President Xi Jinping has a signature project to link 130 million people across Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province into a single megalopolis, the so-called Jing-Jin-Ji region. Xi has held out the model as a template for China’s urbanisation in the future. For the project to work, he will need to align policy and interests that are often in conflict – ones that touch on urban planning, industry, state and private enterprises, and environmental protection.
Xi’s plan calls for the three northern areas to be united into one economic sphere. The Bohai Bay area would become a key growth plank, similar to the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta. Vice-Minister of Finance Wang Baoan has said the new metropolis would require an investment of 42 trillion yuan (HK$52.7 trillion) over the years. The region’s gross domestic product was US$1 trillion last year, similar to South Korea’s, and the 15th highest in the world. But wealth is spread unevenly: per-capita GDP of Beijing is US$15,000, while Tianjin’s is US$11,500 and Hebei’s only US$6,300.
Jing-Jin-Ji, as the region is called (“Jing” for Beijing, “Jin” for Tianjin and “Ji,” the traditional name for Hebei Province), is meant to help the area catch up to China’s more prosperous economic belts: the Yangtze River Delta around Shanghai and Nanjing in central China, and the Pearl River Delta around Guangzhou and Shenzhen in southern China.
The Beijing city government announced its part of the plan last month, vowing to move much of its bureaucracy, as well as factories and hospitals, to the hinterlands in an effort to offset the city’s strict residency limits, easing congestion, and to spread good-paying jobs into less-developed areas.
Beijing hospitals, wholesale markets and some of the city’s administrative offices would move outside the city center. Beijing is to limit its population to 23 million, slightly more than its current estimated population of 22 million, and reduce the population of its six core districts by 15 percent. Many important services will move to suburbs or neighboring Hebei Province, officials said.
The centerpiece of the plan will be an administrative center in the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou, a historic move that reverses decades of urban planning that wedged government offices into the imperial city center. The move will begin by 2017 at the latest, the Beijing party secretary, Guo Jinlong, said in a speech.
In addition, city officials said, 50 city hospitals will begin cooperating with hospitals in Hebei Province, and some will move important facilities to surrounding communities. The neurological unit in Tiantan Hospital, for example, will move to another suburb, Fengtai, by 2017, they said.
The city also said it would move 1,200 pollution-causing businesses out of the urban center.
New roads and rails are years from completion. For many people, the creation of the supercity so far has meant ever-longer commutes on gridlocked highways to the capital.
Encouraged by Hebei Province’s relatively open residency policies and inexpensive housing, people are flocking to suburbs like this one. Yanjiao has grown tenfold, to as many as 700,000 inhabitants, in a decade. But it remains a bedroom community for Beijing — a swath of apartment towers and restaurants with few services.
Many believe that the transportation woes will sort themselves out, given enough time and money. A subway and better light rail are planned to open in three to five years, and a new bridge over the Chaobai River to Beijing is under construction.
Several factors are making Jing-Jin-Ji a reality. The most immediate is President Xi Jinping, who laid out an ambitious plan for economic reform in 2013 and has endorsed the region’s integration.
The plan calls for eliminating the “beheaded highways” by 2020 and constructing a new subway line. In addition, the plan assigns specific economic roles to the cities: Beijing is to focus on culture and technology. Tianjin will become a research base for manufacturing. Hebei’s role is largely undefined, although the government recently released a catalog of minor industries, such as wholesale textile markets, to be transferred from Beijing to smaller cities.
Improving the infrastructure, especially high-speed rail, will be critical. According to Zhang Gui, a professor at the Hebei University of Technology, Chinese planners used to follow a rule of thumb they learned from the West: All parts of an urban area should be within 60 miles of each other, or the average amount of highway that can be covered in an hour of driving. Beyond that, people cannot effectively commute.
High-speed rail, Professor Zhang said, has changed that equation. Chinese trains now easily hit 150 to 185 miles an hour, allowing the urban area to expand. A new line between Beijing and Tianjin cut travel times from three hours to 37 minutes. That train has become so crowded that a second track is being laid.
Now, high-speed rail is moving toward smaller cities. One line is opening this year between Beijing and Tangshan. Another is linking Beijing with Zhangjiakou, turning the mountain city into a recreational center for the new urban area, as well as a candidate to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
Wang Jun, a historian of Beijing’s development, said creating the new supercity would require a complete overhaul of how governments operated, including instituting property taxes and allowing local governments to keep them. Only then can these towns become more than feeders to the capital.
“This is a huge project and is more complicated than roads and rail,” he said. “But if it can succeed, it will change the face of northern China.”
SOURCES – New York Times, South China Morning Post