Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sits in the heart of the Silk Road Economic Belt, one of components of the China-proposed Belt and Road (B&R) initiative. The region's advantageous location - combined with strong government support - has turned the region into a lodestone for companies in advanced industries such as heavy machinery and software. These companies also see the region's location as a convenient jumping-off point for reaching new markets in Central Asia and beyond.
Two people stand at a highway construction site in November 2016, in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Photo: CFP
It took just one year to build and start production at a 1 billion yuan ($145.08 million) factory, at what Zhang Shimin calls "Xinjiang speed."
"It usually takes two years to build a factory like ours, which covers more than 14 hectares and has 80,000 square meters of floor space. We were eager to enter the Xinjiang market, so we hired extra workers," said Zhang, deputy general manager of the Xinjiang branch of China Railway Construction Heavy Industry (CRCHI).
The company, based in Changsha, capital of Central China's Hunan Province, produces track and underground engineering equipment.
Zhang noted that construction crews worked overtime to finish the factory. Construction began in June 2015 at an industrial park in northern Urumqi, capital of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Less than 13 months later, the first batch of tunnel boring machines rolled out of the factory.
"We received strong support from the local government, which has been assisting high-end manufacturers," Zhang said.
At the core of the Silk Road Economic Belt, one of the two components of the China-proposed Belt and Road (B&R) initiative, Xinjiang is quickly building up strong industries, including chemicals, information technology, machinery manufacturing and textiles.
In 2017, industrial investment is expected to hit 461 billion yuan, including 280 billion yuan in manufacturing, up 51 percent from 2016, according to a report China's Ministry of Commerce posted on its website in April.
"Smart manufacturing is a pillar industry. We will help companies build their factories and lower logistics costs to expand it into a multibillion-yuan industry," said an official surnamed Ma at the Urumqi Economic and Technological Development Zone, home to many companies like CRCHI.
At CRCHI's Xinjiang factory, workers assemble 5.5-meter-tall, 230-meter-long tunnel boring machines. The equipment, which costs about 50 million yuan, will be used to build a water diversion project in Xinjiang.
Since July 2016, CRCHI has sold 1.8 billion yuan worth of equipment to companies building subways and other underground projects in Xinjiang, the company said.
"Workers previously used explosives to dig tunnels," Zhang said. "This [machine] is a multifunctional digger, with a giant cutter-head to thrust into hard rocks, arms to build a roof and cleaning equipment to move the debris. This type of machinery is already widely used in Western countries [and regions], but it became popular in China only over the last few years."
The price of the domestically produced machine is about 70 percent to 80 percent of its foreign equivalent, Zhang said. Because there are so many projects using the equipment, improvements have come quickly, he added.
CRCHI has set up offices in neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
"Now that we have a big production line here. It is a golden opportunity for us to find business in western and central Asian countries," Zhang said.
The same development zone houses another modern industry - software development. More than 100 software companies have set up offices in the 14-hectare Xinjiang Software Park in Urumqi.
iFlytek, a domestic leader in voice-recognition, has dozens of staff developing software to translate languages including Putonghua and Uyghur.
As an ethnically diverse region, Xinjiang is an ideal place to develop voice recognition for languages such as Uyghur and Kazakh, said Kahar Kadeer, technical director of iFlytek Silk Road Speech Valley.
IFlytek can translate between Putonghua and standard Uyghur with an accuracy rate of about 87 percent, the technical director said. It can translate between Putonghua and the Uyghur dialect spoken in Hotan Prefecture with about 80 percent accuracy.
"The accuracy will improve as users generate more data," he said.
"In the future, cross-language voice translation will be used in call centers, e-commerce businesses and the independent tourism industry in Xinjiang and central Asian countries," said Ling Yunzhi, the company's vice general manager.
"Smooth communication between [people speaking] different languages will help Xinjiang achieve its goal of building an open economy," Ling said.
Many Chinese companies are looking for business opportunities across international borders.
Xinjiang Rival Tech bought cutting-edge membrane-making equipment from Germany for their factory in Urumqi. The company was founded in Northwest China's Gansu Province, but moved further west to expand its business, said Liu Xueping, Xinjiang Rival Tech's project manager.
"Xinjiang has a great logistical advantage. Our exports can travel west by rail to Russia and other countries, which saves time and money compared with going through the port in [North China's] Tianjin," Liu said.
In Rival Tech's factories, automated machines churn out durable shopping bags for buyers in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
"There is a big market to the west of Xinjiang," she said.