Coronavirus Travels the Silk Road
Nephrite Jade was first transported to China during the 2nd millennium BCE by traders who purchased the gemstones from mines in present-day eastern Iran.
A thousand years later, silk was first brought to Egypt around 1100 BCE by Chinese traders.
These travels occurred on the famed Silk Road. An ancient trade route that has connected China with Eurasia and the Middle East for thousands of years.
The trade route exploded in popularity with the expansion of both the Persian Empire and Alexander the Great.
Between 500 and 300 BCE, the Persians started speeding up trade along the route.
Instead of the slow 3 month trek, merchants were stationing fresh horses at various sections of the route and the time to cross from Egypt to China dropped to 9 days.
In 329 BCE Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt on the western edge of the Silk Road.
Alexandria would become one of the central trading posts and stops along the Silk Road.
The various routes of the Silk Road
In addition to silk, the road was a popular choice to send messages, gunpowder and practically anything of value that could be traded.
When the Chinese took control of the Silk Road they favored the practice of Buddhism. So, the traders along the route began to practice the religion which helped to export the practice throughout the world.
The Chinese also favored the use of paper.
In fact it was a Han dynasty court official Cai Lun who is considered to be the inventor of paper. When the Silk Road was controlled by the Han dynasty, the use of paper on the route and throughout the world exploded.
Before the Han dynasty took control of the Silk Road in 130 BCE, it was often referred to as the Royal Road under both the Persians and Alexander the Great.
The embassies to the Han dynasty wanted to strengthen their trade routes with the Mediterranean countries and seeing the Royal Road as a natural tool for this, they globalized the route and it became known as the Silk Road.
Zhang Qian was the Han dynasty's official representative for the Chinese imperial envoy to the world outside of China.
Zhang's journeys in the late 2nd century BC during the Han dynasty opened his eyes to the value of trading with present-day Europe.
Zhang was convinced that to help accelerate Chinese supremacy, the Silk Road must be established and maintained as a direct trading route.
Fast forward to present day and we see a China that has not changed its world view from the time of the Han dynasty and Ambassador Zhang Qian.
Under President Xi, China has been aggressively rolling out its Belt and Road initiative, one that is a modern day approach to the ancient Silk Road.
From highways in Kazakhstan to ports in Africa, the Belt and Road initiative has even been able to include the G7 country Italy, another country that has been besieged by the Coronavirus outbreak.
China's vision of a connected world to expedite trade has also set its sights on Iran.
Starting in 2015 China struck a deal with Iran where China would spend over $3 billion improving the rail lines of Iran.
The upgrades would improve aging Iranian tracks, add high speed rail and connected Iranian rail lines to China.
In 2016 China agreed to invest $400 billion in the Iranian economy over the next 25 years.
Iran as a thank you to China, lowered the cost of Chinese duties and import taxes allowing Chinese companies to more seamlessly do business in Iran.
The Chairman of China Building Materials Group, Song Zhiping, said in an interview that he sees “Chinese projects in Iran as a ‘win-win’ solution. Chinese manufacturers are capable of moving production lines to Iran for about 20 percent-to-30 percent of the cost of other international competitors.”
Beyond trade in the local Iranian market, China eyes Iran as an important hub connecting their rail and transport lines with both Turkey and the key trading port at the Strait of Hormuz. Being able to cross Iran is key for China. Iran is an enormous mountainous country and having to travel around it would add tremendous hardships on China's growing domination.
Unfortunately for Iran, this close connection to China has not just brought goods and capital, but also a deadly Coronavirus. One that has wreaked havoc on Iran's poor healthcare infrastructure.
The Coronavirus outbreak began in the city of Qom, about a 2 hour drive from Tehran.
Qom has more Chinese nationals living there than any other Iranian city and is home to many of the universities in Iran due to its religious standing and these universities have attracted many Chinese students.
In fact, there are over 700 Chinese students at Qom Seminary and at al-Mustafa International University. The University of Qom also has an enormous Chinese presence among both their students and staff. Many of the latest buildings to go up in Qom were built financed and owned by Chinese businessmen. Perhaps a businessman from Wuhan is the culprit of the spread?
Iran does not have an aging population that smokes the way Northern Italy has, a demographic very susceptible to Coronavirus.
Nevertheless Iran is seeing mortality rates close to 10% and the ruling government refuses to restrict movement, quarantine or accept aid from the United States, as saving face is very important for the government.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the BBC that the Coronavirus has "drained Iran's economic resources."
Now with reports that the cost of basic medical equipment in Iran has gone up 10x and even 20x in the local market, resources remain hard to come by.
There is also a rumor going around that early on during the Coronavirus onset Chinese government ministers bought up all of Iran's safety masks.
Like Northern Italy and Wuhan, Iran and China are partners for better or worse.