Xiongan, a centrally planned city situated 100 kilometers to the south of Beijing, is China’s latest “New Area.” Designed to be larger than New York City, Xiongan represents the aspiration of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to relieve the capital of non-essential functions and reduce its population, while also creating an innovation hub for the surrounding region.
But five years on from its launch, all evidence suggests that Xiongan’s enduring function will be as a political legacy-building project for Xi, as he seeks to redraw the role of capital in China’s political economy.
There are few more important figures in modern urban studies than Jane Jacobs. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she argued that for large conurbations to sustain economic vitality they must be diverse, and to be diverse they must meet four conditions: districts and sub-district units must serve multiple functions; blocks must be short and corners frequent; proximate buildings must vary in age and condition; and the population must be sufficiently dense.
Xiongan is likely to meet only one or two of those four conditions – multi-functionality within districts and a sufficiently dense population – though if and when even these attributes are realized is far from certain. That Xiongan so clearly contradicts established urban principles will likely not trouble its state planners, who staunchly see the project within a Chinese context requiring its own unique (read: non-Western) model.
There may be some truth to their view: the 1960s American cities that Jacobs wrote about were contextually very different to their contemporary Chinese counterparts. Despite four decades of market-oriented reforms, China’s economy lacks a U.S.-style free market with robust private property rights. And under Xi, the country’s broader economic trajectory is now reverting back to increased control by the visible hand of the state.
This shift is encapsulated by Xiongan, where state-backed builders are currently throwing up row upon row of new, high-quality housing units subject to strict purchase controls. It is an intriguing counterpoint to the ongoing debt crisis in China’s private property sector, where several insolvent developers, including Evergrande, have been ordered to demolish incomplete buildings, following years of speculation-fueled growth on the open market.
The Latest Presidential Pet Project
Launched on April Fools’ Day in 2017, Xiongan is the latest in a long history of top-down development projects in China. Its most celebrated and objectively successful predecessor was Shenzhen, one of the first Special Economic Zones, situated over 2,000 kilometers south of Beijing. Now a sparkling hi-tech megacity of almost 18 million people, Shenzhen in 1980 was no more than a market town adjoined by several nearby villages. (It was not, however, a single fishing village, as is often erroneously stated.)
While closely associated with former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who personally visited in the city on his 1992 Southern Tour, Shenzhen’s transformation was not rooted in centralized planning. Rather, it resulted from a government-sanctioned experiment in private capitalism, which led to the emergence of a vibrant electronics sector. Another key factor in Shenzhen’s success were the grassroots informal communities that sprung up in the city’s “urban villages,” which housed the city’s migrant workers. According to James Scott in “Seeing Like a State,” formal urban projects require these informal parallel spaces to ultimately succeed, as occurred next to the planned city of Brasilia.
It is this pragmatism and informality that distinguished Shenzhen (and the 1980s) from the next decade’s great Chinese urban project, the Shanghai Pudong New Area. The power base of Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin, Shanghai’s development had been neglected up until then. The construction of Pudong begun a new phase characterized by state oversight, urban bias, and foreign investment. But in the analysis of economist Yasheng Huang, Pudong was ultimately a failure, its flashy skyline disguising a void of private entrepreneurship and lagging household income growth.
Binhai, a district of Tianjin, was the next New Area to be developed by China in the early 2000s. Strongly endorsed by then-Premier Wen Jiabao, it was the first attempt to provide an economic satellite for the capital and was slated to become the “Shanghai of the north.” But Binhai ultimately became little more than an onshore tax haven filled with empty buildings. It was rocked by an industrial explosion in 2015 that killed 173 people, and further damaged by reports in 2016 of hugely inflated GDP figures.
Xiongan again follows this decades-old model of top-down urban planning, seen in the SEZs and before that in Mao-era industrial towns. But Xiongan’s focus on physical construction in a supposedly strategic location now seems out of touch with the virtual approach to working that has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. And for all the talk of innovation, Xiongan sticks with existing norms of housing and transportation (albeit with iterative tweaks like minimizing commutes and maximizing greenery).
A Sign of the Political Times
Xiongan is Xi’s turn to build a signature city and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is characterized both by a very high degree of centralization and an obsession with project optics. Xiongan is certainly no second Shenzhen, where ideas, capital, and people were allowed to flow with relative freedom and experimentation. It may be seen as a more carefully choreographed Pudong or Binhai, but with an even greater emphasis on its political role and personal ties to the incumbent leader. Yet unlike all three of its predecessors, Xiongan is not situated in a geographically favorable area suited to international trade and commerce, but at an inland site chosen (supposedly by Xi himself) for its proximity to the surrounding Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin region.
In this sense, then, Xiongan again reflects the broader direction in which Xi is taking China, toward a more inward state-led economy and away from globalist market-led capitalism. There is an understandable logic in the attempt to relocate people and functions from China’s crowded capital, but most of these arrivals will be the families of workers and officials from Beijing’s state-owned enterprises. And despite their rumored reluctance to relocate, the political sensitivity of the project will make it difficult for many SOEs to refuse. It follows that Xiongan will have a distinctly political and Beijing-aligned character, brought by residents transplanted in from the capital.
Another reason why Xiongan is above all a political initiative is that its viability from a purely economic standpoint is totally unproven. It is intended to serve as a model for future development, yet its success is totally dependent on a huge input of capital and people from Beijing, resources that will be off limits to most other projects. The scale of the Xiongan project will exhaust massive amounts of public money with the risk that it ends up a white elephant, as happened in parts of Binhai and to some extent in Pudong. And Xiongan’s aim of being a hub for innovation also seems unlikely to flourish in a city conceived by the state. “Narrow, planned environments,” Scott wrote, “foster a less skilled, less innovative, less resourceful population.”
Maybe the biggest indication of Xiongan’s political nature is its key completion dates: 2035, when it is planned to have become a “modern city,” and 2050, when it is planned to have become part of a “world-class urban cluster.” These years neatly align with China’s two-stage national plan for achieving “socialist modernization.”
This lengthy time horizon may also make Xiongan’s ultimate success vulnerable to macroeconomic changes, as well as political shifts. But given Xi’s expected continuation at the top, the political dynamics seem unlikely to change drastically in the intervening years. And this factor above all may ensure that Xiongan ends up a success in the eyes of the party-state. Anything less would be politically untenable.