A city that thrives on border trade

Updated: 2014-02-11 09:31 By Dong Fangyu in Dandong and Peng Yining in Beijing (China Daily)

A city that thrives on border trade

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of special reports in which our reporters will travel the length of China's 18,000-km-long coastline to detail the lives of the people whose existence is dominated, and often facilitated, by the waters that stretch from Bohai Bay in the north to the Zengmu shoal in the south. 




Geographic proximity makes Dandong a telescope through which observers can glimpse a mysterious neighbor, report Dong Fangyu in Dandong and Peng Yining in Beijing

After paying the princely sum of 5 yuan (80 cents), a group of tourists lined up to take a peek at the Democratic People's Republic of Korea through telescopes set up on the banks of the Yalu River in the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong.

The scene through the blurred lens was mundane. The observers could see the barren riverbank of Siniuju, the city on the other side of the river, where only a few people wandered around streets that were covered by a thin film of snow. A wisp of smoke curled from one of several chimneys rising from the old factories located beyond the bank. In a park, a Ferris wheel rested motionless.

A city that thrives on border trade

Chinese tourists take a peek at the Democratic People's Republic of Korea through telescopes set up on the bank of the Yalu River in Dandong in Liaoning province. Wang Jing / China Daily

Although there is no limit on viewing time, there was so little interest that most tourists gave up within a minute and escaped the freezing winter wind by heading to one of the neon-lit Korean barbecue restaurants on the esplanade for a bowl of hot kimchi soup.

China's border with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea winds along the Yalu and, farther north, along the Tumen River in the northeastern province of Jilin. Although there are several trading centers on the border, none matches Dandong, a city of more than 2 million people, in size or importance.

The coastal city in Liaoning province has been deeply influenced by the cross-border business and cultural exchanges, and has itself become a telescope through which interested observers can gain a distant impression of the DPRK.

Riding the bus from Dandong, Han Wenlu can arrive at his home in Sinuiju in less than two hours. For the past 10 years, the 46-year-old businessman has been working as a coordinator for a Chinese company that imports nonferrous metals from the DPRK and then processes the raw materials at a factory in Dandong.

"Dandong imports raw materials and the DPRK gains production equipment from China, so it's a win-win business," said Han, tapping out a message on his iPhone 4S.

Han is fluent in both Korean and Chinese because his grandparents took his mother to the DPRK from Shandong province at the age of 3. "People in the DPRK are very friendly to Chinese immigrants. They cherish the friendship between the two countries," he said.

Close proximity

A city that thrives on border trade

Dandong's close geographical proximity to Sinuiju and Pyongyang, gives the city an incomparable logistical advantage in trade, said Jin Meihua, an expert on East Asian affairs at the Academy of Social Sciences in Jilin province. Businessmen can also ship products around the world via the fast-modernizing Port of Dandong, a few kilometers downstream where the Yalu River enters the Yellow Sea.

According to the city government's official website, Dandong is China's largest border city trading with the DPRK, accounting for 60 percent of China's trade volume with the country.

"The development of the border trade has helped Dandong to boom. The city has also been influenced by the culture, history and tradition from the other side of the Yalu," said Jin. "Dandong provides a precious opportunity for people to get to know the DPRK."

There are a few luxury restaurants on the city's main street, which runs parallel to the riverbank facing Sinuiju. Most are jointly invested and managed by Chinese and their partners from Pyongyang, according to Dandong residents.

One of them is the Ryugyong restaurant, where a four-dish dinner costs more than 600 yuan. The eatery is named after the Ryugyong Hotel, a pyramid-shaped landmark that dominates the capital of the DPRK.

Wearing traditional white-and-blue Korean garb, the waitresses come from Pyongyang and are a magnet for customers and tourists interested in learning more about the DPRK.

One of the waitresses, who declined to give her name, said she is on a three-year contract in Dandong. When her contract expires, she will return to Pyongyang in the hope of securing a job as a civil servant or as a secretary in a State-owned company.

Tall and fair-skinned, she misses home. During her time in Dandong, she has only been able to contact her family by letter. However, she has enjoyed living in the city. "I came here to work for my country," she said in fluent Mandarin.

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