Staff at the Friendship Pass in Pingxiang, a border city in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, wake up daily to the noise of cargo trucks. Their rumbling engines are testimony to the booming trade between China and Vietnam.
Busy with exports from South and West China, as well as imports from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand, trucks line up waiting to pass through the border checkpoint.
Huang Chengjie, a customs agent, buzzes around the trucks on his motorcycle, co-operating with his partner to help client companies clear customs between China and Vietnam.
Huang works from 9 am to 9 pm, making dozens of trips between the two countries’ checkpoints every day.
In 1992, Pingxiang was listed as one of the border cities for opening-up by the State Council. In 2001, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to build a free-trade zone, making Guangxi a focal point for co-operation with the bloc. The regional body has been the largest trading partner of Guangxi for 19 consecutive years.
When President Xi Jinping visited Guangxi in 2017, he urged the region to make full use of its geographical location, coastlines, rivers and border areas to promote opening-up and play a bigger role in the Belt and Road Initiative.
The BRI has greatly increased Guangxi’s trade with Asean countries, which has brought huge opportunities for Pingxiang, said Meng Jianghua, an official of the administrative committee of the Pingxiang integrated free trade zone.
To prompt the border city to play its part in the initiative, authorities in Pingxiang have been trying to facilitate customs clearance by adopting an information management system to simplify the process.
Meng said customs clearance for exports takes about 48 minutes, which is 20 minutes quicker than before the system was adopted. It takes only 10 minutes for imported goods to pass through customs, he added. The daily number of trucks passing through their gates has increased from 800 to 1,600 at its peak, he said.
Shaping as trade hub
It is hard to imagine that the bustling border city was once scattered with mines. Hundreds of thousand of mines were laid along the border during the confrontations between China and Vietnam from 1979 to 1989, according to Xinhua.
Kafeng, a village near the Friendship Pass adjacent to Vietnam, was one of the minefields.
In the 1980s, in order to make a living, villagers had no choice but to secretly conduct cross-border trade with Vietnam, selling necessities like bicycles, buckets and flashlights to the neighboring country, said Wei Zeng, a Party official in the village.
Many traders were injured or killed by the mines. “Life was not easy at that time, they had nothing to do but to take the risk,” he said.
The situation began to improve when Pingxiang started opening up. Demining operations were carried out at the border area from 1993 to last year.
After three large missions to sweep for mines and establish boundary line, the dangerous historical legacy has been cleared and fields handed over to locals.
Most of the villagers in Kafeng now transport agricultural products like fruit, peanuts and cassava imported from Vietnam and sell them in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. They earn an average monthly income of about 7,000 yuan ($995) to 8,000 yuan, according to Wei.
The development and opening-up of the border area has benefitted the villagers, he added.
Pingxiang is connected to Vietnam by rail and road. Its geographical location means it is the most convenient trading hub and the key land route to Vietnam and other Asean countries. Meng, the administrative committee official, said poor infrastructure of transportation initially hindered trade.
But after more than 20 years of investment and construction, border trade in Pingxiang is now free-flowing and profitable. The city’s foreign trade increased from 6 billion yuan in 2005 to 89 billion yuan in 2018, ranking among the top in China’s “land ports”, according to the local bureau of statistics.
“In 2011, when my company first settled in the free trade zone, there were only a few dozen trucks. But now, at least 1,000 trucks cross through the port daily,” said Zhang Zhihui, manager of the Overland Total Logistics Services Co based in Guangxi. It takes about eight days for Chinese goods to be exported to Singapore using the land border crossing, he said.
Amid the trade frictions between China and the United States, some Chinese companies have relocated their manufacturing bases to Vietnam, Meng said. “They need to transport raw material to Vietnam, which has stimulated the logistics business in Pingxiang,” he said.
The largest exports to Vietnam are electronics, followed by clothing and commodities from Zhejiang province, while imports are mainly fruit and agricultural products from Vietnam, Thailand and other Asean countries. “Vietnam is not just a partner of Guangxi, it is a potential market for all of Asean that will bring more opportunities for the port,” Meng said.
Vietnam is paying more attention to the Belt and Road Initiative and has been promoting the synergy between the “Two Corridors, One Economic Circle” initiative and the BRI, said Liang Shuhong, a professor at the China-Asean Research Institute of Guangxi University.
Thriving border trade between Guangxi and Vietnam has also seen more Vietnamese workers in Pingxiang in the past few years.
In Vietnam, Le Thi Hoai worked eight to 12 hours in a mobile accessories factory every day, earning at most 2,200 yuan a month.
Since last year, the 22-year-old has found a more rewarding job in Pingxiang. After five months’ working in a factory making furniture panels, she now manages and trains around 20 Vietnamese workers.
Her job pays about 3,500 yuan a month, with better working and living conditions.
“I like China and enjoy working here, and my language skills can be used to help Vietnamese workers communicate with Chinese,” said Le who taught herself Chinese.
Zhang Tianjun, a human resources official in the city, said since China and Vietnam started workforce co-operation in 2017, nearly 70,000 Vietnamese workers have moved to Pingxiang.
Vietnamese can legally work in Pingxiang on monthly renewable visas and enjoy higher salaries as well as insurance coverage.
Pingxiang has also set up a crossborder workforce management centre to help streamline the visa application process.
According to Zhang, most Vietnamese work at commercial trading posts at the borders, as well as the integrated free trade zone nearby, in industries like cargo handling, textile processing and transportation.
Zhang said cross-border workforce co-operation had helped clamp down on illegal work and entry, and enhanced management of foreign laborers. Pingxiang’s labour supply is shrinking as more Chinese workers take up jobs in economically advanced regions. The inflow of Vietnamese labour has eased the shortage, Zhang said.
Liang said abundant and low-cost Vietnamese labour will attract more labour-intensive companies to invest in the city. Last year, two-way trade between Guangxi and Vietnam reached 174.9 billion yuan, according to the Nanning Customs. The trade volume between Guangxi and Asean reached 206 billion yuan last year, an increase of 6.3 per cent on 2017 accounting for 50.2 per cent of the region’s total foreign trade.
Its geographic advantage has prompted Guangxi to join in the construction of the New International Land-Sea Trade corridor, which is a new focus for the local government.
As part of the BRI, the corridor is a trade and logistics passage jointly built by provincial regions in western China and Singapore under the framework of an intergovernmental co-operation initiative covering finance, aviation, logistics and transport, and information and communications technology.
Liang said Guangxi should make full use of geographical advantage and deepen its relationship with Asean to promote its industrial development to enhance its co-operation with the bloc.