Rolling wetlands dominate the landscape near President Xi Jinping’s “dream city” which is 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, from the heart of downtown Beijing. Straddling the counties of Xiongxian, Rongcheng and Anxin, the proposed Xiongan New Area will be gigantic even by Chinese standards.
Initially, 100 square kilometers will be developed in a project which could last decades before expanding to 2,000 sq km, nearly three times the size of New York, in a sleepy region of Hebei province.
“We will not construct high-rise buildings, concrete jungles or glass walls in the new area,” said Chen Gang, the director of the Xiongan New Area administrative committee. “It will incorporate water and trees.”
At the epicenter of what Beijing has modestly billed as the “future of cities” is Baiyangdian, one of the largest freshwater wetlands in north China. Already concerns have been expressed about the effect it could have on the ecosystem.
In a report released by Greenpeace last year, “encroaching urbanization and land reclamation” was having a “severe” impact on the world’s second-biggest economy.
“Between 2003 and 2013, [the country] lost 1.36 million hectares of wetlands to development, an area 81 times the size of Beijing,” Greenpeace stated.
Financially, President Xi’s new city could cost 2 trillion yuan (US$290 billion), according to Morgan Stanley, the global investment banking group, which is a hefty price tag when you consider the Three Gorges Dam venture came in at 180 billion yuan.
But then, this is his personal project and the “answer” to the capital’s chronic congestion, overcrowding and pollution problems. With more than 22 million people, Beijing is bursting at the seams and is still grappling with choking smog issues.
“Xiongan will be an answer to China’s growth conundrum: breakneck urban sprawl must give way to a balanced and inclusive development strategy,” the state-owned Xinhua News Agency trumpeted in a chest-thumping commentary espousing the virtues of the planned mega-city.
Since last year’s typical, opening fanfare, a layer of detail has been added. Residential, retail and business areas will be connected by environmentally-friendly transport links and high-tech communication systems, while green energy is envisaged as powering the city.
Wetlands and parks will also snake through the metropolis, a statement published on the Xiongan New Area’s official WeChat account confirmed. Controlling wastewater and recycling programs are also included in the blueprint.
“One of the priorities is ecological protection,” President Xi insisted.
The other is technology. Baidu, which is part of the so-called BAT alignment of Alibaba and Tencent, will develop the “new economic zone into a smart city” with artificial intelligence, or AI, at the forefront.
Based in Beijing, the Chinese multinational group specializes in online-related services and products, and signed a strategic collaboration agreement with the government in December.
“The establishment of Xiongan will be critical for the millennium to come,” said Robin Li, the chairman and CEO of Baidu. “Xiongan represents the city of the future, with AI as an indispensable element.”
Of course, this fits perfectly into President Xi’s “innovation” mantra, which was trotted out again at Thursday’s meeting of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau, which comprises the leadership of the Communist Party of China.
“It was decided that a digital city should be planned and built simultaneously in Xiongan [a reference to Baidu’s involvement in the project],” the state-owned China Daily reported.
But one item which failed to make it into the official statement was the rampant property speculation that took place when the development was first unveiled.
At the time, the scramble for housing around the Xiongan region caused gridlock on the roads, while local hotels surrounding Baiyangdian were swamped.
Estate agents were even forced to close with the Reuters News Agency reporting that officials took to the streets carrying loud-hailers to “warn against illegal property speculation.”
Propaganda officials ended up ordering Chinese websites “to control negative commentary related to the establishment [of the new city],” The Guardian reported.
Predictably, this prompted a blanket ban by Beijing on property transactions in the area. “First of all, people should understand the situation,” said Xie Keqing, a Xiongxian government official. “Many particular phenomena that did not previously exist, like a crazy property market, will appear at this very special time after the creation of the new area.”
In the years ahead, clamping down on speculators and erasing the shadow of corruption might prove to be just as challenging as building the “city of the future.”