HEBEI leaders have urged the capital, Shijiazhuang, to speed up economic reform to catch up with coastal cities and so play a leading role in improving the economy of the northern province. The province's party secretary, Cheng Weigao, said the city's development had been disappointing. ''The challenge faced by the city is severe,'' he told a provincial conference. Mr Cheng said the degree of openness of the city had direct bearing on that of the whole province. Mr Cheng said the province's image and its drive for openness would be impaired by Shijiazhuang's poor environment, with its chaotic traffic, backward communication facilities and inefficient workers. He also called on city officials to emancipate their thoughts and take bolder steps for reform. ''If you are not bold enough and fail to work out more effective measures, it will create a negative effect on the whole province,'' Mr Cheng said. He urged the city's leaders to turn it into the most open, advanced and economically strong city in the province. With a population of 2.92 million, the economic development of the city has been slow compared with that of other Chinese capitals. The city has also been sidelined by the development of Beijing and Tianjin, two municipal cities in Hebei which are directly under central government administration. A deputy mayor of Shijiazhuang, Yang Xinshi, said: ''We have to further promote Shijiazhuang and seek a breakthrough in expanding its influence and enhancing its popularity. ''We should make strenuous efforts to build up friendship with some powerful and influential big businessmen,'' he said. Leading officials and enterprises of the city would join the 500-strong delegation from Hebei province in a large-scale trade fair to be held in Hongkong next month, he said. The top official and his aides are confident that more foreign funds will flow into the city once it has gained in popularity and the conditions for investment have improved. The director of the city's Planning Committee, Di Tianshun, said: ''Judging from the trend of foreign investment, it is likely that the centre of investment will move northwards from the coastal cities. ''We have had advantages over them over the cost of land and labour,'' he said. As well as massive spending on the building of infrastructure facilities, including an airport and highways, Mr Yang said the authorities would take drastic measures to revamp the state-owned sector. Mr Di said one state-owned factory had been closed down because of its failure to improve its financial situation. There were plans to sell some state-owned enterprises to foreign investors, he said.