China’s City of the Future: Down with the Old, In with the New

During the Second World War, when the U.S. planned the bombardment of Japan, it sought the help of a Chinese architect from Tsinghua University, as to which were the areas that should be protected and spared destruction. The architect was none other than Liang Sicheng, ‘the father of modern Chinese architecture’ and the son of one of the tallest intellectuals of the 20th century in China, Liang Qichao. Junior Liang not only set aside Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka but also marked precisely the location of the ancient architectural wonders in these cities and requested the U.S. to spare these. Liang Sicheng succeeded in protecting these cities but could not protect Beijing from destruction in the wake of the communist victory in 1949.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Liang Sicheng was appointed as Deputy Director of the Beijing Metropolitan Planning Commission. Liang proposed that the ancient city be kept intact in totality and that the administrative center may be constructed in the western suburbs of Beijing. He proposed that Beijing must be a political and cultural center as opposed to an industrial center. However, his proposal was rebuffed by the then Beijing mayor, Peng Zhen, who said the ‘symbols of feudalism’ must be toppled. He told Liang that it was Chairman Mao’s desire to see chimneys all around from the Tiananmen rostrum.

Destruction of Old Beijing

Thus, started the colossal destruction of old Beijing: In 1953, Left Anmen was flattened; in 1954 the Qingshou twin pagodas were pulled down; in 1956 Zhonghuamen was destroyed; and in 1957 Yongdingmen, Guangqumen, Chaoyangmen, etc., towers were leveled. The fury of destruction continued in the mid and late 1960s that witnessed the destruction of Dongzhimen, Xuanwumen, Chongwenmen, Andingmen, Fuchengmen, Xizhimen—places that were reduced to mere names of many metro stations along line 2 in Beijing. Imagine the grandeur of Beijing had these structures been spared by the leaders of New China who wanted to convert Beijing into another Kremlin for mass gatherings!

If these were the ambitions of the first-generation communist leaders in China, the ambitions of the fifth-generation leadership are equally grandiose but diametrically different. Xi Jinping, perhaps has seen the logic in Liang Sicheng’s vision. On April 1, 2017, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council decided to establish Xiong’an New Area in Hebei province. It wasn’t an April’s Fool joke, but a serious and ambitious developmental plan that would exceed the scale of Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and the Shanghai Pudong New Area, according to the State Council. Xinhua News Agency termed it as a ‘Millennium plan and a mega event of national significance.’ It was reported that Xi Jinping chose the area after visiting Anxin in February 2017.

Construction of a New Capital

Deng Xiaoping envisioned the development of Shenzhen and Putong, and Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao designed the development of the Beijing-Tianjin plan. After envisioning the Yangtze River Delta and Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, Xi Jinping’s plan for Xiong’an is as grandiose as his ‘China Dream’ of ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’ Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was built in 196 square kilometers, Pudong in 1210 square kilometers, and Xiong’an is being built in 2000 square kilometers. It will span the counties of Xiongxian, Rongcheng, and Anxin, which are at the center of the triangular area formed by Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei’s provincial capital Shijiazhuang. According to initial reports, in some 87 industries from Beijing, most of the educational institutions, hospitals, schools and administrative divisions would be relocated to Xiong’an.

Essentially, Xiong’an would serve as the sub-capital of China. The decision marks China’s efforts to solve problems facing many megacities, like education, health, traffic, pollution, and heavy smog. Besides, South-North water diversion that affects over 400 million people would also incur a huge financial burden, and since the diversion is against the law of nature, it may have huge implications in the future. Xiong’an on the contrary would be a green and ecological project that will see the economic integration of Beijing-Tianjin and Hebei. There is another viewpoint that since successful reforms have bred various interest groups in Beijing, in order to break their monopoly, it would be desirable to build new capital. Still, others argue that since the model of establishing municipalities directly under central control has not worked out well, the establishment of a sub-capital will provide a new direction for the reforms.

City of the Future

Ever since the announcement of the Xiong’an New Area, massive structures have been built in a vast land mass. Beijing Daxing International Airport, known as the ‘Starfish’, is the world’s largest single-building airport terminal built in an area of 700,000 square meters. It was opened to operations in 2019. Xiong’an Railway Station, described as the largest train station in Asia, has been built in an area of 130,000 square meters and was completed in 2020. An intercity railway line linking Beijing Daxing International Airport and Xiong’an Railway Station commenced operation in September 2019. Meanwhile, the main road building and paving work for the Jing-xiong Expressway linking Xiong’an to the outside world and the region’s Rongyi highway network are proceeding on schedule. It would be a green and intelligent city having next-generation infrastructure such as city-wide intelligent sensing systems, next-generation telecommunication networks, urban cloud and big data platforms, urban computing capacity, and city brains, etc.  

When the plan was announced, real estate magnates flocked to the area, catapulting the existing per-square-meter rates manifold. The officials from Xiong and Anxin counties were forced to put a property ban in the area. However, in the aftermath of COVID-19 and the real estate bubble bust in China, people are hesitant to relocate to Xiong’an. There are fears that it may result in the building of another mega ghost city or a ‘rotten tail project’ as has been the case with many real estate projects across China. Though the SOEs, colleges, and hospitals administered by the central government in Beijing have been ordered to relocate to Xiong’an since 2021, very few have actually moved or at the most have just registered their offices. On May 10, 2023, Xi Jinping inspected the progress of what he called the “future city”. He was accompanied by Premier Li Qiang, Cai Qi, director of the General Office of the CPC Central Committee, and Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang, indicating that the party-state is serious about completing the project.