Hebi: Big Ideas from a Small City
With little water in its bed in chilly December, a 500-year-old canal crosses in front of the rebuilt gate of the ancient county of Xunxian in Hebi City, central China’s Henan Province. The canal is part of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, which once fueled the prosperity of the county hundreds of years ago. And it is now part of an amazing transformation of the county in a different age.
Not long ago, Xunxian County, home to a 2,000-year-old town, welcomed a group of 52 international students from 30 developing countries including Laos, Egypt and Sudan. These students from the Emerging Markets Institute of Beijing Normal University visited for a glimpse of the brilliant transformation of the county as well as the city of Hebi, to which it is affiliated.
An Ancient Town and Foreign Visitors
Residents of Xunxian County didn’t have much experience meeting foreigners. When the foreign visitors entered through the front gate of the town, crowds formed to witness the spectacle, some even recording video of the event with their phones. Some foreign students blurted “ni hao” (hello) to the curious crowd. Surprised and excited, the locals quickly replied with the same. Some even dared say in English, “Nice to meet you too,” but quickly turned away with a shy smile. Despite encouragement to greet the foreign friends, a small local child opted to hide behind his grandma.
The rebuilt ancient town was intended to be a tourist attraction. The structure of traditional residences, the offices from the past and ancient ways of Chinese life are interesting for foreigners. Chittanavong Bounnam from Laos deemed it a good cultural site. “I really like the culture here,” he grinned. “Those people here seem to have rarely met any foreigners before. Perhaps they should advertise more to attract more foreigners.”
Following the lead of this group of foreign guests, perhaps more and more foreigners will venture to the ancient town.
Kassa Abraha Amare from Ethiopia is greatly intrigued by Chinese culture. In such a hotbed of ancient Chinese culture, he persistently kept notes, especially in places like the riverside park with over 1,000 Chinese poems carved in an extraordinarily long corridor. He believes there are many similarities between the ancient cultures of China and his motherland.
Atop the narrow streets of the county are the occasional motorized vehicles flanked by a mix of bicycles, electric bicycles and tricycles. The heavy concentration of clean-energy transportation is a sign of the town’s endeavors to promote green transportation. Along the streets, giant billboards for smartphone brands such as Oppo and Vivo—now seen in numerous small Chinese towns—evidence the massive expansion of smartphone marketing and sales in China’s rural areas. The influence of the mobile internet has reached every corner of China. Some buildings are a bit run-down but maybe just temporarily as they await renovation.
Big Data Agriculture
Henan Province has been a traditional agricultural powerhouse. Expectedly, Hebi City is a strong agricultural producer, with per capita output value of animal husbandry, meat and milk ranking top in the province for over two decades in a row. In the era of e-commerce and information technology, the city is also modernizing its agricultural production and sales. Perhaps the most impressive is a digital platform providing information on agricultural products, services and e-commerce.
On the screen of a smart agricultural experience center, one can find the information of the prices of agricultural products, the situation of farm production in certain places and other important information. According to the head of the center, it is also trying to collect information on agricultural products from Henan Province and labeling them to improve the quality of agricultural production by tracing the source of every single agricultural product. Alongside selling products online, the platform also invites teams of drones to perform agricultural work. The pesticide-spraying drones can be ordered online by farmers according to their needs.
The technology was developed by Hebi Agricultural Silicon Valley, which has been operating since 2013. It was established by a Beijing-based company working with agricultural information. The ambitious agricultural information platform has been working on constructing “new infrastructure for agriculture” in the internet age: cloud computing, big data, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence.
Hisham Abubakr Metwally Mohamed is an economic researcher from Egypt. He praised the development of smart agriculture in Hebi. “This is an advanced system that our country doesn’t have, so there are a lot of opportunities for cooperation,” he opined.
Experience for Emerging Markets
Hu Biliang, dean of the Emerging Markets Institute of Beijing Normal University, noted that the experience of Hebi’s transformation is significant for other developing countries. Hu once taught in places including Xunxian County in 1985. When he returned for a survey arranged by the central government in 2007, he was astonished by the drastic change that had taken place over 22 years.
He remarked that Henan is strong in both industrial and agricultural production. The province is always known for its agricultural production: It produces a quarter of the nation’s wheat and a tenth of all the nation’s grain. But Henan is also home to large-scale industry, with its GDP ranking among the top in China. The province has enjoyed a relatively fast economic growth rate, with a gradually balanced development of agriculture and industry.
As a young city established in 1957, Hebi emerged around its abundant coal mines. With a proven reserve of 1.74 billion tons of coal, the city was once prosperous due to industries related to coal and power production. It is now in the process of restructuring its economy to become more balanced.
Liu Wenbiao, vice mayor of the city, declared that Hebi is in the process of transformation. Its conventional industries are becoming smarter, he said, citing companies producing smart household decoration and LED products instead of coal byproducts. As for agriculture, he said that the city is working to integrate primary, secondary and tertiary industries as well as large e-commerce enterprises that offer services to villages.
“This province, especially this city, has become a good place for developing countries to research agricultural and industrial modernization and transformation,” added Hu.