Silk Road an overtaking lane for China's stragglers
Updated: 2015-05-04 11:03
NANNING - People in Hepu county know next to nothing about the maritime Silk Road, a network of trade routes that once linked China and the outside world. Nor do they have much idea of what the revitalized concept can bring to their hometown.
Ruins of the city wall, the remains of a port and thousands of Persian-style artifacts are the only reminders of the county's past glory. Back in the Han Dynasty (202BC - 220AD), the port was China's busiest, sending off giant ships carrying fine ceramics and silk to south and southeast Asia.
Hepu soon faded into anonymity, overshadowed by ports in Guangdong and Fujian. Its most ambitious plan in recent years was bidding to become a world heritage site in the hope of bringing in more tourists.
Like other places left high and dry by previous tides of opening up, Hepu is playing catch-up by joining the movement behind the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.
In April, the State Council, China's cabinet, approved a plan for Beihai city, which administers Hepu, to make the port an export channel for west China and a star of the modern version of the Maritime Silk Road.
Momentum is palpable across Guangxi. Beibu Gulf port has ties with 47 ASEAN ports, and Qinzhou has just opened several regular container ship routes.
Guangxi chairman Chen Wu believes the region's strength lies in its proximity to ASEAN with the potential to become an international channel to and from central and Southwest China.
This is a different approach from Guangdong and Zhejiang -- provinces along China's eastern and southern coast that rose to prominence mostly by exporting to developed economies in the West.
"Three decades into opening up and China is pushing for all round access, involving both East and West," said Xu Ningning, executive president of the China-ASEAN Business Council.
That means many of China's less developed provinces and border regions will be catapulted into the front line of opening up, which is also good news for China's neighbors, Xu said.
Northwest China's Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia, is expected to become the core area of the Silk Road Economic Belt, while Yunnan in the southwest is also highlighted for its potential to connect south and southeast Asia.
If Beihai can be taken as a lesson for those eager to jump on the Silk Road bandwagon, it suggests that opening more trade routes and expanding ports are not enough for an economic take-off.
"We've been reflecting on why Beihai has joined every wave of opening up but lost out every time. The answer, I think, is a lack of industrial backup," said Xie Xiangyang, vice-mayor of Beihai.
Xie said the city has been actively developing petrochemical, electronics and new material industries. A city without its own industries cannot play the role of a trade portal in modern times, he said.