Xiongan is Xi Jinping’s pet project

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Six years ago, when China unveiled its grand plan to build a new metropolis 100km south of Beijing, it was difficult to see the finished product. Ambitious planners promised a “first-class international city” covering 2,000 square kilometers, almost three times the size of New York City. The so-called “Xiongan New District” would be a green, ultra-modern annex to Beijing, easing pressure on the congested capital, home to more than 21m people. But at the time Xiongan was just an area of ​​lowlands and slums.

When your correspondent visited recently, it was still rather difficult to see the city’s future vision. A handful of projects, including a high-speed rail station, are ready. The horizon is full of construction trees working to complete other buildings. Main roads now connect Xiongan with Beijing and Tianjin (see map). But good roads between the three counties that make up Xiongan – Anxin, Rongcheng and Xiong – have yet to be built. The place looks more like a construction site than a city similar to Shenzhen, the hub of the construction industry to which it is often compared.

China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, is showing some protection from his pet project. When he visited Xiongan on May 10, he insisted that the plan to build it was “absolutely correct” and praised the progress made so far as “wonderful”. He also asked officials to “reinforce confidence and maintain resolve”. Mr Xi did his part by pulling together with three other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top governing body. Reports in the state media made it clear that he was still personally involved in the effort.

That will help counteract the vague feeling of movement that is emerging. The launch of the project back in 2017 was widely covered by the state media. An official statement described the development as a “vital strategy for the next millennium”. Specialists flocked to the area to buy whatever property was available, leading to an emergency freeze on sales. Recently, however, Xiongan has attracted much less attention. The pandemic didn’t help, of course. An official set of guidelines issued in 2021 described Xiongan as a regional-level project, leading to speculation that it might even be scaled back (it hasn’t been).

There has been plenty of skepticism about the plan. Official comparisons with Shenzhen and Pudong, Shanghai’s great financial district, make little sense, say critics. These places were given a lot of freedom to create a market-oriented environment to attract foreign and domestic businesses. Mr. Xi has said that Xiongan should have similar aspirations. But he also sees it as part of his “common prosperity” agenda, which has encouraged entrepreneurs and investors. Many of the organizations being pushed to move from Beijing to Xiongan, such as “non-essential” government departments and state-owned enterprises, are not sources of vitality.

Several institutions have opposed the move. At a major university in Beijing, a professor describes the efforts made by various departments to stay in the capital. But during his visit to Xiongan, Mr. Xi indicated that he wants the transfer process to go faster. He spoke vaguely about developing incentives. (Promises of a 30-minute train ride between Xiongan and Beijing seem to have little effect.) New incentives could include tax breaks, bonuses or guarantees of educational opportunities for children of immigrants. Beijing or Tianjin, says Duke Kunshan University economist Ming Gu. But these risk creating inequality between migrants from these cities and newcomers from less privileged areas.

On troubled water

As people move to Xiongan, another problem may arise. Like much of northern China, groundwater is scarce and often polluted in the city. Experts are concerned that there will be a shortage of clean water once Xiongan is developed and populated. But flooding is also a threat to the low-lying area. One such accident, in 1963, is thought to have killed thousands in the area.

Mr Xi describes Xiongan as a “city of the future”. The big question is when that future will begin. Construction costs have already exceeded 540bn yuan ($78bn). It is expected to cost about that much to complete the work. The resettlement phase of the project is expected to last until 2035. By 2050, Xiongan should have become a “modern socialist city”, if everything goes as planned. With luck, Mr. Xi, who is 69 and may be governor for life, may live long enough to see his pet project through to the end.

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