The Belt and Road – Part 14: The drive ahead

By Prof. Samitha Hettige | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 24 2020
FT The Belt and Road – Part 14:  The drive ahead

By Prof. Samitha Hettige

According to the Chinese, “Wuhan is different everyday”. Also known as the ‘City of Rivers’ the capitol of the Hubei Province is also famous for its waterways. The Yangtze River makes it an inland trading port and through Wuhan the rail network connected the North with southern China making it a transport hub. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has expanded its capacity as never before.



 Being the most populous city in Central China, it is sometimes referred to as Chicago of China as the automotive industry is a core industry in Wuhan. Automobile production plays a pivotal role in restarting the city’s economy in the COVID-19 aftermath. When Wuhan became the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic it was a serious blow to the city’s automotive industry. 

According to Chinese sources seven major vehicle manufacturing ventures are in Wuhan and more than 500 related companies also contribute to the city’s economy. The Wuhan Motor Show has been held in grand scale for decades and is considered as one of world’s leading events in the automotive industry. The 2020 show was held last week, and the show aimed to promote the development of industry, provide best opportunities of trade and help expand the market horizon for exhibitors as per the organisers. 

Ming, Mazda and Maruti

According to some automotive history sources the first motor vehicle planned to be made in China was a small truck named Ming Sheng. The Japanese invasion (early 1930s) killed the Ming Sheng at birth. The Japanese as we know were leading the automobile industry for few decades. 

They are facing stiff competition from other emerging economies at present but have changed their strategies to sustain the market share as much as possible even moving some Honda assembly lines to Australia. The Malaysians have been producing automobiles with Japanese technology (Mitsubishi, Daihatsu and Honda) for domestic and export markets. Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti still creates wealth for India. Automobiles developed with Suzuki technology enjoy a good market share in South Asia.

 India also got the British Leyland to jointly produce Ashok Leyland (Ref. Ms. Mahika Rajakaruna). In 1969 visionary Sri Lankan Upali Wijewardena assembled the ‘Upali Mazda’ in Sri Lanka with Japanese technology. Upali on many occasions appreciated the support he got from the then (1970) Finance Minister Dr. N.M. Perera. NM’s policies if allowed to continue may have made more Sri Lankan entrepreneurs creating national wealth. 

Few years later with technical support from Thailand and Italy Upali assembled the ‘Upali Fiat’ in 1977. When Sri Lanka liberalised its economy vehicle imports increased and Upali could not face the competition. It was somewhat similar to the Japanese attack on the Ming Sheng (Ref. Dr. Sudhammika Atygalle).

  Red Cadillac-1

The hoisting of the Red Flag in October 1949 marked the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). The Hongqi literary meaning the ‘Red Flag’ is China’s equivalent of the Cadillac-1 (The US Presidential State car) also known as the Beast. The Hongqi production started in the 1950s. To this date the Hongqi gets the honour of transporting leaders of the PRC at all national events. 

US President Richard Nixon was the first US leader to experience the Hongqi while visiting China according to Chinese sources and many decades later after the PRC liberalised its economy and started attracting western entrepreneurs, US based SILK EV LLC started a joint innovation centre in the PRC and Italy to develop a super sports model for the iconic Hongqi and the US investor has invested approx. 

25 million USD in the facility. The innovation centre partnered with the leading automaker FAW Group which owns the Hongqi brand and other leading global automobile companies to support the development of the Hongqi sports series. Investments going up to more than one billion USD is expected to be made by the investor to produce the new model which they expect would be a famous brand in the sports car market. 

Jinasena Magpie, Micro and the millennium challenges

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected in Sri Lanka in few days. He is supposed to be breaking away from a joint tour with his Cabinet colleague US Defence Secretary Mark Esper who will be visiting New Delhi to initiate a military cooperation agreement to face the men who use the Hongqi in the new millennium. 

New Delhi was a very close military ally of the number one enemy of USA, the former USSR when the Indian economy was closed and controlled. After economic liberalisation and opening their markets they got new friends. New Delhi is now considered part of the wider alliance against the Red Flags that are being hoisted with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) along with Australia and Japan. Japan hosts the Okinawa military base of the USA but at the same time cooperate with BRI related matters. 



Australia also is an active partner of the BRI. Secretary Pompeo’s visit is the highest level coming from the USA since 2015. It is also important as he comes soon after the visit of Diplomat Yang Jiechi of the PRC. He is expected to discuss the 480 million US$ MCC matter. The MCC money is supposed to be used to improve transport related facilities among other things. Other than Upali Wijewardena, few attempted to assemble/ produce vehicles locally.

 Former Transport Minister Anil Moonesinghe who founded the Colombo central bus stand and first developed the Katunayake International Air Port did his best to assemble Fiat buses but 1965 political changes prevented it. During 1970 -77 Renault cars were assembled by the government factory in Kolonnawa for State use and the assembly line stopped in the early 1980s. That time there were no Japanese attacks but imports. Now Indians are producing Renault as a joint venture. 

Dr. Lawrence Perera developed the ‘Micro’ facing competition from the liberalised economy providing employment to Sri Lankans and saving national wealth. The late Engineer Deshamanya T.S. Jinasena was the first to assemble a racing car in Sri Lanka (Ref. Jinasena archives). The ‘Magpie’ he assembled defeated foreign cars on the race track in 1930s. The engineering creations he developed with his sons Nihal, Rohan, Ranjith and Tissa still serve the masses providing employment to over 6,000 Sri Lankans. 

Jinasena’s popular two-wheeled tractor JET from the early 1980s still serves the agricultural sector. JET crashed when the economy liberalised flexing imports. If we are to economically recover we must increase production, and control import and export with a vision. The vehicle assembly line in Kuliyapitiya should be used for the purpose and not to store paddy because it was the other guy who started it. 

Vietnam is planning to host the next Formula-01 racing event. Sri Lanka can use facilities like the Port City to promote our country in similar ways increasing foreign currency inflow and tourism. Efficiency of rail and road transportation should be increased with the energy emitted by the BRI and the MCC for our benefit.   

The writer is an Academic and a Broadcaster. Views expressed are personal and may not necessarily be the views of his affiliations. 


By Prof. Samitha Hettige | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 24 2020

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