One month ago, on April 1 — the Western April Fools’ Day — China suddenly announced a “thousand-year project”: to create a special economic zone, dubbed “Xiongan New Area,” as an annex of the capital, Beijing.
Xiongan New Area, a place no one had ever heard of, is located about 100 km southwest of downtown Beijing in Hebei Province. Here, the government plans to create a match for the Shenzhen special economic zone and Pudong New District in Shanghai, with Xiongan as the new home of multiple organizations moving out from Beijing, including administrative institutions, enterprises’ headquarters, financial institutions, research institutes, and so on.
However, a pollution scandal broke out recently, setting off alarm bells in the area.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Appalling Pollution Scandal
On April 18, a local environmental NGO, Liangjiang Huanbao, released a report, claiming that nearly 20 giant toxic ponds where untreated wastewater has been dumped — covering an area of 300,000 square meters in total, or the size of 42 soccer pitches — were found in Nan Zhao Fu town, a small town close to Xiongan New Area in Hebei Province. Along with the report, a series of photos was published; those photos, showing huge polluted red-and-black ponds from an aerial view, immediately appalled the public. Soon the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) confirmed the report and said the ponds, which had been known to local authorities for years, were caused by digging years ago and were polluted in 2013 by illegal pouring of sulfuric acid. While multiple local low-level officials were criticized or punished for their negligence under the public furor, Chinese experts also said the process of pollution treatment would be hard, expensive and time-consuming.
Actually, the recent scandal was just a new breakout of an old problem. Hebei Province, where Xiongan New Area is located, has been suffering from comprehensive environmental pollution — air pollution, water pollution, and soil pollution — for many years. Hebei is one of the most air-polluted provinces in China. Through the first quarter of 2017, six out of the ten cities with the worst air quality nationwide are in Hebei Province, according to the MEP. A famous Chinese TV host, Dou Wentao, who was born and raised in Hebei Province, said the sky had always been grey and polluted in his hometown, as long as he could remember.
Water pollution is also a longstanding issue. In 2014, China Central Television (CCTV) broadcasted a news investigation program named “The Pain of Black Well Water,” demonstrating Hebei’s deep groundwater was seriously polluted. Local villagers had no clean water to drink. In 2006, China’s Caixin Media published a feature story about Baiyang Lake, or “Baiyangdian,” located right at the heart of Xiongan New Area. Baiyang Lake had become a dead lake, unable to self-purify.
As for soil pollution, in 2011, Hebei launched a provincial plan to cope with heavy metal pollution; six years later, in 2017, Hebei issued a another grand plan called “Pure Land Action” to keep coping with soil and heavy metal pollution. While the Hebei government has repeatedly attached importance to fighting pollution, the recent photos show that giant toxic ponds are still left there, unattended.
Opaque Decision-Making Process
So why did China designate Xiongan, an area surrounded by three-dimensional heavy pollution, to take on the thousand-year responsibility?
Zhang Gaoli, China’s first-ranked vice premier, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, and the leader of the Leading Small Group of Beijing-Tianjin development, gave a straightforward explanation in an exclusive interview with Xinhua News Agency:
The establishment of Xiongan New Area is a major decision made by the Party Central Committee led by General Secretary Xi Jinping, the core [of the Party]… This project, personally designed, planned, and put forward by Xi, fully reflects the strong mission, far-reaching strategic vision, and superb political wisdom of Xi, who devoted a lot of effort to the project… Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, General Secretary Xi has been deeply involved in the investigation and study of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, and has presided over multiple meetings… In each and every stage of the decision-making, General Secretary Xi presided over every important meeting, made important instructions, and assigned every task personally.
Zhang then elaborated on the numerous meetings presided over by Xi, dating from February 2014 to February 2017. Based on the detailed interview, it seems that Zhang tried to let Xi take all the credit — or all the potential responsibility — for the grand project.
However, the details also cast a shadow over China’s decision-making mechanism. According to Zhang, the latest Xi-led conference meeting specifically on the construction and development of Xiongan was hosted on February 23, 2017 right in Xiongan Area, where Xi did field research and set the tone for future propaganda, such as “upholding the concept of world vision, international standards, Chinese characteristics, and high-point positioning” for development.
On March 3, just one week after the Xiongan conference, China launched its Two Sessions — the annual meetings of National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The NPC is supposedly the highest national decision-making mechanism in the country, though most people would call it a rubber-stamp process. Yet through the Two Sessions’ the closure on March 16, not a single piece of information about Xiongan was revealed. It appeared that, regarding the thousand-year project, the high authorities did not even bother to use the rubber stamp this time.
Other than Xi’s decisive choice, one of many reasons to choose Xiongan is precisely its anonymity. “Just like a piece of white paper, this area, with low population density, low level of development, and sufficient space to grow, owns the basic condition to develop on a high starting point with high standards,” according to Xu Kuangdi, the leader of Expert Advisory Committee on Beijing -Tianjin-Hebei Development.
In order to keep the “paper” white, remaining tight-lipped about Xiongan before the grand public announcement might be necessary from the authorities’ perspective. Despite that caution, immediately after the announcement, the real estate market in Xiongan soared sky-high, with thousands of investors rushing to Xiongan to buy properties. The investment frenzy instantly led to a government crackdown: Real estate transactions were completely stopped; all housing intermediary sales centers were closed; and policemen guarded the sales centers and maintained order in case of “illegal” transactions.
Vice Premier Zhang expressed the high authority’s intention very clearly: “Large-scale real estate development and illegal construction should be banned, and the pace of development should be reasonable.”
The Xiongan local government is carrying out Beijing’s instructions in a more specific and strict way. All land planning, household registration, real estate transactions, and construction have been “frozen.” Checkpoints have been set up in every village; no gravel, brick, cement, or other building materials are allowed to enter.
Facing the thousand-year project, local common people have showed two attitudes in different media reports.
In the state-run media like Xinhua, local people are happy, generous, grateful, and full of hope:
Zhao Wenxiang, the [Party] secretary of a village with 600 years of history, said the fellow villagers are very happy to hear the news. Some villagers are a little reluctant to relocate, but everyone knows it’s a matter that would benefit the next generations, so they can understand.
By contrast, in foreign media like Voice of America, local people seem to be confused, unhappy and at a loss. A male villager said:
They banned planting at the end of last year, and then banned building houses at the beginning of this year. So people complained, ‘”What’s wrong? Are they not going to let us live?” Not until the announcement did we realize what is happening.
A female villager was more blunt:
I want to cry. I haven’t slept nor eaten for several days. I have lived here for more than 50 years and now I have to give everything up?
Then she was pulled away from the camera by her relative.
Although it is still not certain whether locals are happy or not about the grand project, one thing is certain: many will have to relocate to make room for Xiongan New Area.
Regarding those who have to relocate, Zhang’s instruction was short and brief: “Do good ideological work on relocated households and earnestly safeguard the interests of the masses.”
Interestingly, Li Hongzhong, the top leader of Tianjin City, the neighbor of both Xiongan and Beijing, is already ready to sacrifice for the thousand-year project. He said in a conference about Xiongan project:
Tianjin fully and firmly supports the planning and construction of Xiongan New Area… Whatever role the Party Central Committee wants Tianjin to play, we’d play; whatever the Party needs Tianjin to do, we’d do; whatever Tianjin needs to pay, support and adjust to, we’d resolutely obey.