There are no mega malls or cloud-piercing skyscrapers at the heart of China’s eco-city of the future. But there are sky-high expectations surrounding President Xi Jinping’s legacy development in the shadow of smokestack-infested Hebei province.
Nestling next to the Baiyangdian Lake wetlands, it will be the centerpiece of eco-friendly projects dotted around the country. It will also help burnish Xi’s green credentials after his no-show at the COP26 climate summit in the Scottish city of Glasgow last week.
“Xiong’an represents a new push to put sustainability at the center of cities and, therefore, countries. For example, each new tree planted in Xiong’an has a QR-code attached to it,” Abishur Prakash, the co-founder of the advisory firm Center for Innovating the Future in Toronto, told China Factor.
So far, 20 million trees have been planted inside the nascent metropolis and beyond into the rustic hinterland.
“The Chinese government has also promised that Xiong’an’s population will not grow to a point where it over-consumes resources. Does this mean that the next Chinese cities will have ‘population limits’? Is this ‘sustainable urbanization’?” Prakash, the author of The World Is Vertical: How Technology Is Remaking Globalization, said.
For nearly three decades, the country’s rapid rise as an economic superpower has created sprawling urban jungles of concrete tower blocks, and steel and glass cathedrals of commerce. They are rooted in the foundations of the “China Miracle,” a visual history of unbridled growth.
But now low-rise is the new high-rise and green is the new gold.
Tackling problems, such as overcrowding and pollution, have become a priority for the Communist Party government. Xi’s original 2017 blueprint for Xiong’an was to ease congestion in China’s capital of more than 20.8 million people, and add a sprinkling of eco-friendly stardust.
“This new area aims to help China shift to high value-added industries. Northern China has long been the equivalent of America’s Rust Belt,” Cheng Li, a director of the John L. Thornton China Center, and Gary Xie, then of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said back in 2018.
“Seven of China’s 10 most polluted cities are located in Hebei province. Xiong’an can offer an alternative path for both Northern China and the nation as a whole,” they wrote in a commentary for the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Since then, neighboring province Henan has taken over that rusty crown. But it is still close enough to threaten the transformation of the 1,700-square-kilometer Xiong’an development.
With a projected population of at least four million, the city will dwarf Los Angeles when it is finally finished in 2035. The first phase is nearly built, and will incorporate finance, business and educational institutions relocated from Beijing, which is 100 kilometers down the road.
Phase two rings the downtown area, containing office blocks and shopping centers, as well as the central transport network. The main space-age-style railway station is already up and running.
Finally, phase three includes an outer circle of five residential and retail clusters. Parks and waterways, which crisscross Xiong’an, will gradually merge with surrounding wetlands and the rural farming landscape.
Still, behind the Chinese state-media real estate pitch, challenges exist for an eco-city expected to drive growth in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.
“Xi’s vision of Xiong’an is breathtaking. Watch any China-produced video on the plan and what emerges is an urban utopia. But for a utopia of this scale to work, it needs a vibrant economy underpinning it,” Malcolm Riddell, the founder of consultancy CHINADebate, told China Factor.
“In Shenzhen, the economy first developed on the back of Hong Kong’s before taking on its characteristics. In Pudong, the economy is the natural extension of Shanghai’s across the river. In Xiong’an, there is no inherent base for its economy to develop – the economy will come from Xi’s will alone,” he said.
Environmental issues, such as pollution and water sustainability, have also been raised. Fangqu Niu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, has stressed the importance of not repeating the same mistakes from the days of breakneck growth in the 1990s.
“It is necessary to draw lessons from the past in order to maintain high-quality development [in Xiong’an] … in light of limited resources and environmental constraints,” Niu said in a research paper on the academic site Hindawin in May.
To solve those problems, China has mobilized a “Who’s Who” of tech royalty. They include the multi-billion-dollar BAT grouping of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, along with JD.com, Huawei and the China Satellite Network.
Renewable energy, new electric vehicles and smart networks linked to Big Data, AI and 5G infrastructure will be the backbone of Xiong’an.
Technology will literally course through the veins of the city. Even the digital yuan could be quickly adopted as hard cash vanishes from the streets and supermarkets.
“Smart cities could become hubs for China to launch ambitious projects. For example, China might integrate the digital yuan into Xiong’an from the get-go, allowing residents to pay for goods or get paid in the digital currency,” Prakash said.
“Or, as JD.com builds an OS or operating system for Xiong’an, the next phase might be to place algorithms at the center of decision making. This is what Cloud Valley, being built in Southwest Chongqing, is doing,” he pointed out.
Yet Xiong’an is just the tip of a green-coated iceberg as Beijing pushes ahead with the country’s low-carbon “transition.”
The German think tank also estimates that it will take an additional 40.3 trillion yuan ($6.30 trillion) to complete China’s green makeover. In the meantime, the central government has another major issue to iron out.
“Beijing’s green policies are mostly industry- or region-specific, often rolled out in a piecemeal fashion, and tend to clash with policies aimed at fostering fast growth and social stability. Officials are reluctant to promote [low-carbon] initiatives because they fear negative impacts like job losses and a decline in output,” the MERICS study released in January stated.
In the end, the billion-dollar question will be, is Xiong’an the real green deal for all those greenback investors in Xi’s dream city by the wetlands?