China putting on a brave 'Third Front'

The "Third Front'' construction project is far less known than the ongoing "Three Gorges'' dam project. In reality, however, the 17-year-long massive programme, launched mostly in preparation of possible wars in the 1960s, is powering development of western and central China -- much like the reservoir project is doing for its own region.

That was one of the lessons from a symposium held Friday in Beijing to mark the 20th anniversary of the country's efforts to relocate and upgrade institutes and factories in the rear area of the "Third Front.''

The "Third Front'' refers to a large-scale programme the country started in 1964 -- in response to the then volatile international situation -- to build a range of industrial bases in its remote yet strategically secured hinterland.

By 1980, the programme had created a railway grid linking previously isolated parts of south-western and western China, in addition to a galaxy of power, aviation and electronic plants, said Zhang Yunchuan, minister of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

However, since they are located in the interior regions, many of the research and production facilities have found it difficult to sustain themselves under modern economic conditions, experts said.

To turn the facilities into the engines to power the economic growth in the country's vast west, the State Council decided in 1983 to relocate and transform the facilities, Zhang said.

As a result, a number of moribund factories were shut down, many ventures were moved close to urban areas, and technological renovation has enabled them to produce competitive products for civilian use, Zhang said.

"Part of the achievement is that a batch of 'backbone' enterprises has evolved from the `Third Front' to develop more than 2,000 products including satellite and automobile parts and civilian aircraft,'' said Ji Dawei, a chief co-ordinator for the relocation drive.

The machinery, metallurgical, chemical and non-ferrous mineral and other companies based in the "Third Front'' have laid a solid foundation for the economic take-off of western China, Ji said.

The "Third Front'' relocation and transformation drive has cost 20 billion yuan (US$2.4 billion) over the past 20 years, nearly 80 per cent of the funds were raised by enterprises involved, according to Ji.



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