Monday, May 29, 2017, 11:48 AM CST – China

Politics

Government Relocation

Journey to the East

The Beijing municipal government will move some departments to the city’s eastern suburbs to ease traffic congestion and boost regional integration, but challenges abound

Workers pave a road outside the Haojiafu Subway Station in an area allegedly set aside as part of the subsidiary administrative center in Tongzhou Photo by cfp

An abandoned car blocks the gate to partly demolished Qianbeiying Village, Lucheng County, Tongzhou, June 28, 2015 Photo by cfp

Speculation over whether Beijing’s municipal government would relocate some administrative departments from the city center to the eastern suburbs finally ended when Beijing Party Secretary Guo Jinlong officially announced at a July plenary session of the city’s Party committee that the district of Tongzhou would become a “subsidiary administrative center.”

Two functions of the mooted “executive sub-center” were highlighted in Guo’s speech — easing pressure on city center infrastructure through population transfers, and advancing the national-level Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei integrated development plan, which was also passed by Party officials at the same meeting.

Beijing is now set to go all-out to accelerate the goal of regional integration. Guo described this as a challenging task, but also a necessary solution to many of the current problems facing the city’s urban planners.

The planned executive sub-center will be located in Lucheng, Tongzhou District, 20 kilometers from Tian’anmen Square. While details of the relocation are yet to be released, officials have claimed that the plan would have made “remarkable progress” by 2017.

Move

Tongzhou’s selection as the new home for elements of Beijing’s municipal government is a logical one. As early as 1993, Tongzhou was named a “satellite town” of the capital, before being upgraded to a city district in 1997. In 2004, the Beijing government announced that Tongzhou would play a supplementary role in city administration, a move which sparked speculation that the government would relocate to the area.

In July 2012 the Beijing government announced its plan to build Tongzhou into a city sub-center. In a Beijing municipal government work report released in February 2015, the local government pledged to speed up the construction of Tongzhou as a city sub-center and to break ground on a total of 86 approved key projects in its core areas, representing an investment of nearly 164 billion yuan (US$26bn).

The primary goal for the shift eastward is to address the population explosion in central Beijing, which has led to worsening overcrowding in recent years and exacerbated what the government and State media term “urban ills,” such as traffic jams and air pollution. Beijing was home to 21.5 million people in 2014, according to the municipal government, which is now working to control population growth by cutting the resident population of the city’s six downtown districts by a planned 15 percent, bringing total population below 23 million by 2020.

Offices of the Beijing municipal branch of the Communist Party and the municipal government’s various administrative organs, over 250 in total, are currently scattered throughout the downtown area and, according to 2012 data, employ 143,000 people. The relocation plan involves relocating over one million people to Tongzhou, even though which departments will move, and when, has yet to be announced.

Zhang Keyun, professor of regional economy at the School of Economics at Renmin University, told NewsChina that the government’s road map also stresses the adjustment of Tongzhou’s economic structure, with relocation only the most recent step to echo the national strategy for the coordinated development of Beijing, the nearby port of Tianjin, and the manufacturing hub of Hebei Province, which surrounds the other two. In Zhang’s view, Tongzhou, as a focal point between all three regional economies, can play a bigger role in resources integration and coordinated development. “Reconsidering Beijing’s role is a major factor behind the relocation plan,” he said.

Another highlight of the relocation plan is to relocate industries that are unrelated to Beijing’s primary function as the nation’s capital, and as a national center for politics, culture, international exchanges and technical innovation. In the government-issued document “Beijing Overall Urban Planning (2004-2020),” released in 2005, the capital was positioned as China’s “national capital, international city, cultural city and livable city.”

Wu Dianting, geography professor at Beijing Normal University, told NewsChina that Beijing, as the national capital, has been planned along typical Chinese lines — to be large and all-encompassing in its functions — making it hard to list and clarify the capital’s multiple functions to this day.

“The role of Beijing as the capital is different to that of Beijing’s local government. Beijing’s role as ‘four national centers’ is a role not fulfilled by its municipal government,” said Wu.

Ye Tanglin, professor at the Capital University of Economics and Business, told NewsChina that, as the northern part of Beijing is now under ecological protection, the west is hemmed in by mountains and a new airport is under construction in the south, “to move east to ease the excessive concentration of administration is the best option.”

Hu Gang, head of the South China Urban Planning Institute under the Urban Planning Society of China, said the road map for relocation is a “good start” for redesigning Beijing’s administrative geography.

“After a subsidiary administrative center is established, State-owned enterprises and public services will also relocate,” he told the official Xinhua News Agency, adding that Beijing can also help set a good example for regional development in other areas of the country.

Sub-prime

The relocation to Tongzhou is promising news for the district and the surrounding areas but, in the view of some experts, is less than ideal in terms of establishing jurisdiction and population control.

Professor Zhang Keyun told NewsChina that it is not ideal to relocate some municipal administration to Tongzhou because it is likely to further aggravate the already alarming traffic congestion between the city center and Tongzhou — a district already home to a huge population of people working in the city center — as well as bring additional population pressure to an already-populous district. More affordable real estate, improving transportation links and high concentrations of recent migrants have made Tongzhou and other suburbs more attractive to lower-income workers who are priced out of Beijing’s cosmopolitan center.

Statistics from the Tongzhou government indicate that the district had 1.3 million permanent residents in 2013, up from 880,000 in 2005, making it one of the most populous districts in the capital with 1,300 residents per square kilometer. According to a report by Xinhua, Tongzhou District’s population is increasing by 6.23 percent annually, higher than Beijing’s average of 4.69 percent.

A survey by China Youth Daily, meanwhile, showed that only 38.2 percent of respondents thought the establishment of Tongzhou as a “subsidiary sub-center” would benefit both Beijing’s city center and the district itself. 23.5 percent of them, on the other hand, declared themselves “worried” that the move would increase traffic congestion and push real estate prices, already seeing sharp rises in Tongzhou, even further upwards.

In recent years, Tongzhou’s GDP growth has also been shown to be faltering, with a major contributing factor being a lack of industry and increasing overreliance on a ballooning real estate market. In 2009, Tongzhou’s GDP was 27.8 billion yuan (US$4.5bn) with over 50 percent, or 17.58 billion (US$2.8bn), coming from real estate development. Since 2009, investment in property development in Tongzhou rose by 30 percent year-on-year.

Professor Wu Dianting believes that practical problems concerning relocation also abound, not least the sheer cost of constructing entirely new infrastructure. The way out, according to Wu, is to rely on the evaluation and auction of local real estate with the help of direct financial support from the central government. Even if these factors are brought into play, Wu claimed, Beijing would be shouldering a heavy burden.

Wu and other analysts are also concerned about resistance from public servants and their families to relocate, given the improved access to workplaces and schools available in the city center. “It is unlikely that people will readily move to Tongzhou to work and live unless [access to] public services, including education and healthcare, is established in these areas,” he said. “Otherwise, people will have to commute between offices in Tongzhou and homes in the city center, further increasing congestion.”

Niu Fengrui, former director of the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that one issue needs to be considered before a relocation occurs — whether or not the move will help or hinder Beijing in playing its core roles. Current Chinese wisdom maintains that locating local executive authorities in city centers is the most efficient use of space, therefore, moving the capital’s administrative organs to an eastern suburb could be risky.

“If the subsidiary administrative center is not located in the city center, especially when staff in other districts and counties have to commute longer distances for work, it will definitely increase traffic and there will also be a time cost,” he said.

Niu added that it is not easy to solve Beijing’s urban ills in the short time frame given for relocating the municipal government. Beijing, he argued, has long been burdened with too many functions, which have resulted in an over-concentration of resources including education, healthcare and other public services.

Yang Kaizhong, professor with the Regional Science Association of China, Peking University, told NewsChina that the solution to urban ills is shearing some non-core functions away from Beijing, rather than simply moving some departments to the suburbs.

At the same time, Yang recommended the planning and establishment of a national executive center at an “appropriate place” somewhere in the vicinity of the capital, a location where Beijing’s local party and government branches, but also certain agencies of the central government, can relocate.

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