The idea did not come up with Xi Jinping. Relocating part of the Chinese capital, balancing the metropolitan area nicknamed Jing-Jin-Ji (from Beijing, Tianjin and smaller ones), had been under discussion for decades, says researcher Andrew Stokols. But it was Xi and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party that determined where and how it would be, in April 2017: Xiong’an, the Chinese Brasilia, was born.
Six years later, three of the Covid pandemic, in May the leader took a bullet train in Beijing and, half an hour later, got off at the city station, with two others from the Standing Committee —the center of power in the country, with just seven members. As with JK’s visits to construction sites in the Brazilian capital, Xi described Xiong’an’s breakthrough as a miracle and reaffirmed the party’s decision as “completely right”.
It was to leave no doubt as to the commitment to the project, but also because it already had something to show, after the 510 billion yuan (R$ 350 billion) invested so far in the city alone.
In recent years, in addition to the station and the train, necessary to convince those reluctant to leave Beijing for the new city, Daxing International Airport was opened, which is 20 minutes away.
And the Rongdong residential district is close to being completed, where the area’s original residents have been resettled. In the days following the visit, the state media presented images and reports of the residential complexes and the daily lives of the families. Late last year, a novel did more than that, “Bai Yang Dian Shang” (above Baiyangdian Lake —the Paranoa Lake of Xiong’an).
The author, Guan Renshan, writes about a fisherman who has to adapt to work for a state-owned company, in the ecological recovery of the lake and in reforestation. At first resistant, he convinces himself and leads other fishermen, even his father, to embrace his transition into sectors such as tourism. Guan ended up taking the People’s Literature Prize.
Even with greater planning and quality, Rongdong district, where fishermen and others are being resettled, is Xiong’an’s first satellite city. “Many villas had to be demolished to make way for the city and then were housed in this new residential area, which is part of Xiong’an, but is not the central area”, says the American Stokols.
“There is already some inequality, in terms of how that part of Xiong’an was built more cheaply, to resettle, being similar to Brasilia, where government officials live in the planned part, but the slums will sprout up around it. “
The Xiong’an pilot plan, called the Qibu district, is the one that most directly refers to the Brazilian capital. On an east-west axis, it is divided into five groups or blocks, with one of them, the Qidong, being today with the most advanced works. It will concentrate trade, finance and the headquarters of large state-owned companies, which Xi has once again urged to prepare to leave Beijing.
On the eastern side of Qidong, the advanced campuses of four universities in the Chinese capital will be concentrated, with research centers. The expectation is that most of these two blocks will be ready by 2025, when residential occupation of Qibu by white-collar workers should increase.
Chinese podcaster Carl Zha avoids the parallel with Brasilia and seeks to talk about Xiong’an in a more concrete way. “What I can tell you is why Xi ordered Xiong’an to be built: Beijing got too crowded,” he says. “Especially in China, because it’s a socialist economy, the state rules, and all companies want to have their headquarters in Beijing, to interact with the authorities.”
An engineer at Californian Caltech, now based in Indonesia and dedicated to the influential Silk & Steel (silk and steel) podcast, which is markedly pro-China, he says that the capital cannot maintain the population it has reached. Situated in the dry areas of northern China, “on the edge of the Mongolian plateau, even during imperial times the population depended on grain shipments from the south” and water channels.
Xiong’an, one hundred kilometers to the south, is in a region of lakes and swamps, hence the choice. “Xi Jinping’s idea is: ‘I’m just going to pull some ministries out of Beijing and then others will follow.’ If you build it, they will come. It will spread the burden of the population center. That’s the main idea.” Then comes “integrating the latest sustainable environmental projects”.
Stokols, who was director of research at Peking University’s Center for Ecological Urbanism and is now preparing a PhD in urban planning at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), confirms that Xiong’ian emerged to decongest Beijing.
“They want to keep it as the symbolic capital, with all its historical, cultural affinities, all the government buildings. And what’s not essential goes to Xiong’an, the non-capital functions, like the non-capital companies. need to be there.”
But the city project ended up moving beyond that, seeking a techno-environmental utopia, as he calls it, and incorporating Xi Jinping’s ideas in that direction.
When he came to power in Beijing a decade ago, there was more pollution in the city, and environmental protection became a political issue for the party.
“There is a lot of ambition for Xiong’an,” says Stokols. “It is expected to generate most of its energy from new sources and have a large percentage of 5G automated transit. There are many innovations that would make the city very sustainable.”
This is reflected in some of the large structures already completed, such as the supercomputers under a reflecting pool, described as the brain of the city, and the power station under a Chinese garden.
When the project was defined, in 2017, the regime itself recalled the successful experiences with the planning and implementation, in a few decades, of the Pudong district, in Shanghai, and the city of Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong. Seen as legacies of Deng Xiaoping, they coincided with the rise of some of China’s largest private corporations, headquartered in both.
This is not the case, so far. Xiong’an is linked to state-owned real estate and construction, for the works, and companies expected to have headquarters ready sooner are also state-owned, such as Sinochem and Huaneng. And the great research centers in science and technology are being set up by telecommunications and other state-owned companies. The legacy that Xi wants to leave is different from that of Deng.