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Gangxi Hepu: Ancient International Trade Hub Revitalizes Former Global Role

Historical transit town of Hepu once connected continents, a post that the local government hopes to resume. Many riddles remain unresolved in the more than 2,000-year-old Huanshan Cliff Murals in the southern Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.  At least 3,000 scarlet human shapes assuming various gestures meander along precipices towering over 30 kilometers above the Zuojiang River.

The World Cultural Heritage site is testament to the region's splendid history as a center of human activities all the way back then in South China.

Hepu's well-preserved environment attracts flocks of cranes. The county in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, as a key point on the maritime Silk Road, hopes to boost the local economy through participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. Provided to China Daily

Fishers work at a harbor in Hepu. The county is known as a major fresh oyster production center in Guangxi.

From left: Hepu has a history of more than 2,000 years in producing pearls. The county is home to a national nature reserve of dolphins and dugongs. Photos Provided to China Daily

Hepu, the oldest town and a modern-day county in Guangxi, is home to the largest Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) tomb group ever discovered in China's coastal regions. Tens of thousands of tombs dating back to the Han Dynasty are scattered around an area of about 70 square kilometers.

Burial objects on an astounding scale include bronzeware, pottery, gold and silverware, jade ware and lacquerware, many of which came from North China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and even the Middle East.

The Huanshan murals site, together with the ruins in Caoxie village and Dalang city, serves as evidence that Hepu served not only as a regional center but also as an international trade hub on the ancient maritime Silk Road.

The Lingqu Canal - built during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) to transport armies to South China - is located in Guilin, a popular tourist destination in northern Guangxi. It connects the upper reaches of a Yangtze River branch and the Lijiang River, one of whose branches originates in Hepu.

Hepu prospered as a logistics center, as commodities from North and Central China could be directly shipped to it by water. Local people dug a short canal connecting the Lijiang tributary with a local river - which flows to the Beibu Gulf - a bay to the north of the South China Sea, providing easier access to overseas shipping.

Hepu declined gradually after the Han Dynasty passed as more seaports appeared in neighboring Guangdong province. But today, the 150 kilometers around the area thrives due to the modern port group, comprising Qinzhou, Beihai and Fangchenggang.

Together, these three ports handled a total of 140 million metric tons of cargo and 1.8 million standard containers last year, mostly headed to Southeast Asia. The port cluster provides the nearest sea access for the vast inland areas in Southwest and Northwest China, and is a key point on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which China has dedicated to construct in order to promote trade, cooperation, interconnectivity and common development.

Locals are proud of both Hepu's long history and the new port group's crucial role today, forming a linchpin hinge point between the ancient and modern maritime Silk Roads.

President Xi Jinping, who proposed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, visited the Hepu Han Dynasty Cultural Museum last month, Hepu's seaside mangrove forest - an important ecosystem supporting local biodiversity - and the Tieshan Port in Beihai.

He acknowledged Hepu's "deep cultural deposits" and the museum's "characteristic exhibition", featuring cultural relics discovered in the Han Dynasty tombs.

Ancient international trade hub revitalizes former global role

Tieshan Port has an advantageous geological position and promising development prospects, he said, stressing the importance of protecting the environment and biodiversity.

"Local people are proud of President Xi's visit to Hepu," said Wang Fanghong, Party chief of Hepu. "As Xi has positioned Hepu as a dynamic hinge on the maritime Silk Road, we will encourage local companies to expand on foreign markets, while attracting overseas investment to the county."

"The approximately 700-hectare mangrove forests are Hepu's ecological wealth," Wang said. "The forests and 308-kilometer well-protected natural coasts are Hepu's foundation to develop tourism and make itself Guangxi's garden."

Wang Lianqi, founder and president of Hepu Huilaibao Machinery Manufacturing Co, said: "The Belt and Road Initiative has consolidated my confidence with my company's prospects in the overseas market.

"Hepu, as a starting point on the ancient maritime Silk Road, has unique advantages in trade with Southeast Asian countries because of its geographic position."

Established in 2008 in Hepu, the company has branches in Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Apart from Southeast Asia, its agricultural machinery products are sold to Congo, Mauritania, Papua New Guinea and Brazil.

"We should transform our cultural advantages to economic and industrial strengths," Wang Fanghong noted.

To this end, the Hepu government invested nearly 7 billion yuan ($1 billion) in the past five years to improve its transport infrastructure, in a bid to resume the ancient town's role on the maritime Silk Road in the 21st century.

Today, Hepu is accessible by air, water, expressways and high-speed railway. It takes less than 1.5 hours to reach Nanning, the regional capital, from Hepu by train.

After the high-speed railway connecting Hepu to neighboring Guangdong province is completed next year, it will take about three hours to travel to Guangzhou, the provincial capital.

Hepu's GDP stood at 22 billion yuan last year, compared with 16 billion yuan in 2010. The county government pledges to increase its GDP to more than 40 billion yuan by 2020, about 70 percent of which is projected to come from industries and 20 percent from tourism.

Apart from Han Dynasty culture, other tourist attractions in Hepu include seaside mangrove forests, pearl products and local specialties, such as seafood, fruits and moon cake pastries.

Hepu now has three industrial parks, which are strong in making tin, processing fruit, and the machinery and electronic information sectors.

Local authorities have also committed to accelerating the planning and construction of the Guangdong-Guangxi-Beibu Gulf Economic Cooperation Zone, which is set to boost the development of logistics, the ocean economy and port industries, as well as the construction of Tieshan East Port and Shatian Port.

According to Wang Fanghong, Hepu will support the development of its seafood processing industry, as it produces half a million tons of seafood every year, ranking top among all counties in Guangxi, and Hepu is working to attract more electronics manufacturers relocated from the Pearl River Delta.