THROUGHOUT Chinese history, the dawn of new dynasties often involved moving the entire capital, imperial palace and all, to a new city. By those dynastic standards, Xi Jinping’s ambitions are modest. He simply wants to shift some of Beijing an hour’s drive to the south. But by the standards of modern urban development, his vision is grand indeed. All going well, the new area, known as Xiongan, will cover 2,000 square kilometres, nearly three times the size of New York City or Singapore. A “first-class international city”, as the planners put it, will rise from land that is home today to scrubby fields, a large lake and a series of drab towns.
China, which sometimes opts for modesty in unveiling plans lest they fall flat, did not hold back on April 1st when it revealed those for the “Xiongan New Area” in Hebei province. An official statement described Xiongan’s development as a “strategy crucial for the next millennium”. It compared the project to the creation of China’s two most spectacular built-from-scratch urban expanses: Shenzhen, a metropolis next to Hong Kong, and Pudong, Shanghai’s glittering financial district.
The point of Xiongan is to tame Beijing’s surging population, which has caused gridlock on its streets and exacerbated a chronic shortage of water. The capital has been trying for several years to encourage people to move out of its core districts. To make commuting easier, it has been improving transport links with nearby cities. By the end of 2017 the municipal government is due to relocate from the centre to Tongzhou, a suburb to the east. But Xiongan is the first entirely new city to feature in the effort. It is named after Xiong and Anxin, two counties in Hebei that will form the bulk of its territory along with a third county, Rongcheng—see map.
Beijing will still serve as the capital. But businesses and universities unrelated to that function will be urged to move to Xiongan. Mr Xi wants the new city to have a “beautiful environment”, with high-tech industries and efficient transport. By the end of its first phase (time unspecified), it will cover 100 square kilometres, almost double the size of Manhattan.
In China bedlam often ensues in the rush to build. There has already been a taste of this in Xiongan. Within hours of the announcement about the new city, speculators were flocking to the area’s existing property developments to buy up whatever was available. Highways leading to it were clogged with cars. Its housing prices tripled. To rein in the exuberance, the government ordered a halt to all property transactions in the new area.
Jokes abound on social media about the wealth that Xiongan’s rural residents will soon enjoy (if officials forgo their common practice of seizing land for little compensation). One was a spoof ad, written as if by someone from the countryside whose marriage prospects now look bright: “Male, 53, two acres in Xiongan, seeking woman, 25 or younger, beautiful, preferably with study-abroad experience”.
It would be unwise to bet all on Xiongan’s rise. Over the years China has tried to build numerous new cities, several of which have been costly failures. More than a decade ago the government declared that the Binhai New Area, a vast development in Tianjin, would be north China’s answer to Shenzhen and Pudong. It has never taken off. Another stillborn project was Caofeidian, an “eco-city” in the Bohai Gulf. Internet censors have been deleting any doubts that netizens have been raising about Xiongan. An article asking whether the new city would be the second Shenzhen or the second Caofeidian disappeared soon after it was published online.
But Xiongan has a big thing going for it: the full backing of Mr Xi. News broadcasts showed the president touring the area and chairing a meeting about its development. So long as Mr Xi remains China’s leader—ie, at least for the next five years—building Xiongan will be a priority.
Whether this is a good idea is another question. Taking Beijing as it exists today—a city of more than 20m people with 19 subway lines, dozens of universities, a large cluster of high-tech firms and umpteen road and rail connections to other large cities—and trying to make it work better might be more sensible. Yet given all of the capital’s urban maladies, the temptation to start with a clean slate is hard for planners to resist.