Urumqi new trade capital for the west
Monday, March 13, 2006
Above the shouts of Afghan and Pakistani traders, a voice booms in heavily accented Putonghua in the airport in Urumqi, Xinjiang.
"You've got 20,000 meters of cloth?" a bearded trader thunders into a phone. "Great, but don't bother waking the boss. I'll call when I land."
Merchants from Lahore, Karachi and Kabul are struggling to get their purchases aboard a flight to Islamabad.
Businessmen in skull caps and traditional shalwar kameez outfits heave massive bundles to the check-in counter. Off to one side, their partners guard stacks of radio-controlled planes, talking dolls and stuffed animals.
Regional traders are flocking to Urumqi, now a city of four million people. They are part of a revival of a modern-day Silk Road powered by mobile phones and air travel.
Pakistan's trade with China grew 26 percent to a record US$3 billion (HK$23.4 billion) in 2004. It is projected to grow by another US$2 billion for 2005.
Sino-Indian trade has soared in recent years, from a mere US$1 billion in 1991 to US$13.6 billion last year.
The growth can be traced in part to Beijing's drive to lift incomes in the west. Xinjiang has seen its economy boom over the past half-decade: its total trade more than tripled between 2000 and 2004 to US$6 billion.
Trade is conducted in languages including English, the region's native Uygur and, increasingly, Putonghua.
Urumqi now boasts 50-story office blocks, gaudy stores and nightclubs. For sheer glitz and opportunity, there isn't a metropolis to rival it within 2,000 kilometers.
Traders say there's still plenty of room for growth, particularly if free- trade zones are set up.
Yet, like many watching the country's explosive growth, China-based shoe manufacturer Kasheef Gulzar worries that its massive exports will overwhelm businesses such as Pakistan's once-vaunted leather industry.
"It's hard to match their design and quality. They're becoming a kind of center of gravity for regional trade."