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Taking Faster Steps Toward Becoming a World-Class Port

By Wei Tianshu and Weng Jie Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-10-28

The 12-story outdoor platform in the Chuanshan Port Area at Ningbo Zhoushan Port overlooks a bustling scene. Eleven world-class deep-water berths are served by more than 300 domestic and international container routes, with a constant stream of giant ships entering and leaving port. A container either enters or exits the port every second.

On the afternoon of March 29, 2020, President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Chuanshan Port Area. He pointed out that a port is "a basic and pivotal facility for supporting economic development. Ningbo Zhoushan Port occupies a crucial position in the national strategies for Belt and Road cooperation, development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt, and integrated development of the Yangtze River Delta. Working to first-rate standards, it is important to develop and manage the port well and to create a world-class port that will make even greater contributions to national development."

Keeping these instructions in mind, Ningbo Zhoushan Port has pushed for deeper integrated development, used digital technology to address the traditional bottlenecks in port development, and given shape to a strategic hub to match China's new development dynamic. It is now moving toward becoming a "world-class port" at an accelerated pace.


Ships in the Chuanshan Port Area of Ningbo Zhoushan Port. ZHEJIANG SEAPORT GROUP / PHOTO BY TANG JIANKAI

Integration: becoming more than the sum of its parts

Twenty years ago, the annual container throughput of Ningbo Port was less than two million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units), ranking the port ninth in the country. Zhoushan Port meanwhile had a small hinterland but was replete with shoreline resources; it was an isolated archipelago with golden opportunities going untapped. Although the two ports were located in the same sea area and used the same waterways, their planning, construction, operation, and management were unconnected, making it difficult to optimize the allocation of shore-line resources.

It was Xi Jinping, while working in Zhejiang Province at the time, who initially made the match between Ningbo and Zhoushan ports and planned the gradual integration of their development. On December 20, 2005, when the Ningbo-Zhoushan Port Management Committee was established, Xi, then secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee, personally went to unveil the plaque for the new organization. On December 27, 2006, at a ceremony to mark the annual container throughput of Ningbo-Zhoushan Port exceeding seven million TEUs, he personally pressed the button to initiate the process of lifting the seven millionth container. From May 1, 2018, the name of the port "Ningbo-Zhoushan" on the China Port Code list was changed to "Ningbo Zhoushan." The removal of a single dash marked a new step in the integration of Ningbo and Zhoushan.

This integration has been continually deepened. The "blind spots" arising from misaligned management have gradually been eliminated, and integrated reforms are reaching new levels and more areas in all dimensions. In 2021, the annual cargo throughput of Ningbo Zhoushan Port exceeded 1.2 billion tons, making it the busiest port in the world in terms of cargo tonnage for the 13th consecutive year. Its annual container throughput exceeded 30 million TEUs for the first time in the same year, the third largest in the world.

Digital development: creating a port with world-class standards

In the remote control room of Meishan Port Area, Tian Pingwu, the first female gantry crane operator at Ningbo Zhoushan Port, lightly flicks the controls for a gantry crane over three kilometers away. "This intelligent gantry crane operating system integrates video surveillance, precise positioning, the Internet of Things, a programmable logic controller, and other technologies. It is equivalent to moving the cockpit onto a computer to achieve complete remote operation," said Tian. As the pilot zone for building Ningbo Zhoushan Port into a smart port, the Meishan Port Area, which is still under construction, has automated nearly 40% of loading and unloading, transportation, and scheduling processes and realized fully unmanned operations in designated areas. The self-developed container terminal operating system covers several container port areas, such as Meishan, Chuanshan, and Jintang. Its arrival marks an end to the history of relying on foreign operating systems for many domestic terminals. It has also greatly accelerated container turnaround times, making it a key part of the solution to container shortages and port congestion caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In August 2021, Ningbo Zhoushan Port was hit by a Covid-19 surge. Using the port's "smart brain", the work plan for the entire port was reorganized in just two days. The temporary scheduling of ships and special teams ensured that large ships could enter and exit quickly and maintained a smooth flow of goods at the port. In contrast to shipping delays and berthing time lasting up to several weeks in foreign ports, large ships were able to enter Ningbo Zhoushan Port for loading and unloading in less than a day.

A new direction: developing a transport hub to connect land and sea

In August 2021, a train carrying more than 3,200 tons of iron ore pulled into Luotuoxiang Station in Lanzhou City, signifying the extension of Ningbo Zhoushan Port's waterrail transport operations for iron ore to the hinterland in northwestern China. These operations are based on a close partnership between Ningbo Zhoushan Port and Brazil's producer of iron ore and nickel Vale. For the past two years, a steady flow of high-grade iron ore from Vale in Brazil has been blended at Ningbo Zhoushan Port's Shulanghu terminal, before being shipped out to major steel companies across China using the port's strong river-ocean shipping capabilities.

Ningbo Zhoushan Port is located at the intersection of China's north-south and east-west waterways. It is an important strategic fulcrum for cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, the development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt, and the integrated development of the Yangtze River Delta. Amidst a once-in-a-century pandemic, Ningbo Zhoushan Port has turned a crisis into an opportunity to forge a new paradigm. It has strengthened and expanded its multi-modal transport system based on river-ocean and ocean-rail transport. This has enabled it to realize opening up in eastward and westward directions and to enhance land and maritime connectivity.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 13-16, 2022)