China's northern-most province, Heilongjiang , is trying to shed its image as a gritty industrial base with a public relations campaign highlighting its cultural riches. 'Heilongjiang doesn't just get lots of wintry weather or have loads of floundering state-owned companies,' said Yi Junqing , the new director of the provincial culture and communication department. 'It has an incredible cultural heritage ready to be tapped.' The presentation by the top cultural official overflowed with superlatives. However, the notion sounds counter-intuitive to put it mildly. The rust-belt province is known for anything but culture. But Dr Yi insisted that, as well as its 'incomparable ice and snow resources', the province had the potential to become a cultural powerhouse in the near future. Heilongjiang - where the average winter temperature is minus 22 degrees Celsius and the winter sun sets at 3pm - has already turned what is probably its biggest liability into an asset. The annual ice sculpture festival in its capital, Harbin , has made it a popular tourist destination. The city bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, and even though it lost to Vancouver, its international profile was raised a notch. The initiatives of Dr Yi, 50, who received his doctorate from the University of Belgrade, go far beyond the winter theme. For the Heilongjiang native who left the land only for his studies - four years at Peking University and nearly three years in the former Yugoslavia - the province is 'a cultural gem that needs to be polished up'. For example, it is a little-known fact that the area known today as Heilongjiang was home to a handful of minorities who influenced the course of China's history. Among them were the Nuzhen people, founders of both the Jin dynasty (1115-1234) and the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), China's last emperors. This 'rich and mystical' history, as Dr Yi puts it, provides the raw material for a variety of cultural forms - from highbrow literature and opera to pop-culture TV dramas and animation. Playing the culture card also meant focusing on differences, he said. To many Chinese people Heilongjiang's image is barely distinguishable from that of the other two northeastern provinces, Jilin and Liaoning . But Dr Yi said that, compared with its relatively homogeneous two neighbours, Heilongjiang had a vibrant immigrant culture because of its long shared border with Russia - something the provincial government was ready to take full advantage of. Russian-style architecture dots the skylines of its main cities and Russian, not English, is the most popular foreign language among the province's students. Cross-border cultural exchanges are on the rise. Last month, Dr Yi, who was president of the provincial university before taking up his current job 15 months ago, put together a Sino-Russian media forum. The scholar-turned-official said the centrepiece of his cultural plan was the cultivation of a vibrant media and entertainment industry. The province has 70 television stations, 45 radio stations, 400 cinemas, 100 public libraries and 40 museums. But that was far from sufficient to feed its people's appetite for non-material goods, Dr Yi said. Culture-related business accounted for 1.42 per cent of Heilongjiang's gross domestic product last year, but the northeastern province aims to increase that to 5 per cent in the near future. 'We are building the cultural industry to make it a new growth driver for the economy,' Dr Yi said. The provincial government planned to restructure the state-owned provincial publishing agency by year's end, with an aim to list it on the stock market by 2010. Also, a 2 billion yuan (HK$2.28 billion) project to establish a film and television base was about to be implemented.