Calling Beijing busy is an understatement: Apart from its lively city life the town is notorious crowded, polluted and congested. Yet, for years authorities try to remove activities from the city to its outskirts. In 2012 an ambitious plan was launched to speed-up this process: Beijing, the adjacent harbour town Tianjin and the surrounding province of Hebei merged into a megalopolis called Jing-Jin-Ji (about 85 million inhabitants and 200.000 km2; 5x the Netherlands). “Jing” stands for Beijing, “Jin” for Tianjin, and “Ji” for the classical Chinese name of the Hebei province. The intention was to spread across the rest of Jing-Jin-Ji activities unconnected with the capital-position of Beijing. This megalopolis was supposed to compete with economic powerhouses in China, like Shenzhen and Pudong.
At first, not too much happened. The Hebei province is a heterogeneous area, infamous for its polluting industries: 40% of all Chinese steel is produced here. Apart from the prosperous tows Beijing and Tianjin, the province has two other towns each with more then 10 million inhabitants and many smaller towns surrounded by farmland, scrubland, and lakes. Seven of the ten most polluting towns in China are located in Hebei.
Congestion at one of Beijing’s tollgates
In 2015 president Xi Jin Ping became personally involved in the development of the Jing-Jin-Ji region. He announced the construction of five new high-speed railway connections to trigger regional growth and cohesion. However, no matter how many connections are built, travelling around Hebei’s many remote, thoroughly rural locales brings to question just how much genuine urbanization across the region is really possible.
Perhaps the advisers of the president have felt the same doubt, because on April 1st, 2017 Xin Jin Ping made an unexpected move by announcing the founding of a completely new ‘smart’ town with 6,7 inhabitants: Xiongan to be established in three rural counties in the south-east of Beijing: Xiongxian, Rongcheng en Anxin. The required investment was estimated at $362 billion. At first local residents counted their blessings: Xiongan New Area marriage notice: Male, 53 years old… has two acres of land in Xiongan. And indeed, the first day after the president’s announcement real-estate traders flooded the area and prices rocketed. However, all transactions where cancelled and forbidden: Officials walked through the streets with loudhailers to warn against property speculation. When locals started to realize that many of them would be relocated their spirits lowered.
The president also disclosed that the development of the new town would follow another path than Shenzhen’s. Deng Xiaoping, a former leader who blessed Shenzhen encouraged letting some people get rich first. He opened the doors to capitalism by easing the state’s grip on the economy. Xi, through Xiongan, is tightening it. He aims to build a city that prospers more thoughtfully because of the party’s orchestration. According to an official more than 70 per cent of the city will be covered by water and trees, We will not construct high-rise buildings, concrete jungles or glass walls in the new area, said Mr Chen Gang, director of the newly appointed Xiongan New Area Administrative Committee. He added that protection of the local ecological environment would be regarded as a top priority during the construction process, which will follow a green development path. And not to forget, Alibaba will deliver the necessary infrastructure to make the city smart.
The cities’ functions will be twofold: First, the already mentioned diversion of activities from Beijing. Schools, markets, research institutions, and hospitals transferring from Beijing to Xiongan will bring up to 4.5 million people with them. This represents 21% of the present population, and will result in a massive transfer of workers, provided the availability of housing, infrastructure, institutions, and services.
Anxin, to be integrated in Xiongan
The second function will be a high-technology hub. The district will select companies engaged in information technology, biotechnology, new energy and new materials. Within a few days 48 technology companies already had expressed their interest to set up branches in the new city, among them Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu.
The appearance on the urban stage of Xiongan is putting the future of the Jing-Jin-Ji region in an entirely new perspective. Until recently, the otherwise modest outplacement of activities from Beijing had been scattered over Hebei as a whole, the Tianjin area in particular. In the future government will redirect these activities to Xiongan.
Within and outside of China, the creation of Xiongan gave rise to many comments. Generally, commenters assume that if any country will succeed in developing cities from scratch, it will be China because of its centralism, intrepid financial regime, and entrepreneurialism. More sceptical observers mention the infamous Chinese ghost towns of which the Yujiapu financial district and the Caofeidian green industry-focussed seaport are situated near Tianjin. However, in most so-called ghost towns economic activity is gradually to take off the above-mentioned places included.
Xiongxian: to be integrated in Xiongan
Anyway, a comparison with Shenzhen is not in order. Of all special economic zones Shenzhen ended up as the most spectacular success. With its prime location next to Hong Kong, Shenzhen was attractive for investors from all over the world when China was once a cheap manufacturing location. The combination of being in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things, is rare. Besides, the private sector in Hebei is weak, according to Qiao Runling, an urban development expert at the National Development and Reform Commission.
The most important driver of the growth of Xiongan is without any doubt the overflow of ‘non-capital functions’ from Beijing. Xiongan will definitely take advantage from the proximity of Beijing’s new airport and the already mentioned new high-speed railways that bring Beijing and Tianjin within a 30-minute traveling distance. As far as the future of Xiongan as technology hub is concerned, employees with the required experience and skills have to be recruited elsewhere. Their willingness to settle in Xiongan might depend from the cities’ intended environment-friendly and smart character.
As to its status as special economic zone Xiongan will face stiff competition because China is quite open as a whole: 18 other national new areas and 11 free-trade zones, plus more then hundred other zones.
To summarize: The development of Xiongan might be anticipated with some optimism, although the speed of its growth will be somewhat below expectations. The same might apply to its position as high tech hub. Apart from this, I am very curious about the substantiation of the intended degrees of smartness and sustainability. In this respect it is promising that 100% of the buildings of Xiongxian – a city of 380.000 inhabitants that will be integrated in Xiongan – is already deriving all(!) its heating from geothermal energy.
*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.