City leaders plan revival as hub of northeast Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 April, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 April, 1994, 12:00am

LAGGING behind the coastal cities by more than a decade in opening up to foreign investors, Harbin is determined to reclaim its position as the international commercial hub of northeast Asia.

The capital of Heilongjiang province and one of China's biggest heavy industrial bases, Harbin is struggling to break free of the influence of the planned economy.

''The municipal government has decided to spend 30 years to build the city as an integrated, international city in Northeast Asia,'' said vice-mayor Zhu Shengwen.

The immediate target is to establish the city as China's biggest trading centre with the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia and Eastern Europe.

By 2000, the projected import and export volume will total US$2.14 billion, requiring an annual increase of 21.9 per cent for the next six years.

By 2030, its import and export volume is targeted at $40.3 billion, with more than half being exports.

The emergence of modern Harbin can be traced to the construction of the transSiberia railway late in the 19th century, which transformed the city into a cultural melting pot.

By the end of World War I, it had become the key financial and trade centre in northeastern China, with 16 countries establishing consulates in the city.

More than 100,000 foreign citizens from nearly 30 countries made up one third of Harbin's population at that time.

Today, the city retains its multi-cultural flavour, with the most significant influences being Russian and Japanese. European Gothic buildings, Russian villas and many styles of churches stand alongside traditional Chinese architecture.

During the Chinese Civil War, Harbin was among the first key cities taken by the Communists and was earmarked as its heavy industrial base, with assistance from the former Soviet Union.

At its peak, industrial output accounted for 10 per cent of the national total. In 1957, the city was one of the five biggest industrial bases in China.

However, the souring of relationship with the former Soviet Union saw Harbin become a backwater, with minimal input to the economy.

The normalisation of Sino-Soviet relationships have allowed Harbin to again fully open up to foreigners.

Trade with the Soviet republics has proliferated, and Harbin quickly grasped the opportunity to establish itself as the conduit for commerce with the former Soviet republics.

Since 1990, an annual border trade fair has been organised in Harbin, attracting businessmen from nearby regions and other parts of the world interested in sharing the boom.

About 80 per cent of Hong Kong's trade with Russia and former Soviet republics is conducted through Harbin.

While opening up the northern market, Harbin is keen to attract investment from the south, including other Chinese provinces, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan.

Railways joining Russian border cities are being rebuilt, highways to key ports in Liaoning are being constructed, and rivers are being cleared for shipping links to Russia. Air routes to South Korea, Japan, North America, and Southeast Asia also are planned.

The city is also capitalising on its cultural diversity and international links to develop tourism, especially its links with Russia, Japan and Korea.

The annual Ice Festival and and Ice Lantern Festival are highlights of the year, attracting visitors from China and overseas.