This article is part of a series on Xiongan New Area, a planned city in northern China’s Hebei province.
In late January, just before Chinese New Year, I took my daughter to Rongcheng, a county in Hebei province, where we would be celebrating the festival with my in-laws. My wife hails from Rongcheng, and at the time we had no idea that her hometown was about to receive global attention.
At the start of this month, the Chinese government announced that nearby Xiongan would play host to a new special economic zone that may eventually grow to three times the size of New York City. The move is a mouthwatering prospect for the country’s business and real estate moguls, many of whom will surely see the area’s favorable trade, finance, and labor regulations as too good an opportunity to miss. Rongcheng is one of three counties in the area included in the ambitious plan.
In winter, Rongcheng’s true face is most clearly visible. The last time I spent New Year’s in Hebei was a decade ago. This time, as I looked around, I saw that there had indeed been some changes: The Tianjin-Baoding high-speed railway had opened not long ago; newly erected high-voltage power lines crossed the farmland near my wife’s home village; and the pothole-ridden highway had been repaved and smoothed.
Overall, however, many of the smallest details most intimately linked to the daily lives of common people had changed rather slowly. Garbage collection was still infrequent and inconsistent. In the 10 years since I had last come here, people had gone from heating their homes with kang bed-stoves and coal furnaces to little gas-fired boilers that piped steam into other rooms in the house.
My uncle-in-law, a village official, told me that owing to the smog plaguing northern China in winter, officials already planned to replace gas-fired boilers with electric ones. The new power lines, meanwhile, were built to carry coal-generated electricity all the way from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The plan seemed a bit unreliable to me: If there were another brutally cold blizzard like the one that hit southern China in 2008, toppling towers and cutting off power lines, wouldn’t these people freeze?
Rongcheng is also short of water. The roads in the village are covered in a layer of dust that’s constantly being whipped up by passing cars. On the way to pay our respects at the cemetery, my family and I walked through a wheat field; the dust caked our shoes, thick and yellow, as if we were trekking through the desert. A dizzyingly deep new well had just been dug in the village, with a motorized pump to suck up the much-needed water. Its operations were limited to just a few hours per day.
Ten years ago, Rongcheng’s county seat paled in comparison with its counterparts in China’s affluent south. It was a dull, characterless town devoid of historical and cultural sites. Today, though its street grid remains the same, it is now lined with towering residential high-rises. Like other urban areas in China, traffic is a growing issue, and cars flood every parking lot.
During my days in Rongcheng, I thought from time to time that this was probably what most of China really looked like. Away from the ever-changing nearby metropolis of Beijing are countless anemic backwater towns like Rongcheng that are being passed by. Once Xiongan New Area is built, however, all the dullness of backwater life is going to be consigned to the scrapheap of history.
Based on China’s considerable experience constructing new cities and development zones, it seems likely that within a few years, all of this, including my wife’s home village, the farmers’ houses, the trees, the wheat fields, the graves — even interpersonal relationships — will all disappear, to be replaced with broad city boulevards, vast apartment complexes, villas, office buildings, research institutes, schools, industrial parks. The charming local dialect will give way to the sound of standard Mandarin. Perhaps the railway and the power lines will be the only things that remain.
Xiongan’s predecessors — the likes of Shenzhen and Shanghai’s Pudong New Area, built decades ago as top-notch new areas in China — stand as the most notable examples of the official will to transform economic backwaters into thronging new cities. They are undoubtedly the models that Xiongan will try to emulate. About 100 kilometers to the north lies Beijing, the country’s political nerve center, but also a city whose penchant for centralization has left it unable to house the vast number of financial, scientific, and administrative organizations that operate within the capital’s bursting seams.
Resolving Beijing’s size problem means moving a considerable amount of administrative resources to Xiongan. I expect that aside from key Party organs and diplomatic agencies, most of the central government’s less essential departments and institutions will move to Xiongan, as will a portion of the capital’s population.
Xiongan’s establishment and the decentralization of Beijing’s functions are, in fact, a covert attempt to move the capital outright. This “dual capital” method has been employed by many countries around the world, such as South Africa and the Netherlands. Two months ago, as I stood in the middle of that wheat field, I never would have imagined that this dusty county in the back of beyond would soon become something akin to a new capital. What saddens me, however, is that its development will inevitably come at the cost of the people and communities who have called Rongcheng home for years.
Translator: Brian Bies; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: An aerial view of Baiyangdian Lake in Anxin County, one of the three counties that are to become part of Xiongan New Area in Hebei province, April 1, 2017. Lai Xinlin/Sixth Tone)