Three decades after Paul Theroux dubbed China’s lumbering railway the Iron Rooster, the country’s network of high-speed trains is the envy of the world. Now, China is working to push those tracks into Southeast Asia, reviving the century-old colonial fantasy of an imperial railroad from China to Singapore. This is the story of the world’s most audacious infrastructure project, an attempt to colonize and connect a dynamic, newly assertive region.
If even partially successful, the railroad could utterly transform the areas it touches, creating cities and markets (for better and worse) in places where none have existed. But it is also a cautionary tale about whether a freshly minted superpower can coast on its hubris through a part of the world that’s finding its footing as a force of its own. As a testing ground for China’s ＂railway diplomacy,＂ the Mekong Subregion is challenging the notion, in sometimes comical ways, that transnational infrastructure will be China’s economic savior.