has significant potential to cast a very negative light on the Belt and Road.”

The Nurkent workers’ settlement
The Nurkent workers’ settlement © Andrea Frazzetta/Institute, for The New York Times


Even as Kazakhstan modernized following its 1991 independence, growing rich by regional standards from the sale of oil and outfitting a new capital city with glossy architectural marvels, the eastern border with China remained sparsely developed, its economy dominated by livestock and grain production. Nunur said his village still had no indoor plumbing, and as we left his fields we passed some of the ruins of centralized planning the Soviets left behind: a former winery, a shuttered milk plant.

China’s plans are significantly more ambitious, and they reach far beyond eastern Kazakhstan. The “belt” of the B.R.I. refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, a tangle of rail and highway routes currently vining their way untidily across the continent from eastern China to Scandinavia. The “road” is the Maritime Silk Road, a shipping lane that will connect Quanzhou to Venice, with prospective stops along the way in Malaysia, Ethiopia and Egypt. To date, at least 68 countries, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the planet’s total population, have signed on to bilateral projects partly funded by China’s policy banks and other state-owned enterprises. Chinese firms are building or investing in new highways and coal-fired power plants in Pakistan, ports in Greece and Sri Lanka, gas and oil pipelines in Central Asia, an industrial city in Oman and a $6 billion railway project in Laos, which in 2017 had a G.D.P. of less than $17 billion. China’s port holdings stretch from Myanmar to Israel and from Mauritius to Belgium. It has spent an estimated $200 billion on B.R.I. projects so far, mostly in Asia, and has implied it will spend a total of $1 trillion on hundreds of projects around the world in the coming years, dwarfing the Marshall Plan by roughly an order of magnitude. When the investments from all the participating countries are combined, the estimated cost rises to $8 trillion.

The B.R.I. is so big and multifarious that describing it can feel like trying to narrate the weather conditions of the entire planet. Some individual components span hundreds of miles and are themselves dauntingly complex and international, like the $68 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or the stalled and scandal-mired Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor. Taken as a whole, the B.R.I. is unfathomable. But I had heard that, at Khorgos, a pioneering outpost, I could get closer than anywhere else to appreciating the scope of its aspirations.