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China's historic city of Ningbo puts itself on the map

Ningbo people are not accustomed to isolation. Neither do they relish living in the shadow of Shanghai, a half-day's sail to the north. For some decades these have been the conditions of life in this 1,000-year-old port city, conditions which local officials are now determined to overcome.

Their determination is getting tangible support from Peking, despite a pullback of port-development plans elsewhere in China. Ningbo was one of 14 coastal cities opened to foreign businesses two years ago. Local officials claim it has not been set back by the central government's shortage of funds or the retraction of special decisionmaking powers granted to coastal cities.

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``In Ningbo, there has been no slowing down,'' insisted Vice-Mayor Chen Zheliang recently. He said the central government had invested some $600 million in Ningbo in the past decade and several major construction projects were under way.

Walking the tree-lined streets of the old commercial center, where two- and three-story wooden houses stand behind white-washed walls, it is easy to imagine what Marco Polo saw when he visited here in the 13th century. Ningbo was then one of the world's busiest ports and had completed the first stage of a port-development program that began under the Southern Song (Sung) Dynasty (1127-1279). Located near the southern end of China's Grand Canal, which was built in the Sui Dynasty from 605 to 618 AD, Ningbo's waterways and harbor have since made it a trading center that has generated considerable wealth for its citizens over the centuries.

Now, under the more liberal policies of master-planner Deng Xiaoping, Ningbo's greatest asset is its harbor at Beilun, which can accommodate 100,000-ton freighters at pierside. That is more than three times the tonnage Shanghai can unload, and carriers often transship their cargo here for Shanghai and ports on the Yangtze River.

But Ningbo has another asset -- also out of proportion to the size of this city of 600,000 people -- which could prove to make a crucial difference in its future.

Some of the most prosperous trading and banking families in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other overseas communities are from Ningbo. Before the Communist victory in 1949, many were wealthy capitalists such as Lu Xuzhang, the ``red millionaire'' who stayed in China and turned over his property to the state. Many have become successful elsewhere.

At least one member of this older generation of native sons is prepared to help his home town. Hong Kong's Pao Yue-kong, chairman of Hong Kong Worldwide Shipping Group and a personal friend of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, is already involved in planning Ningbo's future. Vice-Mayor Chen said that during Mr. Pao's first return visit to Ningbo in 1983, he was impressed with the newly enlarged port facilities and proposed a steel plant for the city. Pao has agreed to help raise the $3 billion needed for the project.

Such high-profile politics has rescued Ningbo from the plight of less fortunate coastal cities that are fighting for Peking's attention. Meanwhile, government ministries are funding the expansion of an oil refinery and petrochemical plant here and are planning to build a new airport for international flights to be completed in 1988.

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