Immersive Field Course: Asia - China’s Belt & Road Initiative - Harvard Business School MBA Program

Immersive Field Course: Asia - China’s Belt & Road Initiative

Course Number 6088

Associate Professor Meg Rithmire
Professor Willy Shih

25 On-campus sessions: Y-schedule at 1:15 - 3:15 pm.
Ten of these sessions will be class meetings with readings and case content and will occur predominantly on Thursdays with one Friday (September 5, 12, 19, 27, October 3, 10, 17, 24, and November 7 and 14). We are also planning to bring in outside speakers for some of these sessions. The remaining days are blocked for student teams to work on their papers. We will use November 15, 20, 21, and 22 for paper presentations. Fall class sessions will conclude on November 22, and there will be one pre-travel briefing on the afternoon of December 5.

Travel dates: Arrival in Shenzhen, China on Sunday, January 5, 2020 by 1:00 pm. Departure from Colombo, Sri Lanka on Saturday, January 18, 2020.

Program Fee and Travel costs: See details in Course Credit and Fees

Credits: 3.0

Enrollment: Limited to 45 MBA students. No cross-registrants.

Career Focus

This EC Field Course bridges between traditional case and research based learning with international field observation and interactions with in-country business and government leaders, offering a unique educational experience. It will appeal to students who are interested in perhaps the most significant Chinese state policy initiative of its time, and its impact on surrounding countries and the economic geography of East and South Asia.

This is an ambitious course that will require substantial preparation work, both in the Fall and during January. In January we will visit Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Zhuhai in China, Yangon in Myanmar, and Colombo and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

Educational Objectives

Our objective is to provide students perspectives and insight into one of the major political and economic development programs of China - its Belt and Road Initiative, a strategy that involves infrastructure development and investments in countries spanning Central and South Asia, Africa, and Europe. This signature foreign policy initiative is described by the Chinese government as "a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future," while some observers see it as a push to enhance China’s role in global affairs with a China-centered trading network. We wish to expose students to the diversity of views across the region and beyond, combining advance study and preparation with the unique perspective that will come form on the ground observations and interactions.

Course Content and Organization

Fall class discussions will include cases and readings on the overall Belt and Road Initiative, as well as projects both in China and in countries covered by the initiative. The official Chinese government website lists a vast number of infrastructure and economic development projects spanning Southeast, South, and Central Asia all the way to Africa and Eastern Europe. There are six designated land corridors:

  • The New Eurasian Landbridge that connects Xinjiang Province in western China through Kazakhstan and Russia to Eastern Europe
  • The China - Mongolia - Russia Corridor
  • The China - Central Asia - West Asia Corridor which also begins in Xinjiang, traverse the five countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) through Iran to Turkey.
  • The China - Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor through Laos, Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
  • The China - Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a direct route from China to the Arabian Sea.
  • The Bangladesh - China - India - Myanmar Economic Corridor. Myanmar in particular, offers an alternate route from Yunnan Province directly to the Bay of Bengal, bypassing the Straits of Malacca.

In contrast to the land corridors, the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is focused on sea routes linking China with Oceania, Europe and Africa. It is complimentary to the land routes, and encompasses projects in the South China Sea, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean.

We will look through multiple lenses. We will try to understand the broad geopolitical context, but we will spend substantial time looking at China’s approach of infrastructure-led development, and how translatable this is to intended recipient countries. We will cover a range of countries with cases and readings, with a special focus on countries who are geographically positioned between two giants, for example between Russia and China for Kazakhstan, and between China and India for Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

We will also invest some time understanding trade flows, global supply chains, and the mechanics of international commerce including ocean container shipping and air cargo as they relate to development strategies linked to the Belt and Road.

During our January 2020 travel, we will visit major infrastructure projects tentatively including the Hong Kong-Zuhai-Macao Bridge, the Sheikou Port development, the Yiantian International Container Terminal, the Hambantota Port, and the New Yangon City project. We also plan to visit manufacturing sites in China so that we can understand the core of China’s economic development model. This will give a useful perspective on trade and global supply chains.

Paper Preparation and Presentation

Because we cannot cover the breadth of China’s Belt and Road initiative in our class sessions alone, students will be expected to prepare papers on projects and countries. We will provide a list of these topics so that teams of two students can prepare a research briefing from a common list. The list will span topics in all regions associated with the Belt and Road initiative, including Kazakhstan, Greece, Kenya, Montenegro, Malaysia, Myanmar, Djibouti, and Eastern Europe. Our goal is to have a broad coverage briefing book before we depart, with “experts” who have examined a wide range of topics in depth. This will make for very rich and engaging discussions with everybody we meet.

Students will present these papers during the last four class sessions in the Fall, and we will likely ask some or all teams to present during our travel segment as well. We have already heard from several organizations in Myanmar that they are very interested in learning lessons from other countries and projects, so we tentatively plan to hold a symposium there.



The Immersive Field Course Model

Immersive Field Courses are designed to offer second-year students an off-campus, experiential learning opportunity during the January term. A cornerstone of these courses is the expertise of faculty, who develop course content focused on teaching objectives that are met primarily through student-centered active learning opportunities including project work, site visits and participating in discussions with key contacts. As such, these courses provide students with an opportunity to apply first-hand the knowledge and skills gained from their on-campus MBA coursework in an off-campus setting.

Due to the nature of Immersive Field Courses students may be required to sign legal agreements requested by host organizations. Additional requirements and documentation may also be requested of students by organizations.

Course Credit and Fees

HBS will provide logistical support for this course (including accommodations, select meals, and local travel arrangements). Students will be charged a course fee of $3,000 toward defraying a portion of these costs. Students are responsible for their round-trip air travel and any costs associated with required visa documentation and immunizations. Students need to ensure adequate processing time for all visas, and travel fees will not be refundable if a student does not secure visas in time. HBS students who have applied for financial aid may apply for additional financial support to participate in this course. Please see the HBS Financial Aid website (login required) for more information on financial support for Immersive Field Courses.

Though we will be in countries that have rich tourism opportunities, students who are mainly interested in a trek would be better served doing that independently from this course, as our visits are focused on current challenges at an extraordinary time in the evolution of the relationship between China and countries along its proposed land corridors and Maritime Silk Road. We plan to incorporate one day of sight-seeing in Myanmar, but students should not plan any independent activities between January 5 - 18. This includes a specific prohibition on independent day trips involving any flights or other means of transportation that will take students outside of Yangon on January 12, 2020.

For detailed information about what the course program fee includes and excludes, as well as information about student accommodations, please visit the GEO website or email


Throughout the course, we will provide recommended readings to help participants familiarize themselves with a broad range of background material. A sample follows:

Abernethy, David B. 2000. The Dynamics of Global Dominance : European Overseas Empires, 1415-1980. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ang, Yuen Yuen 2016. How China Escaped the Poverty Trap. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Frieden, Jeffry A. 2006. Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century. New York: W.W. Norton.

Gimlette, John. 2015. Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka. London: Quercus.

Hessler, Peter. 2006. Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present. New York: HarperCollins

Hopkirk, Peter. 1992. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. New York: Kodansha International

Levinson, Marc. 2006. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Thant Myint, U. 2011. Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.