By Michael Lelyveld
China’s capital city has launched one of its biggest development projects in modern history with a decision to build a second administrative center on the outskirts of Beijing.
The move of municipal functions to the Tongzhou district, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of the city center, was announced at a Communist Party meeting of the city government on July 11 after months of rumors, state media reported.
The sweeping shift is aimed at easing the “urban ills” of congestion and pollution in the capital, while keeping Beijing’s population below 23 million by 2020 in the midst of the national urbanization drive, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Various reports left unclear whether the plan calls only for setting up a “subsidiary,” or secondary, administrative center in the Tongzhou suburb or whether the move will eventually encompass the entire municipal government, leaving central Beijing as the seat of national and party power.
The Tongzhou project is said to be part of a larger plan to integrate Beijing’s development with outlying areas, adjoining Hebei province and the port of Tianjin.
Municipal and provincial authorities have been working since last year to coordinate regional infrastructure and environmental efforts to help meet national goals.
On July 14, the three governments took a further step toward consolidation by agreeing to consult one another when writing new laws “in an attempt to stamp out local protectionism and hasten the full coordination of regional development,” Xinhua said.
The entire integrated area would include over 100 million residents, The New York Times reported.
Plans include moving key support services like hospital facilities from Beijing’s city center to surrounding communities and relocating 1,200 polluting businesses out of town, it said.
The program also calls for reducing residency in the city center by 15 percent, according to Xinhua.
The aim is to unsnarl pollution-causing gridlock in the capital, where the population has already hit 21.5 million after the national urbanization rate topped 54.7 percent last year.
The population would be limited to 21.77 million by the end of this year, Xinhua said in a separate report.
Additional reports gave conflicting accounts of how many businesses in the city have already been affected.
According to one, Beijing closed or relocated 185 firms in the first half of the year. Another said the city had shut down 865 factories in the same period.
Wholesale markets and other businesses are also being moved out.
State media has yet to put an estimate on the cost of the entire effort or the impacts on those affected.
Over 80 “industrial programs” have already been pushed from the central city to Hebei province at a cost of 120 billion yuan ($19.3 billion), said Lu Yan, director of Beijing’s Development and Reform Commission, the official English-language China Daily reported.
Beijing’s wholesale clothes market alone provides 30,000 jobs and attracts up to 100,000 visitors per day, Xinhua said.
Authorities are also trying to limit traffic to centrally located hospitals, which account for over 200 million visits per year.
“Those markets and medical institutions convey typical non-capital functions and cause congestion,” Lu said at a press conference on July 16.
The program is a response to demands for better air quality and living conditions in Beijing, but improvements may depend on whether the plan for the region simply leads to expansion over a larger area.
“They are trying to manage a steady influx of people from across China who are in search of some of the social services they can only get in Beijing or a major city,” said Pete Ogden, senior fellow for international climate policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
“I’m sure they’re thinking about ways to create other focal points so that all of that migration doesn’t come into one location and overwhelm itself,” Ogden said.
Under China’s “national new-type urbanization plan,” announced last year, the government would move some 100 million rural dwellers by 2020 from the countryside, channeling them primarily into towns, smaller cities and medium-sized municipalities “in an orderly manner,” while “strictly” limiting growth of “megacities” like Beijing and Shanghai.
Last week, Lu said Beijing would introduce a new residential permit system this year. But it was not immediately clear how it would affect population growth or the granting of “hukou,” the permanent resident status for access to urban benefits and services, state media said.
Plans for the Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin region may suggest some flexibility for the population cap in the capital city and surrounding areas.
“The question is how many days, months or years does it take for the city to grow by that amount again?” Ogden said. “What happens to the next wave of people who come in, unless they’re going to try to take other measures to restrict that growth further?”
Strain on Tongzhou
There are also signs that Tongzhou, with a population of 1.3 million, is already feeling some of the strains.
Rumors of the municipal plan, which was initially denied, have been driving a surge in Tongzhou real estate prices for weeks.
Traffic between the city and the suburb is already an issue.
Although one Xinhua report described Tongzhou as “about 40 minutes drive from the city center,” a second report quoted a resident as saying that the commute “normally takes around two hours.”
Whether development in Tongzhou will improve air quality is open to question. The district has been repeatedly cited in state media for hazardous and extreme pollution since 2012.
In February 2014, a Tongzhou resident told Radio Free Asia that the smog outside his home was “like living in the middle of poison gas” and “not fit for human habitation.”
Beijing’s Municipal Commission of Transport has announced plans to build a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) suburban rail network as part of a plan to keep development from making traffic worse.
In 2013, Beijing issued a five-year “action plan” to cut smog with a 25-percent reduction in the smallest soot particles known as PM2.5 by 2017.
The city has made major efforts to shut down coal-fired power plants and boilers with mixed results.
On July 7, the Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said that average PM2.5 readings were down 15.2 percent in the first half of 2015 from the year-earlier period, but they were still more than double the national standard, Xinhua reported.
Beijing’s air quality was “subpar” for nearly 60 percent of the days in June with an 11-percent rise in PM2.5 readings, Reuters said.
The latest reports highlight the problem of spreading smog beyond city borders, noting that seven of China’s 10 worst cities for air quality were in industrialized Hebei province last month.
The environmental benefits of the Tongzhou plan may prove illusive if it adds to urban sprawl or eases congestion in the city center by shifting it somewhere else.
A major joint study last year by the Development Research Center of the State Council, or cabinet, and the World Bank stressed the importance of limiting sprawl as a source of energy waste and pollution.
Greater urban density “would reduce the energy intensity and car use in cities, thus improving environmental sustainability,” the study said.
In practice, the recommendation may be hard to follow in the megacities, where traffic, pollution and population pressures are already intense.
The near-term environmental effects of construction for a new city administrative center and suburban development are also likely to be negative, raising questions about mixed motives behind the development plan.
Since April, Premier Li Keqiang has been trying to spur local infrastructure projects in an effort to support sagging growth, despite concerns that much of China’s pollution can be traced to its building boom and the economic stimulus plan of 2008-09.
Ogden said that new development in Tongzhou is bound to have an environmental effect.
“The actual impacts of construction are going to be real,” he said.
But there could be longer-term gains if new buildings are constructed with better efficiency standards, urban planning and transport services.
“It will be interesting to see what other lessons they apply and to what extent they just recreate the models that they’ve used in the past,” Ogden said.