Over the centuries, Zhengzhou has never been reached by the Silk Road, the network of trade routes formally established during the Han Dynasty of China (206 BCE–220 CE) that linked the regions of the ancient world in commerce. But that’s about to change, now that a new Silk Road is taking shape under the leadership of Xi Jinping with the aim to connect Asia with Europe along a land corridor interlinked by rail, roads, industrial parks, and smart cities. Situated at the transitional zone between the North China Plain to the east and the Song Mountains and Xionger Mountains to the west, Zhengzhou is the capital of Henan Province, just 40 minutes away from Luoyang by train. But unlike the more attractive Luoyang, Zhengzhou is mostly overlooked by tourists and, so far, well-known primarily for a 1990s-era blood scandal and its dirty air. Today, it is time to — literally — clean up Zhengzhou’s image, as Beijing wants to make it a major center of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), the land-based component that together with the oceanic Maritime Silk Road forms One Belt, One Road.
Since 2014, state media has been sparing no effort to depict Zhengzhou as a primary transportation hub for central China, a feature that the city inherited from the past, thanks to its geographical location. Back in 1903, the Beijing-Hankou Railway arrived at Zhengzhou, and in 1909 the first stage of the Longhai Railway gave the city an east-west link to Kaifeng and Luoyang. Later the railway was extended westward to Xi’an, as well as to western Shaanxi, and eastward to the coast at Lianyungang (Jiangsu province), making Zhengzhou a major rail junction and a regional center for cotton, grain, peanuts, and other agricultural produce. To date, Lianyungang port remains the major marine port and cross-border transportation passage in the areas along the Lianyungang-Lanzhou railway and the Lanzhou-Xinjiang railway and the Central Asian countries at large, and in the future it will give full play to the regional advantages as the intersection of One Belt and One Road and the eastern terminal of new the Eurasian Land Bridge, the rail transport route for moving freight and passengers overland between Pacific seaports in the Russian Far East and China and seaports in Europe. By extension, Zhengzhou will obviously benefit, too.
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China’s Central Plains region is an ideal location for an inland economic zone. Spanning several provinces along the lower reaches of the Yellow River and the North China Plain, it is flat, easily traversable, fertile and well connected to most of China’s major coastal economic hubs. The region boasts an enormous and relatively young population, which means it has both a large labor force and sizable potential consumer base.
As early as July 2012, Greater Zhengzhou was named as one of the 13 emerging megacities or megalopolises in China in a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Last year the city ranked as the 19th most competitive urban center in the Asian country, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Now the capital of Henan is preparing itself to become a key link in connecting China to Central Asia and Europe.
Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, a total of at least 3,557 freight trains have run so far with services reaching 27 Chinese cities and 28 cities in 11 countries in Europe. Last year, 1,702 freight trains made the voyage to Europe, more than double the 2015 figure. As noted by Wade Shepard, author of Ghost Cities of China, Zhengzhou was among the earliest players to get involved. It started a regular rail route in July 2013 which crosses the 10,000 km to Hamburg, Germany in just two weeks. Thanks to the surging volume, in 2016 the frequency has improved to three westbound trains a week.
According to estimates by the state-owned Zhengzhou Hub Development and Construction Company (ZIH), the Zhengzhou-Europe route amounts for 30 percent of the total volume of the entire China-Europe rail network, with cargo consisting of high-value-added products such as electronics, automobile parts, and industrial robotics.
In the first quarter of the year, the local branch of the Europe-China Railway Express handled 5,102 containers and 32,800 tons of goods with a value of $314 million, increases on an annual basis, respectively, of 60 percent, 86 percent, and 80 percent, Zhengzhou Customs reported. While ZIH forecasts that the number of freight trains travelling between Zhengzhou and Hamburg would double by the end of 2017, the city has already started running two more westbound routes: one heading to Brest and Minsk in Belarus, before travelling to Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, and the other directed to Alashankou at the border from where it is bound for Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
Besides rail transports, Zhengzhou is also served by the Western Europe-Western China highway, which will stretch 8,445 km from the Yellow Sea coast of China to the Baltic Sea at St. Petersburg when fully completed before the end of the year.
But the city’s ambitions along the New Silk Road do not stop here. In October 2010 the municipal government approved the construction of the Zhengzhou Airport Economy Zone (ZAEZ) around Zhengzhou International Airport (CGO) — one of China’s fastest growing, about an hour’s flight from Beijing and Shanghai. Three years later, the central government nearly doubled the ZAEZ’s size and began creating an international air logistics hub at CGO. Today, the Zhengzhou Airport Economy Zone is a complete urban economic area five times the size of Manhattan, encompassing eight industrial parks, with businesses ranging from regional and international logistics to electronics and e-commerce. Learning from the successful free trade areas in Shanghai and Shenzhen, it ended up ranking second in value of trade among China’s 48 free trade zones — growth led mainly by Foxconn, the contract manufacturer for Apple, which in Zhengzhou operates the world’s biggest iPhone factory.
Although Zhengzhou still lags behind other central and western cities, such as Chongqing — now accounting for about 80 percent of rail shipping between China and Europe on a value basis — there is no doubt that the city is ready to take the lead of northern China. In fact, while for a long time Henan has been considered a rural backwater by the rest of the country, Zhengzhou has definitely become a key city of China’s “Go West” policy, which is focused on building up underdeveloped western and central regions and encouraging foreign investments. As Shu Qing, vice governor of Henan, recently told China Daily, Zhengzhou “undertakes the mission to build a modern multimodal traffic and logistics network linking up the north and south and connecting the east and west, as well as a modern comprehensive transportation hub serving the Belt and Road Initiative.” No matter whether the market wants it or not, China’s economic center of gravity is definitely moving West.
Alessandra Colarizi is an Italian sinologist and freelance journalist covering China and its economic and geostrategic expansion along the New Silk Road. She is regular contributor for Il Fatto Quotidiano, Il Manifesto, Il Tascabile, Asia Sentinel, and others.