While India is working on ‘smart cities’, China is putting together a super city that might change the geographical concept of modern cities significantly. At this point in time though, it is experiencing difficulties.
President Xi Jinping’s pet project—Jiang Jin Ji—aims to aggregate the national capital of Beijing, the northeast port city and regional financial centre of Tianjin, and the moderately developed hinterland province of Hebei, into a megapolis of more than 80,000 square miles accommodating around 120 million people. Once up and running, the super city would redefine modern notions and standards of urban planning, infrastructure and logistics in terms of the sheer size and scale it would bring on the table.
The project has already begun taking shape with detailed planning on creation of new infrastructure capacities.
Much of the connectivity within the super city would rely on efficient high-speed rail networks. China’s proficiency in building fast rail connections between its major cities would now need to be reproduced in delivering fast commutes between different nodes of the super city. More roads are also expected to come up, particularly between the Tianjin port and the hinterland of Hebei.
Decongesting the national capital Beijing is one of the major objectives of the project. Despite hukous, or residency permits regulating sizes of city populations in Mainland China, Beijing, like some other big Chinese cities finds itself heavily populated. Migrant workers from various parts of the hinterland significantly contribute to the large population. The Beijing Metro, as well as the local buses, is choc-a-bloc at almost all times of the day by workers doing long commutes across shifts. The large Chinese elite living in the capital backed by a sizeable and growing expatriate population has led to a huge fleet of cars and vehicles. The Chinese fancy for black BMWs and Mercedes-Benzs is most conspicuous on the streets of Beijing. These big cars in large numbers, along with a variety of vehicles of different size, hardly leave any spare inch on the roads. Heavy traffic congestion apart, Beijing’s pollution has assumed legendary proportions. Along with vehicles, the continuing direct use of coal as the primary source of energy by households and families unable to afford higher priced less-polluting energy sources, has aggravated pollution beyond bounds.
Pushing out people from its core as well as some parts of the immediate periphery is essential for Beijing. The strategy in this regard is to relocate hubs of economic and administrative functions well away from the core. Such a strategy needs to be backed by growth of supporting infrastructures in far-flung areas that enable co-existence of quality commercial and residential activities. Contextualising with ongoing urban initiatives in India, this means creating ‘smart city’ like conditions in spots well away from the capital’s core. The Hebei hinterland and the greater Tianjin area are the expected foci in this regard.
The super city is also expected to do for Northern China what a similarly large urban geography like the Pearl river delta did for Southern China: producing enabling conditions for simultaneous execution of complementary economic activities generating incomes and livelihoods through efficient integration of the domestic and international economies. Beijing has been an almost isolated example of economic prosperity in China’s North, compared with greater overall prosperity in the South and East, and the imbalance is important to be addressed. Indeed, the super city can work wonders for economic prospects of Hebei that is still a much economically backward province.
The implementation of the super city has been in the pipeline for quite some time. But the current state of the Chinese economy might delay its materialization. Investments are not going to flow as freely as they would have a couple of years ago given that bank loans would be difficult to access. Residential real estate development has taken great strides in the super-city area compared with civic infrastructure. The former is remaining unutilised due to lack of the latter.
Urbanisation in China would enter a new era with the Jiang Jin Ji, as would the planning surrounding it. But this would be so only after its success. The challenge of taking forward the super city is enormous even by Chinese standards given that more delays would only produce greater diseconomies. These are already becoming evident from the ‘bubble’ that has grown from the hype on the super city: property prices in the proposed geography have increased sharply over the last couple of years. Developers have exploited the hype through large projects that have locked in precious savings of middle class households desperately searching assets capable of yielding long-term returns. The situation has become identical to India with middle class home-buyers unable to move to their possessions due to lack of adequate local civic infrastructure and getting doubly squeezed from servicing their loans and the rents they continue to pay on their current housing.
India is lucky in that private developers, including foreign investors, have expressed interests in some of its smart cities. The super city at this stage is a project that many Chinese agencies might not be too keen on. It remains to be seen how Beijing muscles its way to mobilise resources for achieving Xi’s dream project.
The author is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore.
Views are personal