Ancient border city gets glimpse of prosperity under ‘B&R’ initiative

By Wang Cong in Horgos Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/1 19:33:40

A star rises over new Silk Road

The remote city of Horgos in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was once little more than a small stop for merchant caravans on the ancient Silk Road. Centuries later, China intends to resurrect the city's past by making it a major outpost along the Silk Road Economic Belt, part of the country's "One Belt and One Road" initiative. The city, located on the China-Kazakhstan border, has benefited from the association. Rapid development fueled by infrastructure investment has transformed the city, creating new opportunities for its residents.

Train tracks run through a comprehensive services center for the Horgos Economic Development Zone. Photo: Wang Cong/GT

Graphics: GT


On a recent Monday evening, a Uyghur cabbie who called himself Emam was driving three passengers to a residential development a few kilometers outside Horgos, a border city in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Emam, in his 40s, had picked up the three passengers at the newly opened China-Kazakhstan Horgos Frontier International Cooperation Center.

Along the highway outside the city, billboards lined the roadside, touting slogans for China's "One Belt and One Road" (B&R) initiative.

"Horgos - China's window and link to the Silk Road," one read.

Once just a stop for camel-laden caravans traveling the ancient Silk Road, Horgos (also known as Khorgos) is growing into one of China's most important land ports. It is the place where domestic highways and railroads connect to those in neighboring Kazakhstan, making the city China's gateway to Central Asia.

Due to its transportation network, Horgos has played an important role in driving Xinjiang's foreign trade.

In the first quarter of 2017, the region's foreign trade rose 75.7 percent year-on-year to 33.35 billion yuan ($4.8 billion), according to data released on Thursday by the Urumqi Customs District of China. Exports grew 74.7 percent from a year ago to 28.39 billion yuan.

A fortunate location

In Mongolian, the name "Horgos" means "a place where camels pass." In Kazakh, it means "a place where fortunes are gathered." Regardless of how one translates the name, it seems clear that Horgos has flourished because of its location.

Centuries after the ancient Silk Road disappeared, Horgos entered a "new golden era," as one of the slogans put it, after Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed creating the Silk Road Economic Belt during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road are the two parts of the B&R initiative.

Horgos is located about 370 kilometers away from Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city.

With a population of nearly 100,000, Horgos has grown into a vibrant city with modern buildings and new roads. Construction sites can be seen in almost every corner of the city.

"Horgos has developed quite well in recent years," Emam said in thickly accented Putonghua.

His passengers agreed. "Look, they are still building," said a young man in the front passenger seat, pointing out the car window to several construction sites.

Changing lives

The changes reach far beyond the city's appearance and into the lives of its residents, including Emam's. The taxi driver was born and raised in a mostly Uyghur neighborhood located just behind the residential development where he dropped off his passengers.

In those days, there were few opportunities, Emam said.

"We were all farmers. We didn't have jobs," he said. "But now many people have found work in the city… Some work as security guards. Some clean the streets, and the good ones work for government agencies and companies."

Emam never went to school and learned only conversational Putonghua on his own. He has worked as a farmer and as a migrant worker in Central China's Henan and East China's Jiangsu provinces. Later he started a business trading sheepskin.

Two years ago, Emam saw a business opportunity when he noticed more and more people in his neighborhood were starting to commute back and forth to work in the city each day. He started to drive a taxi, taking workers to the city each morning and driving them back to his neighborhood at night. During the day he cruises around the city looking for fares.

"Business is OK," he said. "I can live with it for now."

Emam plans to keep driving a taxi for the time being, though he hopes to start his own business again after "all of the [construction] is completed. It will be great."

Driven by investment

The changes in Horgos have been driven by investment, particularly in infrastructure, from the private sector and different levels of government.

In 2016, gross industrial output jumped 31.8 percent year-on-year to 410 million yuan, according to a press statement the city gave the Global Times on April 24. That year, there were 2,045 companies registered in Horgos with a total registered capital of 34.7 billion.

The investments followed a slew of measures from the central government, which included officially establishing the (county-level) city of Horgos and creating a plan to set up a special economic development zone there to provide policy and financial support measures.

Those measures include interest subsidies on corporate loans from the central government and tax exemptions for companies in "essential development sectors," such as technology and entertainment, according to the statement.

"With such support from both the central and regional governments, Horgos has been given opportunities that have never been seen before," said Guo Jianbin, deputy director of the management committee of the Horgos Economic Development Zone.

Guo said the opportunities were all due to the B&R initiative.

"We can say Horgos exists because of the Silk Road … The [Xinjiang] regional government and the State Council [China's cabinet] decided to establish the city of Horgos to better serve the Belt and Road initiative," Guo told the Global Times on April 24.

Recognizing that Horgos is in the midst of a golden era, the city government has been trying to seize the opportunity to develop the local economy in ways that advance the B&R initiative. For example, it has spent heavily on infrastructure, such as the railway and highway ports.

Today, freight trains carrying Chinese-made goods such as clothing, electronics and construction materials run by way of Horgos from Lianyungang, Jiangsu to Central Asia. A highway connecting Lianyungang and Horgos opened in 2014.

"We have built a firm foundation to further implement the 'Belt and Road' initiative," Guo said. "Next, we will build more support facilities."

Those facilities will include logistics centers, processing plants and larger-capacity ports, Guo said. Public infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and parks will also be built.

These efforts to improve the local economy will likely benefit local residents like Emam, though they might not understand the concept of the B&R initiative. Emam said he has heard of the initiative, but doesn't exactly know what it is. "I think it's about trade with the Kazakh side," he said.

After dinner, Emam asked his 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter to do their homework because he believes the next generation won't be able to succeed without an education.

"Horgos is different than it used to be. Unlike us, if they don't go to school, their lives will be hard," he said.


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