Germany’s Chinatown in Duisburg – How the Ruhr Area wants to benefit from the Silk Road 2.0

In Duisburg ends an 11,000-kilometer rail line – China’s new Silk Road. The trains from the Far East not only bring goods, they change the Ruhr metropolis.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has become a changing point for the German city Duisburg. Increasing numbers of Chinese companies are now becoming interested in the Duisburg location. German newspaper Das Handelsblatt followed a delegation on their tour through the Duisburg industrial area.

The black minibus stops. All passengers pull out their smartphones. The man in the passenger seat says a few words. The rest take photos. Then they drive on. A woman is constantly filming through the tinted windows because she does not want to miss anything: warehouses, tank silos and containers. Sightseeing in the Duisburg industrial area.

The five passengers are not tourists, but business people from Chengdu, China. The man in the passenger seat is not a tour guide, but project manager of the port company Duisport. Instead of planning a project, today he is selling a product; the Duisburg location.

The Duisport project manager explains to the delegation that the industrial wasteland will be transformed into a state of the art industrial port. Siemens, Audi and other companies have already settled here. A traffic control system that reduces waiting times for trucks had also been installed. The women and men do what they will do the rest of the day; they nod and take pictures.

Shortly afterwards the bus waits in front of a barrier. The Chinese delegates point their smartphone cameras at the railroad crossing. A train rolls in front of their camera. It is loaded with containers bearing the logos of the Chinese shipping company Cosco and the state-owned railway company China Railway. A hundred meters away, three cranes are waiting to unload the train. The cargo consists mainly of electronics and textiles.

The Duisburg inland port is the end of an 11,000-kilometer railway line. It leads from China via Kazakhstan, Russia and Poland to Germany. Up to 35 trains run weekly on the route, three to five from Chengdu. On the way back the trains bring German cars and consumer goods to China.

Since the smelters and collieries have closed, Duisburg has become one of Germany’s economically most disadvantaged cities. The unemployment rate of 11.5 percent is more than twice as high as the national average. The city has high hopes that the train connection to China will change that. It wants to convince Chinese business people to send more trains to Duisburg.

Hope in the structural change

That’s why second mayor Volker Mosblech is waiting for the black minibus in the town hall. The suit of Duisburg’s second mayor carries two pins, one of a German flag, one of a Chinese flag. He proudly presents them as he welcomes the members of the Chinese business delegation.

The City of Duisburg has printed Chinese business cards for its employees. For every card Mosblech gets from the Chinese delegates, he gives them one of his own. He hands them over with both hands – as is customary in China.

The mayor and his colleagues tell the Chinese about the advantages of the location: 300,000 companies are located within a radius of 150 kilometres, 30 million consumers live in the region and the existing Chinese network that has made Duisburg known as Germany’s Chinatown.

The city has even appointed a China commissioner to oversee relations with the China and has established a China Business Network to attract Chinese companies to the city. Meanwhile the Confucius Institute invites the people of Duisburig to tea ceremonies and calligraphy courses to introduce them to the Far Eastern culture.

The cityscape changes

The Duisburg University Library is full, despite the term break. Mainly Chinese students are studying here. They sit in groups of four or five people. One has put a pillow under his head and takes a nap. The rest are staring at their laptops.

Over 2,000 Chinese students are enrolled at the University of Duisburg-Essen, most of them at the Faculty of Engineering in Duisburg. The majority will return home after graduation. But that could change.

If you go from the university to the main train station, you pass Chinese supermarkets and tailors. From time to time, the smell of peanut oil from Chinese restaurants mixes with the scent of Turkish food stalls.

Bangni also has its headquarters here. The start-up helps Chinese people in Duisburg to find a job and a flat. It also advises German companies on China issues and Chinese companies settling in the city.

There are currently only 100 Chinese companies in the city. However, the number could quadruple within a few years. Duisburg based Chinese company, Starhai wants to invest €260 million into a new trading centre, where previously has been industrial waste land. Starhai has already raised the money with the help of Chinese investors.

Offices, hotels and function rooms are to be built on 60,000 square meters for 300 Chinese companies, who will organise their Central European sales from there – and bring 2000 jobs to Duisburg.

Five kilometres south of the site, the black minibus stops at the spot where China’s President Xi Jinping made a speech in 2014. You can see one thing above all: asphalt. The delegation still photographs.

On the way back to the hotel, the Chinese go through the pictures on their smartphones. They have a good impression from Duisburg, they say. The next day the delegation is expected in Nuremberg. Regular trains from China also stop there.

(Photo: picture alliance/Tang ke – Imaginechina)