Panorama-2

The City of Tomorrow, Today

Inside the Xiong’an New Area, the Farmland Destined to be China’s Next Megacity 

By Graham Dickie, Wenyu Fang, Yuqi Ning and Sasha Urman

​What is Xiong'an ?

A view of Rongcheng from the roof of Rongcheng County Government. 

Xiong’an is the most ambitious example in recent years of the construction – from scratch – of China’s cities of tomorrow. But while domestic and international media rarely covered when Beijing roll out of its preliminary plans in April, no one has really gone to the site of this future megacity and reported in-depth.

We went there and this is a report of what we saw, capturing Xiong’an in its embryonic stage while trying to tell a broader narrative of the Chinese government's vision of its urban future. Major infrastructure already exists (there is a high-speed railway station linking it to Beijing) and we conducts interviews with government officials, construction workers, proprietors of donkey burger restaurants, and early inhabitants. This is what we discovered.

When complete, the Xiong’an New Area will be one of China’s most expensive public works
projects in history, carrying a price tag of over half a trillion U.S. dollars by some estimates. If all goes according to plan, it will become a metropolis around twice the size of New York City, siphon many government functions out of Beijing, and -- perhaps most notably -- present a model for Chinese urban development going forward.

 

Located 100km southwest of Beijing in Hebei Province, Xiong’an is a conglomeration of three existing, largely rural counties within the prefecture-level city of Baoding: Xiongxian, Anxin and Rongcheng. (In China, prefecture-level cities can contain many smaller counties and villages with miles of undeveloped land in between.) Last year, the area’s combined GDP was less than 1 percent of Beijing’s, according to government data, and it represents a virtually blank slate for urban planners. 

A view of Rongcheng from the roof of a local building. The town occupies about six square kilometers and its edges give way to flat farmland. Two highways running through bring a steady stream of trucker traffic. 

Xiong’an is a top-down initiative from the very top. Unlike almost all other new cities in China, the central government has maintained direct oversight on its development. The South China Morning Post has dubbed it “Xi Jinping’s Dream City.” According to Daan Roggeveen, the author of “Progress and Prosperity: The Chinese City as Global Urban Model,” it will serve as an embodiment of the Xi era in the same way Shenzhen symbolizes Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms.

 

“New Area” simply denotes that Xiong’an will receive special market privileges and extra attention from the government -- again, think Shenzhen in the 1980s, which was transformed from a fishing village into a glittery metropolis in the span of just a couple decades. Times have changed though: China has shifted to a new phase of development (the “New Normal”) that it says will emphasize quality over quantity -- sustainability over raw growth, and white collar labor over the kind of factory jobs that powered its economic rise.

 

“China is coming towards a transformation,” Asia Development Bank analyst Ying Qian said. “It is coming from a low cost labor, energy intensive growth pattern to something like a more consumption driven, innovation driven, service driven [type of] modern economy.”

The government hopes Xiong’an will form a small part of that bigger change, evolving the area from its farm-and-factory economy into a tech hub akin to Hangzhou in eastern China. It has also said it envisions it as a “green city” full of parks and other verdant public spaces.

 

Among current residents interviewed for this story, that all signals a brave new world that will change their lives in ways they do not yet know or understand.

 

Speaking by phone from Shanghai, Roggeveen said China will encounter two major challenges with Xiong’an. One, it will need to generate enthusiasm from the private sector around a location that offers little in the way of natural resources or transportation advantages, unlike the ports of Shenzhen and Pudong, the modern mega-development areas. Two, it will need to demonstrate it can engage the local population and inject a sense of social responsibility.
 

In early December, we took a train to Xiong’an to see what is there now and the first signs of development, keeping Roggeveen’s comments in mind. 

Click to view!
​Today's Xiong'an 

A country road en route from Beijing to Xiong’an. A big aim behind Xiong’an and the development of Hebei Province as whole is to improve the area’s transportation infrastructure.

A train running close to the site of the future Xiong’an railway station, which will surpass Beijing South Railway Station in size.

A barren lot just north of the site of the Xiong’an New Area government building, which is under construction.

A country road en route from Beijing to Xiong’an. A big aim behind Xiong’an and the development of Hebei Province as whole is to improve the area’s transportation infrastructure.

Tomorrow's metropolis

The function zones in Xiong’an connected by advanced transportation.

The blueprint of Xiong’an New Area as an ecological green city based on Baiyangdian, the largest wetland in Hebei Province

The main urban area of Xiong’an.

The function zones in Xiong’an connected by advanced transportation.

Fields of Dreams

“I know Xiong’an New Area,” an eight-year-old girl on the streets of Hongxilou village said. “I heard about it from my grandma.”

Located several kilometers east of Xiongxian, the largest settlement in Xiong County, Hongxilou represents the striking condition of much of the New Area today. Home to 1,000 people, the tiny village is a collection of one-story brick homes, dusty unpaved roads, and a couple of rundown general stores with bare concrete floors: about as far from bustling Beijing as you can get.

 

At the only local school, doors are falling off their hinges, and offices on the first floor of the local Communist Party office are empty of furniture and littered with trash. There are no busses or trains that stop here. On a recent Saturday, the only noise came from a cart rolling down the street and blasting an automated message in the local Hebei dialect about coal for sale.

 

Most young people of working age here have gone to get jobs in bigger cities, leaving only children and the elderly. “The young people have to leave” due to a lack of economic opportunity, said Guo Ximing, the village’s only doctor. Those that stay typically work at one of the small local factories or in agriculture, growing wheat, watermelon, or corn.

 

Thus far, the only hints of the Xiong’an New Area in Hongxilou are the handpainted propaganda signs throughout the village. “Establishing the Xiong’an New Area is part of the 1,000 year development project,” reads one in red letters. Throughout the New Area, you find messages like this on billboards or the occasional village wall: suggestions of a prosperous, if hazy, future that has yet to materialize.

Scenes from the streets of Hongxilou, a village of about 1,000 people on a desolate stretch of highway in Xiong County.

A Trickle of Development

Head east out of Rongcheng on Shěngdào 334, go a couple kilometers, turn right on an unmarked road with farmland on either side, and you will soon find yourself at the future home of the Xiong’an New Area government.

 

Wang Zhen, a local taxi driver, said he would not typically take this road: directly across from the construction area is a cemetery, and locals are superstitious that driving by it will bring bad luck. Wang added that you can still find wild chickens roaming near the construction site, and enterprising villagers occasionally still snare rabbits close-by and cook them for dinner.

 

The new government building is being built on land formerly used to farm grapes. Construction began last month, and it is expected to finish in early February. As of now, it is the main sign of the New Area -- for now, nearby villages like Hongxilou remain as they always have. Wuhan-based China Construction Third Engineering Division Co., Ltd. won the contract, and it transferred its top brass to oversee it. The lot is, at the moment, essentially a series of dirt mounds.

 

The rest of the project largely remains a mystery. Xinhua reported in July that over 180 international urban planning firms signed up to submit proposals for the New Area. It said the government would select 12 to move onto a final round, but any of their submissions have yet to materialize publicity.

 

The announcement of Xiong’an, though, should not have come as a surprise. The government has been working for decades to transform Hebei Province – long among the most polluted regions in China – and better integrate it with Beijing and Tianjin. Strategically set between those two cities, the location of Xiong’an was an obvious choice for a major development project in Hebei. 

Xiong'an is a place where they want to demonstrate Hebei can be world-class.
 
-Ying Qian, analyst with the Asia Development Bank

Speaking by phone from the Philippines, Ying – the Asia Development Bank analyst – said Xiong’an fits in squarely with China’s bigger vision for Hebei and is an evolution of the pollution efforts.

 

“Xiong’an is a place where they want to demonstrate Hebei can be world-class,” Ying said. “However, if you’re looking at Hebei, Xiong’an is one element… They need to make sure this is fitting into the overall development strategy.”

 

Another ADB analyst, Seung Min, indicated that China has been “more prudent nowadays” and seems to be learning from its past follies – taking cues from projects like the Kangbashi New Area in Ordos, a city built in a similarly barren landscape in Inner Mongolia that sat largely empty for years and attracted ridicule as a “ghost city.”

 

“The important thing for the government is not to create winners but create a business friendly environment,” Seung said.

 

With Xiong’an, the government has aggressively courted tech giants to build momentum behind Xiong’an, and Seung said its financing seems to be sound – mobilizing government funds and attracting private sector. Another financing option for Xiong’an is to turn to “eco compensation” – fundraising from neighboring governments in Beijing and Tianjin, which have already experienced the gains of reduced pollution.

 

Whatever the bigger plans are, the stakes are high.

 

“Xiong’an is one of the key pilots where they can demonstrate the target of the constructing the world-class megalopolis,” Ying said.

The construction site of the new Xiong'an government headquarters southwest of the Rongcheng township. Construction on the 100,000 square meter complex started in November and is expected to finish in late February, although right now the lot is essentially a field of dirt. It is the first notable construction project associated with Xiong'an. Workers pushed air conditioning units around on wheelbarrows and flattened earth with large excavators. Locals said you can still trap wild chickens and rabbits near the construction site, which took the place of a grape farm.

"We Have Been Asked to Maintain the Status Quo"

Xiong’an made a big splash when it was announced in April, but the government has largely been silent since then about specifics -- the design of the city and other details. Reached by phone, the Xiong’an government’s publicity department said that they have received orders from the central government not to grant any interviews to media.

 

An official with the Rongcheng County government -- speaking less than a kilometer from the temporary headquarters of the Xiong’an government -- said they know as much as anyone else. Speaking under anonymity because he had not been authorized to comment, the official said they have only been told to keep everything running as is while the planning happens down the street. Likewise, the ADB also said they had no knowledge of special plans for Xiong’an prior to the April announcement and the Chinese central government kept it “very secretive.”

 

From interviews with many local residents, it is clear that its effects are, however, being felt, and the project is already creating winners and losers, even if development has so far been minimal.

 

On the one hand, there has been an influx of investment and new human capital. New businesses have set up shop to cater to a rising demand in construction. That means you find someone like Zhao Hang, a 21-year-old from Chongqing who has helped establish a new hardware store in Rongcheng and makes upwards of ¥5,000 in revenue each day selling drill bits and wrenches.

 

“The competition in this industry is fierce,” Zhao said, “but the market is promising.”

Workers winterize recently planted trees in Xiong County. The government is aiming to plant 40,000 trees in the New Area before the end of the year. It intends for 70% of Xiong'an to be park land. The government has provided farmers with 1,500 per mu of land appropriated for the forestation project and will continue to pay them for the indefinite future.

In Rongcheng, where locals like Wang -- the taxi driver -- say they rarely travel to even the neighboring villages, this has given the town an air of excitement that was absent before. Although Rongcheng is the most developed of the three counties encompassed by the new area, 58-year-old Xiao Guoan, who grew up there, repeatedly asked in disbelief if two of these reporters were really foreigners.

 

State-owned enterprises have started moving in, taking out office space on the southern edge of Rongcheng to coordinate large-scale building projects. In August, for example, the government established the state-owned company China Xiongan Construction & Investment Group with an endowment of $1.5 billion. This has given parts of the area sheen that never existed before.

 

In addition, hundreds of locals have gotten jobs doing things like planting 40,000 saplings on the outskirts of Xiong County as part of a massive forestation project. (It does have a logic: you can rush to finish a new government headquarters in the span of three months, but nothing is going to make a tree grow faster, it is best to get going on that first.)

 

On the other hand, though, it is clear that the government’s futuristic vision is largely incompatible with ways this farm-and-factory region has operated for decades.

 

For example, alongside the announcement of Xiong’an, the government strengthened environmental regulations in the area. This has dramatically reduced pollution, likely contributing to the large number of blue skies in Beijing this winter. However, it has also meant dozens of small factories have closed, contributing to a spike in short-term unemployment.

 

Even factories that did meet the new regulations, like the Xinshengda Plastic Packaging Company, find themselves facing an uncertain future. The Xinshengda factory now sits in the middle of the forestation project, surrounded by 40,000 saplings, and the government has snapped up land from locals, paying them a fixed price per mu whether they like it or not and offering them a monthly stipend in perpetuity. (The government has done this before – as in the case of massive Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River.)

The competition in this industry is fierce, but the market is promising.
 
-Zhao Hang, 21-year-old hardware store manager in Rongcheng

Rents have skyrocketed all over as those large state-owned enterprises have driven up property values in the surrounding area. The government froze real estate sales in July to curb speculation, but this has in other ways further contributed to unemployment by halting construction projects that were providing income to local laborers.

 

Locals like Zhao Jianpo find themselves at the center of this vortex. Zhao, 40, has owned a successful karaoke venue in Rongcheng for 12 years, but he now faces rising rents, and he estimates his number of customers has plummeted by 70 percent as his usual patrons have lost their jobs. It is fuzzy how the government plans to integrate a largely uneducated population into a city oriented around white collar work.

 

“I was enthusiastic at first,” Zhao said. “But I’ve become more and more disappointed as my rent has gone from ¥130,000 to ¥500,000 per year.”

 

In Hongxilou, the village in Xiong County, Liu Yunlong works at a small general store. At 31, he is a rare young man of working age who has stuck around the village to work -- but this is not by choice. While in the past he would have been a typical customer at a business like Zhao’s KTV operation, Liu lost his job at a local plastic factory and scrapes by on his income from the store.

 

Liu used to work at a factory in Beijing, but that, too, closed, and he said he does not feel like returning to the city in light of its recent aggressive evictions of migrants -- another example of how China will not be able to bring about its new phase of “sustainable” development without making any tough decisions.

 

For now, like many, Liu is stuck in purgatory: awaiting a city of tomorrow while arguably worse off than he was before the announcement of Xiong’an. The development cannot come soon enough.

 

“I know nothing about the exact policy, when this village will be relocated, or where I will be working,” Liu said. 

How Big Is It?
Forestation Project
Planned Cities of the World

Planned cities project ambition, and this ambition often comes with great risk. Making a territorial claim, staking out a new identity: whatever the objective, if a project fails, it can cause a blow to a country's reputation. At the very least, there is often the risk of large fiscal and material waste, as in the case of Kangbashi New Area -- China's ridiculed project in Ordos, Inner Mongolia that made headlines in 2010 as a "ghost city" when migrants failed to materialize en masse. If the policies are right, the people show up, businesses start to grow organically, and the location is prime, they can reshape the narrative of a country. Often only time will tell which direction a city goes. 

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Shenzhen was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world during the 1990s and the 2000s. The success of Shenzhen can be attributed to the reform and opening up policy announced by the central government. The preponderance of geographic location pushed it to the international stage. Locating opposite to Hong Kong, Shenzhen embraced the notion of free competition and alarmed the world with its GDP.

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