From the Opium War to the Silk Road

May 06, 2017 07:12 pm | Updated 07:12 pm IST

Tianjin city

Tianjin city

A night cruise on the Haihe river — the waterway that runs through Tianjin — is much more than a glittery after-dinner trip set alight by a glitzy concrete jungle that flanks the water on its either side.

It takes one through the layers of history that the city has encountered, especially after the advent of the second Opium War. The war, fought in the mid-19th century, prised open the city as well as the country to a heady and contradictory combination of western exploitation, cultural dominance, modern education, and technological advance — the seeds of a modern nationalistic uprising that was to sprout in several forms in the years to come.

The remnants of colonial-era power and architectural finesse remain well preserved in Tianjin, located 170 km southeast of Beijing. At night, the well-lit consulate of the old Austro-Hungarian empire is an arresting sight, amplified by the sculpture of a boy playing the violin on its premises. From the boat, the refulgence of the Italian concession is a befitting marker of a bygone era wrecked by the rising tide of Chinese nationalism.

If the left bank of the Haihe is about the transient power and wealth of colonial Europe, the opposite side showcases the story of China’s post-colonial rise. Nothing symbolises this better than the mixed use Jin Tower, rising 337 metres in the sky. The iconic building has 74 floors above ground and four below. At night, white vertical stripes light up to enhance the imposing presence of this ultra-modern glass and steel structure.

If anyone misses the point that a wealthy and powerful China is on the rise, the financial centre next door, accounting for a jaw-dropping area of 248,000 sq. m helps restore focus. The fashionable Heiping Road, a century-old shopping haven, passes through this area. Squeezed within its parameters is also the Tianjin Quanye Bazaar, designed by a French engineer and built in 1928.

Vital artery

Hahei is an artery that leads to the busy Tianjin port. The port’s vast rail-and-road connected hinterland covers six provinces, including Tibet and Xinjiang, the gateway to central Asia and Europe, as part of the ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) connectivity initiative, woven around the ancient Silk Road. In total, Tianjin’s hinterland sweeps across half of China’s area, covering 17% of the country’s population.

“Unlike Yangshan port, which is a natural deep water harbour serving Shanghai, Tianjin port, the outlet for Beijing and beyond, is mostly artificially built,” says an official from Pacific International Terminal, a company that handles six berths at the port. He points out that the Tianjin port would play a nodal role along the Maritime Silk Road — the oceanic wing of OBOR. Since the port is also connected by rail to cross-border provinces such as Xinjiang, it will, as well, reinforce the viability of Eurasian land corridor, the second dimension of OBOR.

The port’s importance is only going to rise as a $290 billion mega-city in the form of the Xiongan New Area is set to emerge 160 km from Beijing. The mega city is President Xi Jinping’s pet project. Once complete, the project is expected to add 0.4 percentage points to China’s annual economic growth. Tianjin port is already at the heart of an integrated plan to develop the Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei national capital region. Growth clusters in the automobile, petrochemical, aviation, software and health services are showing up in this zone. The new urbanised region along the Bohai sea coast could rival the Yangtze river delta around Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta, the heart of China’s industrial belt.

Atul Aneja writes for The Hindu and is based in Beijing.

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