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Special Features | World

FOCUS | Gateway to the ‘Old Silk Road’ shows the other side of China

Skyscrapers now dominate the major cities like Nanjing. PHOTO BY JOEL C. PAREDES, INTERAKSYON.COM
The online news portal of TV5

QUIJING, China - Dong Baotong is a man in a hurry. As mayor, he is out to prove that this prefecture-level city in eastern Yunnan province could promote ecotourism despite being one of China’s most important industrial cities for its  highly profitable mining activities.

So out of 500 mining areas, the mayor decided to approve in the last two years only less than a hundred permits for mining operations.

Mayor Dong Baotong

Baotong admits he and his constituents faced what he called a “big society conflict,” knowing how the city’s income had depended on the mining companies for decades.

“But we have to do it,” says Baotong, one of the new breed of local bureaucrats who share a growing sentiment that the first step to a sustainable development is environment protection.

And as Beijing  opens up further to  foreign investments, officials apparently want to disprove that China had routinely ignored the resulting environmental degradation in the mad rush to prime the economy in order to provide for the country’s 1.3 billion people.

While sacrificing a substantial part of its income with the decline in mining operations, Quijing looks at ecotourism as an advantage to entice more foreign investors to set up new enterprises and restore the city’s old grandeur.

As Yunnan’s second largest city, Quijing has been to home to 6.4 million ethnic groups comprising the Han, Yi, Hui, Zhuang, Miao, Shui and Yan groups of indigenous people in the mineral-rich Yunnan-Guizhu plateau.

It boasts of scenic spots tempered by the low altitude and moderate elevation .

With its mild subtropical highland climate, Quijing is blessed with short, mild  winters and warm rainy summers.

Recently, the city’s so-called “Love Village,” originally a  real estate venture to lure foreigners and China’s new affluent class to invest in massive  European- style villas around Quijing Bay,  has turned into one of  the country’s major tourist destinations.  

Quijing’s ‘Love Village’

Local developers say they generate US$2 million in gross income from the sale of the pricey structures. It has also become a favorite destination of local tourists as well as a popular place for weddings and other celebrations.

Indeed, as it develops precious real estate, China is truly shifting  to a more  “western ambiance,” as one local journalist puts it.

Sustainable development tourism

According to Secretary-General Yang Xiuping of the Asean-China Centre (ACC), these major changes in China’s “gateways” are timely, since the two major regional partners have already agreed to promote 2016 as the year for “sustainable development tourism.”

As defined, sustainable development tourism attempts to make a “low impact on the environment and local culture while helping to generate income, employment and the conservation of local ecosystems." It is considered ecologicallyand culturally sensitive.

Secretary-General Yang said that of the 1.3 billion tourists recorded last year, 123 million were Chinese tourists, with 23 million of them visiting ASEAN member countries.

“Next year   (2017), no matter what happens, it  (ASEAN) will be important for China,” said Yang, a veteran diplomat who was China’s ambassador to the ASEAN when  President Xi Jingping announced in his Jakarta visit in 2013 China’s  connectivity initiative to promote  new “shared” development programs  with its neighboring countries.

Secretary-General Yang Xiuping (C) of the Asean-China Centre

Although there are already 2,000 flights daily linking China with the 10 ASEAN member countries, she hoped that “we will do more work for the connectivity.”

Yang disclosed that the two sides have also begun discussing the construction of new road highways linking China with its mainland Southeast Asian neighbors.  

China and Thailand have already launched the first 250 kilometers of a joint railway system, but within the next 10 years this massive modern railway construction is expected to expand to tens of thousands of kilometer to link Singapore up north to southern China.

The former ambassador underscored that China’s “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR) initiative through the 21stCentury Maritime Silk Road can really make a difference with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Modernizing  the old Silk Road 

In this ambitious Beijing-led initiative, China hopes to pursue its closer development cooperation offensive globally, but with a modern-day twist to the old “Silk Road.” 

China maintains that that it is not a scheme to dominate the global economy, but is merely an "opening up” strategy to link China’s economy with its neighbors, many of which were part of the  extensive transcontinental network that China  built to connect the “East” to the “West” in ancient times.

Ambassador Yang noted that ASEAN is considered “very important” to China.

Last year, collaboration in trade and investments reached US$470 billion and US$150 billion, respectively.

Apart from being a huge market of 600 million people, ASEAN aims to set up a single production base with free movement of goods, investments, services and labor. The target is to transform ASEAN into “a single market and production base to boost the region’s competitiveness and connectivity.”

Being at the helm of ACC, Yang oversees the inter-government organization jointly established by China and ASEAN’s 10 member countries as a one-stop shop and activities center for their trade, investment, education, culture and information. For starters, China has offered to shoulder 90 percent of financial undertakings in all their development initiatives.

Through the ACC, this writer, along with a group of ASEAN journalists, had a glimpse of the 2,600 kilometer-stretch that link the southern China gateways to the new maritime Silk Road.

The development gateways

At the southwestern side of China lies Yunnan province, which shared a border with Myanmar in the West, Laos in the south and Vietnam in the southwest. The province also borders Guangxi and Guixhou in the west, Sichuan in the north and the Tibet Autonomous Region in the northwest.

Yunnan’s highland city of Quijing was also one of the original routes in the old Silk Road. Today, its busy road route is also being promoted as one of the major gateways of China because of its strategic location to bordering ASEAN countries.

Chinese police manning Dehong’s border with Myanmar

During World War II, the Dehong Dai and Jingo Autonomous Prefecture in the province also became the passageway for relief operations from the western countries, with the road network from Myanmar’s Kachin State. 

In the sixties, China’s close diplomatic ties with the old Burma resulted in the opening up of Ruili, a country-level city in Dehong, which became a major center for trade with the Myanmar town of Muse across the border.

Since then, China’s exports to Myanmar’s border have reportedly surged to US$4.5 billion annually, mostly from the sales of motorcycles, heavy industrial equipment and telecommunication gadgets. Dehong also became the major route for Myanmar’s agricultural and food products for the Chinese market.

Chinese motorcycles for export to southwestern border gateway

To further boost the economic activities, the Dehong Ruili Railway, which will connect Ruili with China’s national railway network, is now under construction.

In opening up the prefecture and nearby cities to foreign workers, a foreign employment office was set up right near the border town to facilitate the employment of 40,000 contract workers from Myanmar.

About 10 kilometers from the city proper is the so-called  tourist site Dai, described as “One Village, two Countries” since the rustic community is divided in two parts by the China-Myanmar borderline, with its fences, roads and ditches.

Still, exchanges have become a daily routine in the area, with both sides selling their  products at the village. A  joint Chinese-Myanmar  school was even set up, but students from both countries have to return home in the evening.

Kunming, the capital and largest  city in the Yunnan Province ,  has been positioned as the region’s political and cultural center, serving as the transportation hub in southwest China. Also called the “Spring City” due to its yearlong temperate weather, Kunming  is linked to Vietnam by rail, and by road to Myanmar and Laos. 

On the other side of the southern part of China lies the coastal province of Jiangsu, which has emerged as China’s top manufacturer of electronics and apparel items.

Since the Sui and Tang dynasties, Jiangsu has been the national and commercial center, partly owing to the construction of the Grand Canal.

Jiangsu is also widely regarded as China’s most developed province as measured by the UN-certified  Human Development Index (HDI).

Suzhou nearby still banks on its popularity as  the  cradle of the Wu culture and one of the 24 national historical and cultural cities , despite being   a leading  economic center, next to Jiangsu’s capital city of Nanjing.

Founded in 514 BC, Suzhou, dubbed in local tourism brochures as the “Venice of the East,”  has over 2,500  years of history, with an abundant  display of relics and sites of historic canals, gardens and pagodas sprawled along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

The Classical Gardens of Suzhou is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997 and 2000.  

Meanwhile, the old Shengze town, the main source of silk in ancient times, is being promoted as a “textile city”, this time as  market for modern silk and new fabrics from all over the region.

Apparently determined to put down its reputation as a cheap source of fabric,   the Suzhou Shengze Textile City was opened in early October as  a business complex for 1,800 booths covering 170,00 square meters, with a vision to  become a center for an “international professional  textile market” and fashion silk exhibition and trading centers.

Blending of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ China 

When local residents abandoned their centuries-old bungalows in a suburban Dangkou village, local town officials decided to preserve it as an “ancient village”  to retain its image as a historic and cultural town of China.

As medium rise condominiums mushroom in the town proper, old villages are being preserved, along with  ancient tombs and historical buildings.

Ancient village in Danqkuo

It is also one way to attract foreign investors, which China is promoting as part of its globalization strategy.

While Dangkou is being groomed as a “fine” tourist destination, the adjacent city of Wuxi in Southern Jiangsu province is being developed as a major world-class commercial and industrial complex.

Wuxi is one of the major urban centers duplicating the feat of Shanghai, the old historic port city with its prominent skylines, and flashy cars along busy eight-lane highways and leisure and entertainment areas offering a blend of western and Chinese cuisine.

China’s urban planners  continue to  capitalize on Wuxi's  historical importance, considering that it was the birthplace of China’s modern industry and commerce. It is also the  hometown of prominent business leaders who played  key roles in building China’s national industry at the turn of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, as it is being  modernized because of its sustainable development potential, Nanjing, the capital of  Jiangsu, is being promoted as  a prominent place in Chinese history and culture, having served as  the capital of various Chinese dynasties and kingdoms.

Under the new Silk Road initiative, the city’s maritime importance has been resurrected, being the  hometown of  the legendary navigator Zheng  He (1371-1433) and the place where he started the first Chinese western expedition  600 years ago.

Legendary Chinese navigator Zheng He’s old home that is now a maritime park

Zheng’s former home was converted into a theme park in memory of  his  invaluable historic contribution in the old maritime silk route. It also projects the history of cultural exchange between China and the Western world.

Lessons learned from the outside world

Nanjing, the long-time Chinese capital during the pre-liberation era, is now regarded as one of China’s leading economic hubs, along with the Jiangsu cities of Yangzhou, Wuxi and Suzhou. 

Within the city’s Yangtze River Delta lies the Nanjing Ecological and Technological Island -- another major cooperation project between China and Singapore following the success of the Suzhou Industrial Park.

Suzhou, in recent years, has become a model for development from industrial parks that were set up in key districts to house in one huge complex education and R&D, the central commercial business districts (CBD) and the resorts and industries. 

Although a recent development in China, this strategy had been successful for luring foreign investors in newly developing countries.

The Suzhou Bioindustry Park later became the industrial base for medical devices and new drugs as it housed joint ventures between Chinese companies and foreign enterprises involved in drug discoveries and medical devices. All this, as China pushes for the “quick and sound” development of a biomedical industry.

Nanjing’s eco-park was supposed to also define a new image for the fast-growing city as it transformed into an open economy by housing eco-friendly technological industries and modern services.

Reviving the old maritime silk route

In nearby Taicang City, the old Port Area which ushered the old maritime silk route at the Yangtze River Delta has been revived as a major artery port for container transportation in the north wing of Shanghai International Navigation Center, apart from being Jiangsu’s leading foreign trade port.

Its nearly 39-kilometer coastline along the Yangtze River has become the economic center for China’s traditional industries like petrochemicals, electricity and energy. In the Port Area also lies the world’s second largest container manufacturing base, along with the  world’s largest base for lubricant production.

As the “back garden of Shanghai,” Taicang  boasts of two major  tourist attractions – the Modern Agricultural Park and Shanxi Ancient Town.

While gearing up for the momentum of growth as intense as that seen in Beijing and Shanghai, these cities along the Silk Road are all being promoted as templates for a more environment-friendly and  comfortable cosmopolitan lifestyle, one that blends China’s modernization with the past. 

By pouring considerable attention and resources into these modern gateways of the old Silk Road, China’s leaders are obviously out to signal that, as a fast-growing economic power guided  by the state-assisted industries, the country has fully embraced  a free-market economy, with only the trimmings of  socialism and the “old” China to remind all of its fascinating evolution.