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Society & Culture

Rising Dragon or White Elephant?

May 31, 2023

CCTV’s flagship news program, Xinwen Lianbo, recently broadcast an in-depth report about Xiong’an, a city being built from scratch in the marshlands. The completed train station and other buildings on the site were subject to a high-profile inspection by Xi Jinping in the company of several powerful Politburo members including Li Qiang, Ding Xuexiang and Cai Qi. 

“The development of the Xiong’an New Area is a national project of millennial significance,” Xi Jinping explained during his inspection tour. “We should neither be impatient nor wait for action. We should engage in sustained efforts for a long time.” 

At face value, this affirmative declaration of success suggests things are going very well, indeed. Conversely, a read between the lines suggests that things might not be going particularly well, and the whole project is in need of some serious morale-boosting. 

A lingering sense of ambivalence can be detected in state media coverage despite the upbeat tone and positive messaging. As the Global Times reports: 

“Xi called for efforts to firm up confidence and maintain resolve while taking solid steps to continuously achieve new progress in developing the Xiong'an New Area…. the next step is to set in motion the engines of the local real economy, such as industries, technicians and talents, to make the city start roaring.” 

By the state media’s own admission, the engines of the local economy are not exactly humming and the city has yet to roar. 

The model city of Xiong’an, with a mandated population cap of 3 million, is being touted as a place to absorb excess population from Beijing, though it is not particularly well-positioned to do so, since Beijing is eight times its size and home to over 23 million people. 

Building a city on marshy moist land is an engineering challenge both for the builder and the wetlands themselves. Technology can alleviate some traditional construction concerns, but special care needs to be taken to protect and preserve the fragile existing ecosystem. 

According to China Academy of Sciences researcher Niu Fangqu, water resources were already overloaded in 2017, indicating that the original local water resources cannot support the local social economy, even with stringent curbs on population growth.

Xiongan is being marketed as “three cities” in one: the above-ground city, the underground city and the city in the cloud. Underground utility corridors have been laid beneath major roads for water, electricity and other utilities. The “city in the cloud” catchphrase refers to Xiongan’s virtual map, which offers an updated digital copy of the material city as it is being built. 

Xiong’an has also been eyed as a testing ground for China’s efforts to establish a new digital renminbi, and more generally, it would highlight the party’s presence in everyday urban life as a positive force for modernization. 

China’s planners like to think big and sometimes they hit the jackpot. China has built modern cities from scratch before, several of them with considerable success. 

 One of the most significant is the country’s tech hub Shenzhen, wedged between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and adjacent to the awesomely productive Dongguan industrial zone. 

Pudong, another new city, is just a stone’s throw from Shanghai, the stellar metropolis that sits on Puxi, the west bank of the Huangpu River. Together they form a vibrant urban hub of some 28 million people. 

Pudong was designated as a site to show off super tall buildings and other eye-catching edifices of the kind that are specifically banned in Xiong’an, the demure, conservatively-planned “eco-city” of the future. 

It could be argued that Xiong’an is “adjacent” to Beijing, but Beijing is first and foremost an administrative city, not primarily an economic engine. 

Nor is Xiong’an physically close to Beiijng, though the much-touted high speed train may create the appearance of such. But even with a spanking new train station, which the CCTV report showed to be spectacularly empty, and despite a reasonable proximity to Daxing airport, Xiong’an sits alone, separated from the vibrant urban centers of Beijing and Tianjin by a rust belt and rural countryside. 

The ecological targets are admirable, but even the greenest plan doesn’t ameliorate the relative isolation of the location. 

Time will tell, but there are numerous challenges that will not be easily surmounted. In contrast, the showcase cities of the Deng era and the Jiang era, respectively, were both supremely well-situated. 

As the abundance of surrounding marshland suggests, Xiong’an sits in a location of relatively low population density because of the challenging terrain. As Brookings scholar Cheng Li wrote in China-US Focus several years ago, the precarity is such that heavy rainfall in the region in 1963 created the largest flood in modern Chinese history, impacting 22 million people across Hebei province. According to some reports, some 340,000 people died in the Xiong’an region alone (although this number was never verified, and the official government count was 5,600 deaths for the entire Hebei province). “If that were not enough,” Cheng Li added, “the 1980s witnessed the opposite extreme, with a drought that almost completely evaporated the lake.” 

The threadbare livelihoods that the area was once known for—farming, textiles, plastics and small scale factories—have been deemed outside the vision of what the city of the future is supposed to be. Already thousands of small factories have been shuttered. This may help reduce pollution, but this kind of social engineering requires great sums of money, energy and material resources, even as Hebei Province struggles with serious debt. 

Urban studies scholar Andrew Stokols points to stringent restrictions including tight curbs on real estate, building height, building design, building materials and types of business permitted. On the one hand, there’s a policy of “no high-rise buildings, no cement forests, no glass curtain walls.” 

Beijing certainly has its issues, but few people lucky enough to be resident in China’s vibrant capital want to move to a satellite city 100 kilometers away, and commercial firms, even those assiduously being courted in the tech sector, likewise seem lukewarm on the idea of a big move. Non-essential state enterprises, even some universities, could be ordered to move lock, stock and barrel, but what modest benefit might accrue from that, and at what expense? 

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