1 of 5 A vessel on the Grand Canal passes the permanent venue of the World Canal Cities Organization Expo in Yangzhou. HISTORICAL evidence for the phrase “Belt and Road” can be found in Yangzhou, a city of 4 million people in east China’s Jiangsu Province where the Yangtze River and Grand Canal meet. For nearly a thousand years Yangzhou was the biggest port in China. Many Silk Road merchants arrived via the canal and the most notable among them were Marco Polo and Puhaddin.
Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324) came to China with his father and uncle after four years trekking through arid terrain in western and central Asia. They met Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan Dynasty, in 1275. Marco Polo was offered an official post in Yangzhou and worked there for three years. Today, a museum is dedicated to him with some exhibits gifted by the city of Venice.
Puhaddin, a 16th-generation descendant of the Islamic prophet Mohammad, came to Yangzhou in 1265 before Marco Polo, via the Maritime Silk Route along the coast of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. He lived in the city from 1265 to 1275 and was buried in the city’s canal bank, facing toward Mecca. The site of his tomb grew into a Muslim cemetery which today has many Arab and Chinese visitors.
Yangzhou flourished through trade on the Grand Canal. The oldest section of the waterway was dug in 486 BC, and it eventually stretched 1,797 kilometers to Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south. It was the main artery of transport in China until railroads appeared, and remains the longest canal in the world.
A few years ago, Yangzhou led a bid with other canal cities to place the Grand Canal on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites and succeeded in 2014. Yangzhou is also the headquarters of the World Canal Cities Cooperation Organization (WCCO) with 89 members, including Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Rotterdam, Panama, San Antonio, Geneva, Bordeaux and Venice, 12 social organizations and six enterprises.
WCCO Chairman Zhu Minyang said they want to make the organization a platform to promote economic cooperation among member cities, share experiences in heritage and environmental protection and urban planning, and help Chinese companies go abroad in the Belt and Road initiative.
In April, the WCCO Council adopted a five-year action plan to make their organization highly international, professional and influential. They hope the WCCO can play a bigger role in addressing some of the challenges facing a world seeking solutions for historical heritage preservation, environment protection, industry upgrading and sustained economic growth, he said.
Deng Qing, secretary general of the WCCO, said the theme for this year’s WCCO annual meeting in September will be “B&R Construction and Opportunities for Canal Cities.” Representatives from the United Nations and some Chinese companies with projects in Belt and Road countries will be invited as keynote speakers.
Some Yangzhou companies have already made big strides in building a presence in Belt and Road countries. Famsun Holdings, China’s largest feed machinery manufacturer and the second largest in the world in market share, now operates in countries from Vietnam to Saudi Arabia and from Kazakhstan to Denmark.
Though canals have mostly lost their original function due to competition from railways and highways, the Grand Canal remains the pride of Yangzhou and continues to benefit the city and its people with its unmatched heritage value.