Belt and Road offers small Chinese cities new opportunity, but challenges remain
Published: May 17, 2018 09:03 PM
When eastern coastal cities in China embraced the nation's opening-up back in the 1980s, some cities in South China's Guangxi Autonomous Region were still struggling with poverty and the after-effects of a brief war.

It took Qinzhou, a city in southern Guangxi, until the mid-1990s to shift its focus to economic growth due to the lingering effects of the China-Vietnam war. Pingxiang - a town in the region on the China-Vietnam border - had been one of the major battlegrounds during the war, and it became a hotspot for drug trafficking. 

Today, the China-proposed Belt and Road (B&R) initiative is offering new opportunities for these places.

When I visited Qinzhou last week, a local taxi driver surnamed Tang told me that the Chinese troops only left the city in 1995 in the wake of the war. Since then, it has been permitted to build higher buildings in the city. In 2015, local authorities officially launched a taxi service to meet growing market demand, especially with more businessmen coming to the China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park (CMQIP). The park, located on the outskirts of the city, is now considered an important part of international industrial cooperation under the B&R initiative.

The CMQIP was built in a mountainous area, about one hour's drive from the city center. Under the B&R, the park's administrative committee has more power in management compared to other industrial parks in China. It has set up a direct dialogue mechanism with its sister park in Quantan, Malaysia, and has streamlined administrative processes to accelerate project approvals.

Qinzhou is now one of the fastest-developing cities in Guangxi. In 2017, it recorded year-on-year GDP growth of 8.8 percent.

Three hours away from Qinzhou, I arrived at Pingxiang, a town where I felt a tropical breeze that reminded me of cities in Southeast Asia. Local authorities are working on a project called "two countries, one inspection" to further streamline customs services at its land port to boost China-Vietnam trade under the B&R.

However, progress is somewhat slow. Though the region is striving to become a major gateway to Southeast Asia, some overseas investors still lack confidence in the business environment there.

Also, it is not an easy task work to work with Vietnam. Some officials in Pingxiang told me that it is challenging to negotiate with their Vietnamese counterparts over accelerating customs inspection projects, as it also involves establishing a common area at the border for both Chinese and Vietnamese customs bureaus.

"When it comes to issues concerning territory, it takes longer than we expected," a local Chinese official said.