A MALAYSIAN-OWNED company has bought the right to operate the Wuhan-Huangshi Highway for 25 years, according to a Hubei provincial official. The company would pay 580 million yuan (about HK$538.24 million) over the next six months for the right to operate the 70-kilometre grade one highway, said Zhou Hongxi, vice-division chief of the foreign investment division under the Hubei Provincial Foreign Economic Relations and Trade Commission. He identified the company as Mae Operating Co. Mr Zhou said the Ministry of Communications approved transfer of the rights last month. The highway has been in operation for several years. Mr Zhou said this was the first time Hubei had used operational rights as a means of co-operation with foreign investors. Returns from the highway would not be high in the first two years, but would be far greater later because the highway would be the link between east and west China when the Shanghai-Chengdu highway was completed under the Ninth Five-Year Plan. Rises in tolls would be strictly controlled under the contract signed with the Malaysian company, although Mr Zhou was unable to specify rates. He said it had not yet been decided if the right to operate the 300 km Yichang-Wuhan highway also would be transferred to foreign partners. A vice-director of the commission, Wu Fuhai, said the province aimed to attract foreign investment of eight billion to 10 billion yuan for its development under the Ninth Five-Year Plan, which focuses on transport, energy, telecommunications and agriculture. He said the provincial government was preparing plans to lure more investment from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. The plans, which would involve improved administrative procedures, taxation matters, and rates of return, would be announced next month. Mr Wu said the commission's objective in the next five years was to achieve exports worth US$5 billion and imports worth $3 billion. He hoped the province would be able to reach its export target of $2.3 billion this year. Exports from the province had slowed since the reduction in the value-added tax refund in July. Hong Kong has been a major foreign investor in the province. Mr Zhou said New World Development Co was one company involved in major projects in the province, including the US$10 million Wuhan-Yangtze Bridge.