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Inside the old city gate in Xi'an
Inside the old city gate in Xi'an
Zhang Yenlong

BEIJING — When recently visiting four Central Asian countries, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the starting point of the ancient Silk Road by which China exported its silk, china and jade to Europe was his own hometown of Xi’an.

He suggested that China and the Central Asia countries, with a total population of 3 billion, should together build a “Silk Road Economic Zone” and develop this “unique market size with great potential.”

At the Eurasian Economic Forum inaugurated Sept. 26, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang responded to the president’s idea by saying that a new economic zone could present “an unprecedented opportunity for revitalizing the region’s development.” In the end, the idea would turn out to be the central focus of the forum.

On the day before the Eurasian forum opened, ground had been officially broken on an area in Xi’an called the Central Cultural Business District (CCBD). It’s situated just five kilometers south of the Xi’an landmark Giant Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist structure built in the 7th century.

The CCBD includes 20 major building projects with an overall investment of more than 200 billion RMB (or $32.5 billion) expected to be complete by 2020. An experimental urban district, this project aims to combine Xi’an’s historical and cultural advantages with the business functions that are required in cosmopolitan city.

Based on its economy and population, Xi’an is still considered a medium-sized city in China. Even compared to the relatively underdeveloped central and western cities such as Chongqing, Wuhan and Chengdu, its urban scale lags behind. President Xi’s idea will give Xi’an the chance to return to the world stage.

The brand new CCBD hopes to develop differently than a conventional business district. It aims to keep culture as its core and means to become Xi'an’s new city center, integrating culture, technology, finance and business development on nearly 900 acres. Not only will it help Xi’an to achieve a modern service industry, but it will also attract more talent and bring about a transformation in this ancient city

.

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Xi'an's Bell Tower, early 20th century — Photo: Charlesdrakew

As Shaanxi Provincial Party Secretary Zhao Zhengyong said during the Eurasian Economic Forum, Shaanxi “is striving to build the bridgehead of the Silk Road Economic Zone.” Hopefully, the Xi’an CCBD will become a symbol of it.

The particular cultural heritage

Culture is the soul of Xi’an, which could be reborn as an international metropolis. For many Westerners, Xi’an is regarded as the place to go when visiting China or trying to know China. In 1998, then-President Clinton made it his first stop on his trip to China. It was also in this ancient Chinese capital that he uttered the famous phrase, “To know a nation, one has to know where the nation comes from.”

A mighty China is rising. Many Westerners are eager to find out whether this is a threat or a strategic opportunity for the West.

Xi'an has all along been a city of cultural and strategic significance. But in the context of a Silk Road economic bloc, the city that is located at its starting point ought to play an ever more important role in fulfilling China’s strategic idea for regional cooperation.

As Xi’an Party Secretary Wei Minzhou and Xi’an Mayor Dong Jun stated jointly, a Silk Road Economic Zone would help accelerate the development of China’s western region. It is also a golden opportunity for Xi’an — a glorious city in the Tang Dynasty more than a thousand years ago — to again find its renown.

At a time when China is seeking to extend its influence through southeast Asia, this push to extend its influence into central Asia is clearly part of the same logic.

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