Silk Road spirit thrives in Ningxia (China Daily)

Editor’s note: Situated inland in Northwest China and north of the Great Wall, the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, a major Muslim area, has been striving to open up and strengthen its cultural and economic ties with the world, especially the Arab community. It will host the 2015 China-Arab States Expo from Thursday to Sunday. China Daily recently talked with Li Jianhua, the Party chief and top legislator of Ningxia, to find out more.

What do you think of the role and functions that China-Arab cooperation and exchanges play in the State’s Belt and Road Initiative?

Li: There has been a long history of cooperation and exchanges between China and Arab countries. The renowned ancient Silk Road linked us together 2,000 years ago to facilitate trade and travel, as well as cultural and technological exchanges. Since the reform and opening-up, especially in the past few years, we have seen gradually deepening cooperation and closer exchanges and are witnessing great progress in economic collaboration. The value of bilateral trade has risen from $25.5 billion to $251.2 billion in the past decade, since the beginning of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2004.

The Belt and Road Initiative put forward by President Xi Jinping breathes new life into the ancient Silk Road. There are 22 Arab countries with over 200 million people along the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st Century. They are our natural partners. The Arab countries also expect to pursue further development by seizing the opportunities coming along with the initiative and from China’s opening-up to the west. Therefore, the joint effort of building the Belt and Road is bound to promote cooperation and exchanges on a wider scale, with a more extensive range and at a higher level, and brings mutual benefits.

What foundations has Ningxia built in China-Arab cooperation?

Li: Since the reform and opening-up, the Party committee and the government of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region have been targeting Arab countries and Muslim regions to seek a breakthrough for its opening-up and have witnessed further cooperation and exchanges between the two sides.

We have held the China-Arab States Economic and Trade Forum three times, and the China-Arab States Expo since 2010.

Besides, we have seen increasingly more trade activities. The growth of the total value of imports and exports between Ningxia and Arab countries has risen by an average of 251 percent annually in the past three years, reaching $640 million in 2014.

What’s more, we have speeded up the “bringing in” and “going out” strategies. There are 58 Ningxia companies opening 74 overseas branches in 30 countries and regions around the world. Among them, 26 are in countries along the Belt and Road in Central Asia, West Asia and Africa.

Another major point of progress we made is in building channels for opening-up to Arab countries. We have granted the third, fourth and fifth aviation rights fully to the United Arab Emirates, allowing airlines to directly transport passengers and cargo between us or via Ningxia en route to another country. We have opened six international routes and a cargo charter flight to Kazakhstan. We also signed a mutual recognition agreement on standards of Muslim foods with 12 countries, including Saudi Arabia.

In addition, Ningxia has gained approval to build a designated port for imported meat and an exchange for halal products and international bulk commodities. Lastly, we have strengthened cultural exchanges. We have established the School of Arab Studies at Ningxia University and Ningxia Collaborative Innovation Center of Hui Medicine at Ningxia Medical University. We promoted cooperation between Ningxia Normal University and Eastern University, Sri Lanka; and between Beifang University of Nationalities and the Higher Institute for Tourism Studies in Tunisia. The newly established China-Arab University of Science and Technology has started enrollment.

What advantages does Ningxia have?

Li: Ningxia has a long tradition as an important trading hub and is an ethnic minority area. It holds a lot of advantages. The first is the regional advantage. Ningxia plays an important role in the new Eurasian Land Bridge and is located at a pivotal position on the China-Central Asia-West Asia economic corridor. It is suitable for building an airline hub radiating to the northwest, connecting to North China and reaching West Asia and North Africa. Ningxia serves as a gateway to the air corridor connecting China to Arab countries.

The second advantage is related to opening-up. Ningxia has been commissioned to build a pilot economic zone for the opening-up of inland areas, allowing it the priority to carry out new policies.

Third, Ningxia has abundant energy resources. It has witnessed the emerging of Ningdong Energy and Chemical Industry Base centered on the coal-based chemical industry. The five west-to-east gas pipelines traversing Ningxia also mean it has the capacity to process gas and oil from the Middle East and Central Asia.

Fourth, the cultural similarities. Ningxia is the largest inhabited area of the Hui ethnic group, home to 2.32 million Hui people, accounting for one-fifth of the Hui population in China. The customs of the Hui people are similar to those in Muslim countries and regions, which helps a lot in exchanges and cooperation with each other.

What’s in your plan next?

Li: The Belt and Road Initiative turns Ningxia, an inland area, into the forefront of opening-up. We aim to build Ningxia into a leading area in terms of China-Arab cooperation, a demonstration zone for inland opening-up and a strategic carrier on the Silk Road Economic Belt in five to 10 years.

From your introduction, we know Ningxia is determined to open up. Can you share some experiences?

Li: As an inland area, Ningxia has no borders or coastlines, but we have still made progress in developing an inland opening-up economy, especially in China-Arab cooperation. In terms of building an opening-up and development model, we keep deepening cooperation with Arab countries and Muslim regions. More than 130 countries and regions are our partners now, and 51 cities from 38 countries are international friendship cities.

Besides, we attach equal importance to “bringing in” and “going out” strategies when developing our inland economy. We continue to make efforts to attract foreign investment and foreign companies, and encourage our companies to open branches or make investments overseas. We have attracted $10.4 billion from 880 foreign investors and institutions from 50 countries, including Amazon.com Inc from the United States.

In the first half of this year, direct investments in foreign countries and regions from companies in Ningxia reached $790 million, ranking ninth in China. We have an environment conducive to investment. We will continue to deepen reforms in the administrative examination and approval systems, and streamline administration and delegate power to lower levels, in order to create the best investment environment in the west and a better one than those in eastern China.

What do you expect from the coming China-Arab Expo?

Li: The China-Arab Expo is a national-level and international comprehensive expo approved by the State Council and organized by the Ministry of Commerce, the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade and the government of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region. It provides a golden opportunity for Ningxia’s opening-up. The theme of the coming expo is Promoting the Silk Road Spirit and Deepening China-Arab Cooperation, named after the title of a speech by President Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony of the sixth ministerial conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. The expo aims to serve the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s opening-up to the West. Next, we will hold a pragmatic, frugal, efficient and high-level international gala according to the central government’s instructions and the overall plan for the expo.

The permanent conference site for the China-Arab Expo, which is designed in the shape of a Muslim hat, was completed this year in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui autonomous region. Photos by Zou Hong / China Daily

What specialties from Ningxia do you want to introduce to China Daily readers?

Li: Ningxia is small in size but very special. We say that Ningxia has two “name cards”. One is a region with its people united yet from different ethnic groups, and religion practiced peacefully. The other is an ecologically favored region, with blue sky, fertile land, and clean water. Ningxia is proud of the cultures it bears and breeds, namely, the Yellow River culture, the Hui habitat culture, the mystic Xixia culture and the rich history dating back to 1936 when the Communist Party set up the autonomous county of Xihaigu.

Moreover, Ningxia is well-known for six specialties. The wolfberry, wine grapes, melons, vegetables, grassland and husbandry have already built up Ningxia’s brand; the coal-to-chemicals industry has taken shape with the successful operation of the Ningdong Energy and Chemical Industry Base; alternative energy, such as solar and wind energy, has great potential; the modern textile industry is booming here; the tourism industry thrives on its uniqueness; and the information industry is developing fast.

Dynamic Ningxia is full of energy and has a bright future ahead. I hope people in China and around the world can look at Ningxia, know it and visit Ningxia. I also hope China Daily and other media can report more about Ningxia to help it walk its way to the world.

We noticed that international media recently reported a lot about wines made in Ningxia, and the international community is expecting more surprises from the region. What do you think about the wine industry in Ningxia?

Li: The Ningxia Helan Mountain East Foot wine region is situated between latitudes 37 to 39, a golden belt for the world’s premier grape growing. It benefits from favorable sunshine, temperature, irrigation and soil conditions free from pollution. Wine grapes grow rich and full in scent and appearance. The grapes accumulate a high level of sugar and appropriate level of acid. It is one of the best regions for growing top wines. And wines have become the international trademark of Ningxia. In 2003, the region was listed as an original zone for the production of wines in China. In 2013, the region was included in the World Atlas of Wine.

Ningxia grows a total of 30,666 hectares of wine grapes now, producing 190,000 metric tons of wine. We have 58 chateaus established in the region. We learned from the experience of Bordeaux and manage chateaus by ranking them to ensure quality in line with industry best practices. We will find ways to link the wine industry with tourism, since Ningxia has great cultural and natural tourist resources. Chateau tours, wine tasting, grape harvesting, shopping and other programs will be developed to build the Ningxia wines brand. By 2020, we will grow 66,666 hectares of grapes, with more than 100 chateaus, to generate 100 billion yuan ($15.63 billion) and 100,000 jobs in the industry. We aim to build Ningxia into the wine capital of the East.

Contact the writers at wanghuazhong@chinadaily.com.cn

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