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At the Grand Theatre in Xining, the ticket office is doing brisk business as it takes bookings for a remarkably diverse line-up of events that includes a performance by an Australian company of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and the ballroom dancing sensation Burn The Floor.
Entertainment of this cosmopolitan kind would have been hard to imagine before the striking new theatre complex covering 36,000 square metres, including a concert hall, theatre and multifunctional hall opened in 2010 with a Mandarin-language version of the Broadway hit Mamma Mia.
It was a runaway success, and the theatre has since been serving up a rich international diet of entertainment for the residents of Xining that will this autumn and winter include the operas Carmen and La Traviata.
Not all of the imported shows attract sell-out crowds, one of the theatre managers concedes. “The market is still growing and it still has a long way to go,” he says diplomatically as we tour the complex. “People in Xining still like to see the Chinese stars most – famous pianists for example – when they come to perform here.”
But the venue is a community venue and has a multitude of uses. As we tour the complex, the stage of the Grand Theatre is being prepared for a Teacher’s Day performance that will see some 800 students from the city perform to a guaranteed sell-out audience.
The building of the theatre complex is one of a number of steps taken to upgrade the living environment in Xining in recent years, transforming it from a relative backwater to a frontline city on the New Silk Road. That transformation is being handled with an overriding imperative in mind: to ensure Xining is a green and liveable city as well as a commerce hub for the new wave of business with Central Asia and beyond that the ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy will bring.
A quiet example of the policy at work is in the wetland park spanning two sides of one of three rivers running through Xining. The park with lush riverside walkways, trees and picnic spots runs along a 2.4km stretch of river and cost RMB300 million to create.
Li Dongbing, a warden at the park which opened two years ago and is the biggest urban wetland park in Qinghai province, says it has become a much-loved recreational resource for the city. “It was built as part of our city government’s goal to make Xining a happy, liveable city. When you come here, you can breathe easily and breathe in fresh air. You can feel the air is full of oxygen. It is a very good environment for people living and working in the city. When they come here they relax and feel good about themselves.”
As he speaks, a procession of young couples walks through the park to have photographs taken ahead of their weddings. The park has become one of the favourite locations for wedding shoots since it opened.
Xining’s progressive mayor Zhang Xiaorong is adamant that creating a cleaner, greener environment is critical to the city’s future prospects. “I don’t believe Xining will attract investors without clean air or a beautiful environment,” he tells Euromoney. “As a city set on a high latitude, we see ecological conservation as a priority. We are in the west of China and the climate is dry and we have a low level of green cover.
“A beautiful city should have good green cover and clear air and that is why we make ecological conservation a priority. The competitiveness of our city depends on our ecology. As mayor, I intend to plant trees and tackle pollution.”
Because of its climate and setting surrounded by mountains, Xining used to rank as one of the most polluted cities in China, but policies of recent years have triggered a remarkable change in the quality of the city’s air. In 2013, Xining recorded clear air days for just over 60% of the year. In 2015, the city expects to record clear air days on an impressive 83.5% of the year. “Pollution levels are much lower than before,” says Zhang. “We have shut down many heavy polluting industries. We have also adopted some measures to control the dust pollution in construction areas. We are taking 88,000 cars with excessive pollution off the roads every year. And our winter calefaction is now natural gas instead of coal.”
These measures – combined with the continual upgrading of the city’s facilities and cultural venues – are aimed at ensuring that Xining is a city where people want to live as well as to work.
Published in conjunction with Xining Municipal People’s Government