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ON THE HORIZON: Jing Jin Ji, Urbanization on a Whole New Level
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Jing Jin Ji

Urbanization on a Whole New Level

By Richard J. Cook

BT 201601 130 63 On the horizon Sim Chi Yin New York Times July19th 2015 Screen Shot 2015 12 06 at 6.28.06 PMIn 1992, when Deng Xiaoping declared China open for business, nobody could have imagined the scale of urbanization and brisk development that was to follow. China is currently aiming to hit a 60-percent urbanization target by 2020, and 70-percent by 2030. Recent population assessment models suggest that amounts to roughly 250 million people making their way to Chinese cities.

But with this ambitious target comes an astronomical price tag. China Development Bank (CDB) has attached an US$8.1 trillion price tag to the cost of hitting that target. To put that into perspective, it's just shy of the country's 2012 GDP figure. At the center of this plan is the Jing-Jin-Ji urban concept, a vast megalopolis. In fact megalopolis is too weak a word to describe the scale of this urban plan. A more appropriate term would be 'galactic'.

Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei

It will be biggest city in the world that you've probably never heard of -- a cluster of reallocated commercial, residential and industrial centres, concentrated around Tianjin as the door to northeast China. Ultimately, this galactic city will occupy 82,000 square-miles -- or 212,000 square-kilometres -- and will be home to 130 million people. That's roughly twice the population of the UK or one-third that of the U.S.A. The name Jing-Jin-Ji derives from the abbreviations of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei -- categorizing the project as tripolar in geographical terms.

The project's general goals are relatively simple: 1) account for the continuing mass urbanization; 2) stimulate economic growth; 3) redistribute sector responsibility away from Beijing; 4) provide a futuristic, habitable environment; 5) prop up development in Hebei; 6) promote Tianjin as the gateway to the north of China.

There is also a vast green element to the project too, citing that all available green technology should be implemented from solar panels right down to light bulbs. To delve into this a little deeper, the idea is to help the lagging northern economy make the transition into a fully-feasible and modern economic model, similar to the success of the south of China.

In terms of figures, it's clear why the central government wishes to do this. GDP per capita (RMB): Beijing 93,213, Tianjin 99,607 and Hebei 38,716; Urbanization percentage: Beijing 86, Tianjin 79 and Hebei 44; Exports (US$bn): Beijing 33.3, Tianjin 49 and Hebei 40; FDI (US$bn): Beijing 8.5, Tianjin 16.8 and Hebei 6.5 (2013). So from these figures, which the government referred to, it's clear there are some disparities between the three.

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Too Risky and Too Conceptual?

To some it would appear China is taking this urbanization project just a bit too far, not to mention it would eradicate thousands of square miles of green belt. Not only does China appear to be carelessly expanding its cities, but there's also a lack of transparency to properly understand what specifically these urbanization plans are aiming for.

China has had this Jing-Jin-Ji project in mind since the mid 1980's, yet it was only last May that the plan received its full backing from President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. However, the information released does not go into specific detail or provide any timeline, hinged instead on ambiguities and confusion.

Since the announcement in May, there have been calls to resolve these uncertainties and it all seems to have opened the floor for major debate. Slowly, but surely, the concept of this super city seems to be forming into a fully-fledged plan, but a high-risk one nonetheless.

But under the radar lurks a serious and potentially-devastating problem. Napoleon once said, "an army marches on its stomach". Well, in a similar fashion, "a city's army of workers marches on water". Throughout history, the development of agrarian and industrial societies depended on having a geographic proximity to fresh water sources. To put it bluntly, the north of China lacks this. Droughts in the country's northern breadbasket are not uncommon -- citing 2010, 2011 and 2014 as the most recent -- but the government is more than capable of handling these frequent situations.

For the past 50 years, there has been great discussion about the water supply to the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, but the recent completion of the "Danjiangkou Diversion" -- a major water redirection from the south to the north -- has satisfied the problem in the short term. The project involves three canals conveying around 45 billion cubic meters of water annually since 2002. The drawback is that it does not resolve China's looming water shortage problem in the long term. Furthermore, the establishment of Jing-Jin-Ji in the distant future would add a critical stress to an already serious problem.

In the north of China, the average annual requirement of water per capita is around 200 cubic meters (2014), yet in Beijing consumption levels were 70% higher than the total water supply of 2012. In the current state of affairs, the demand for water is already outstripping supply, and the establishment of Jing-Jin-Ji would cripple China's water supply system, leading to a chronic shortage. This could potentially cause devastating crop failures and problems for the ever-so-important coal industry water supply, provoking a major energy security problem.

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A further case study sparking interest is the housing market and what effect Jing-Jin-Ji would have on Hebei and Tianjin. Beijing's cost of living is a key issue, forcing its workforce to seek more affordable accommodation further and further from the CBD. This, in effect, places an extra burden on transportation to and from these areas. Thus, the concept of CBD and sector redistribution, as well as new residential zoning to Tianjin and Hebei, would appear to make some sense in elevating commuter problems in Beijing. However, the likelihood is that this will cause housing prices in Hebei and Tianjin to jump considerably, potentially degrading the wealth gap.

Aside from water and housing issues, a whole range of scholars have raised their eyebrows at countless other issues around the prospect of Jing-Jin-Ji. Of these, many remark of the project's sheer complexity and just how catastrophic a failure it could be. With other huge Chinese cities under the microscope, and receiving a battering from academics over general mismanagement regarding 'ghost cities', it remains to be seen what the definitive plan will look like. The big question is whether China can shift from old urban designs and innovate to the super city model it's proposing. With this said, failure is absolutely not an option.

On the other hand, the staggering population of China isn't going to disappear anytime soon. So something needs to be done. Beijing's set of ring roads mark the five times the city limits have had to be extended. To continue this trend is unsustainable and would lead to a worsening of an already-strained infrastructure.

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Timely for Tianjin

For a long time, Beijingers and ministers have voiced about the need for some sort of reorganization for the regional design. Overcrowded buses, metro systems, stuffed roads and a haze of pollution stain the capital's reputation. Reallocating major corporations to Tianjin would ease Beijing's troubles whilst bolstering its economic preeminence. It would virtually signal Tianjin as the northern capital of services and high-end manufacturing, as it would make dramatic gains in these sectors. Not to mention how its developing polycentric urban model would accommodate this switch, all very timely.

The whole project hinges on Tianjin really, due to its direct link to the global trade network at the Port of Binhai, pivoting between the populace of Beijing and the workbasket that is Hebei.


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