China to set up free trade zone in southern island province of Hainan

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China will set up an international free trade zone and port on the island of Hainan, state radio said on Friday, citing President Xi Jinping, granting foreign firms greater economic freedom in the southernmost province.

The announcement came on Hainan’s 30th anniversary as a province. Originally administered as part of nearby Guangdong on the mainland, the South China Sea island was given province status in 1988 and was declared the country’s fifth special economic zone as part of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of China.

In recent weeks, shares of listed Chinese firms such as Hainan Expressway Co and Hainan Strait Shipping Co had soared. Investors were betting that Xi would unveil new plans to further open up the island province’s economy when he attended the Boao Forum – Asia’s equivalent of Davos – in Hainan this week.

There has also been speculation that China intends to establish Hainan as a rival to free-wheeling Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Xi also said China supported Hainan in setting up international energy and shipping-related commodity exchanges, state radio reported.  At the Boao Forum, Xi pledged to further open China’s economy and cut import tariffs this year.

Hainan is rich with natural resources both onshore and offshore. Sinopec operates an oil refinery there while Cnooc drills for gas in some offshore fields.  Hainan also accounts for about half of China’s rubber output.  Known for its sandy beaches and resort-lined coast, Hainan has also been a frequent host of the Miss World pageant since the early 2000s.

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