For much of the 20th century, the city of Duisburg in Germany’s industrial west was a steel-and-coal town whose chimneys cloaked the skies in smoke. And yet there is something about this soot-stained spot in the Ruhr valley that seems to encourage a particularly clear-sighted view of the rest of the world.

In 1585, it was in Duisburg that Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator published a book of maps of European countries – the first ever “atlas” to carry that name. And it was here that Mercator first presented his new world map, the “Mercator projection”, that was so revolutionary for maritime navigators keen to steer merchant vessels across the high seas in the straightest possible line.

If, in 2018, Duisburg is slowly rediscovering its cosmopolitan past, it is not just because four centuries after Mercator, traders are still trying to find the most direct route from A to B. As the threat of United States President Donald Trump’s tariffs and Brexit-related trade barriers is driving wedges between the European Union and the Anglosphere, this former rust-belt town allows one to see in real time how Germany and China are intensifying their economic ties.

Every week, about 30 Chinese trains arrive at a vast terminal in Duisburg’s inland port, their containers either stuffed with clothes, toys and hi-tech electronics from Chongqing, Wuhan or Yiwu, or carrying German cars, Scottish whisky, French wine and textiles from Milan heading the other way.

In Duisburg’s port, where train tracks run straight to the edge of the Rhine river, goods are loaded straight on to ships, stored for further dispatch in one of several football pitch-sized storage units, or sent on by train or truck to Greece, Spain or Britain.

Duisburg was already regarded as the world’s largest inland port. But thanks to the Belt and Road infrastructure project – a revival of the Silk Road route that Mercator had read about in the travelogues of Marco Polo, this time subsidised with billions of dollars by China – the port is fast becoming Europe’s central logistics hub. About 80 per cent of trains from China now make it their first European stop, with most using the northern silk road route via Khorgos on the China-Kazakhstan border and the Russian capital, Moscow.

There are signs that the city’s importance will keep growing. We could become China’s gateway to Europe – and vice versa
Duisburg mayor Sören Link

Local politicians, while still proud of Duisburg’s links to the 16th-century mapmaker, also like to compliment the perceptive eye of modern Chinese cartographers: in a map of Europe displayed at Shanghai airport, they point out, Duisburg’s name is printed larger than London, Paris or Berlin.

“We are Germany’s China city,” says Sören Link, Duisburg’s Social Democrat mayor. For years, his city has been a symbol of the challenges of long-term structural changes facing industry in the Ruhr region: in 1987, photographs of thousands of Krupp steelworkers barricading a bridge over the Rhine protesting against imminent factory closures travelled around the world.

In 2018, Duisburg’s unemployment rate of 12 per cent is still almost four times as high as the German average, but at least the viral images are different: four years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping made Duisburg one of the few stops on his state visit to Germany and was welcomed by an orchestra playing traditional mining songs. “There are signs that the city’s importance will keep growing,” says Link. “We could become China’s gateway to Europe – and vice versa.”

The trains’ return journeys, however, remain Duisburg’s Achilles’ heel. For every two full containers arriving in Europe from China, only one heads back the other way, and the port only earns a fifth of the fee from empty containers that have to be sent back to China.

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And while the West’s appetite for gadgets made in China shows no sign of abating, one of the main European products heading east is powdered milk – a result of low trust in domestic brands following a 2008 food-safety scandal. If that trust returns, even fewer containers may be heading east from Duisburg.

“The ratio used to be four to one, so it has improved, but we still have an imbalance,” admits Erich Staake, the port’s chief executive. A former television channel manager, he is not shy to take credit for the entrepreneurial spirit of the port. Since taking charge in 1998, employment at Duisport has soared from 19,000 to 50,000.

While other German port cities such as Hamburg run their harbour “like a landlord”, Staake says, Duisburg has worked to court new trade, modernising its logistics infrastructure and even setting up its own railway company. He is building a new 20,000 square metre storage unit where China Railways will be able to neatly stack 2,000 containers.

Staake’s aspiration does not stop there. For Duisburg to permanently establish itself on the New Silk Road, he says, rail travel between China and Europe needs to outstrip other freight methods.

“Rail freight between Chongqing and Duisburg is almost twice as expensive as shipping, but takes 12 days instead of 45. Air freight is at least twice as expensive as rail freight, but takes on average five days. If we can reduce lead times even further, below 10 days on average, then that opens up a lot more potential.”

But in Germany, some have been quick to sound a note of caution. If the still-recovering industries in western Germany make themselves too reliant on China, they warn, it could provide economic leverage for an authoritarian regime that wants to project its geopolitical power into western Europe. “What’s good for Duisburg isn’t necessarily good for the world,” cautioned one recent article.

For now, though, China’s soft power barely registers in the region. The number of Chinese citizens living in the city has doubled in the past eight years – but from a low base of 568. The local University of Duisburg-Essen houses a Confucius Institute and attracts the largest number of Chinese students in Germany, most of whom study engineering and economic sciences. They support a growing network of relatively authentic Asian fast-food joints that now compete with the kebab houses introduced by a previous generation of migrants.

The number of Chinese businesses in the city has risen, too – up 50 per cent since Xi visited in 2014 – but, again, there are still only 90. Unlike other cities on the New Silk Road, the port remains German-run.

The reasons journey times from China are still far too long, as Staake sees it, lie mainly with the heavily unionised rail companies in Europe rather than their counterparts in Asia: trains take on average six days to travel the 1,300km (800 miles) from Brest on the Polish-Belarusian border to Duisburg, while the 10,000km from Chongqing to Belarus is often completed in 5½ days.

“The Chinese and the Kazakhs drive thousands of kilometres a day, they really work hard. It’s ridiculous, really. Of course we are trying to work out why this is happening. You know how many train drivers’ unions we have, and the Poles are not much better,” says Staake.

At the Duisburg city museum, visitors can still listen to the chants and jeers of the workers who went on strike over the closure of the steelworks in the 1980s and early 90s. A button hidden inside a wall made of original Ruhr valley coal triggers a recording. The modern Duisburg port, with all its modern marvels, however, has yet to find its place in the city’s memory.

In the entrance hall to the museum, a wall greets visitors with the words for “welcome” in the languages of all the migrant workers who have shaped the city, from Kurdish to Greek to Polish. For now, the Mandarin or Cantonese phrases for “welcome” do not feature. The Guardian