THE Yangtze River, known as Chang Jiang (long river) in Mandarin, is China’s longest river and third longest in the world.
It runs across the country from the Tibetan plateau in the west, through 11 provinces and municipalities before flowing into the East China Sea at Shanghai.
For thousands of years, the river, estimated at about 6,300km, has been important for Chinese society and the economy.
It is used for transporting and cultivating padi, vegetables and fruits in the vast hinterland. Over one-quarter of China’s population live along the delta.
Wars were fought on the river with the most famous being the Battle of the Red Cliffs between Liu Bei and Sun Quan fighting against warlord Cao Cao in the year 208.
After centuries of research and the discovery of historical relics related to the war, the battlefield has been identified as Chibi town in Hubei province.
The magnificent Three Gorges Dam – the largest hydro-electric power station in the world – is built on this river.
If the Belt and Road Initiative is a strategy to connect the world, the Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB) is a major engine to enhance the initiative while narrowing the development gap between the eastern and western regions of the country.
Late last month, I joined a group of journalists to Chongqing and Hubei provinces for a better understanding of the Yangtze River economic plan, which was first raised in 2014, and its development plan.
The YREB covers an area of two million-square kilometres, which includes nine provinces and two municipalities.
This region generates some 40% of China’s gross domestic product (GDP).
China Centre for International Economic Exchanges vice-chairman David Zhang revealed that the per capita GDP of YREB has reached 56,470 yuan (RM35,000) in 2016, some 2,490 yuan (RM1,560) higher than the national average.
However, economic development comes at a cost to the environment.
Over the decades, the river has become seriously polluted.
The loss of wetlands and habitats has damaged the ecological balance, threatening wildlife surrounding it especially the critically endangered Chinese sturgeon, porpoise and the possibly extinct baiji, a type of river dolphin found only in the Yangtze River.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on the restoration of the ecological environment of the Yangtze River delta, promoting sustainable and green manufacturing technology in this region since 2016.
He discouraged excessive development and stated that large-scale projects should not be carried out there.
Due to this, a series of action plans have been drafted to protect the area while bringing up the economic value of the region.
“We are transforming our industrial layout, moving away from heavy industrial development to innovation and enterprise sectors such as information technology, automobile, electronics and mechanical engineering,” said Zhang.
He added that among the plans to protect the Yangtze River is a move to restore the wetlands, implement stricter policies to protect the environment, reduce carbon emission and chemical waste from factories located along the river.
In Chongqing itself, 256 factories along the river have been relocated, said Wang Zhiqiang, deputy director of the municipality’s Development and Reform Commission.
The city is a major vehicle manufacturing hub in China, producing more than three millions cars annually.
Its Guoyuan Port is the largest inland logistics port in China.
The port’s general manager Fang Liang said it played an important role in transporting goods from the upper stream of the river to the seaports, connecting the YREB and the Maritime Silk Road, which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
“We have a total of 16 wharfs for cargo vessel of 5,000 tonnes,” he revealed, adding the port could handle an annual goods capacity of 30 million tonnes.
The waterway through Yangtze River is the most cost-effective way to transport bulk items.
Guoyan Port is linked with the China-Europe Railway, which connects Chinese cities with Europe.
Hubei province is located in the mid-stream of the Yangtze River.
Known as “The Land of Fish and Rice”, the province is an important agriculture base for crops, cotton and freshwater seafood.
It is the third largest education centre with over 120 universities and 1,700 research and development institutions.
Apart from economic development, the provinces also have a lot to offer visitors.
Among the places frequented by tourists are the Wudang Mountain, Shennongjia National Nature Reserve, Dongting Lake and various museums that house relics from the Three Kingdoms era (year 220 to 280).
A Unesco site of ancient temples, Wudang Mountain was a royal sacred site during the Ming Dynasty. It was where Taoist practitioner Zhang Sanfeng settled down and created the Wudang tai chi martial arts.
Wuhan is the capital city of Hubei province. It is a transportation hub with direct flights connecting countries such as Russia, France, Italy, United Arab Emirates, the United States and Japan. It also has a freight train that transports goods to Europe.