IT’S called a megaregion, and, as the name suggests, it’s really big. Jing-Jin-Ji in China is so big it’s estimated to be the size of 17 Sydneys and, once complete, will be home to 130 million people.
But this megalopolis is not a new supercity that has organically emerged from the Chinese countryside. It’s actually three very large cities that are being forced to merge together to, bizarrely, reduce the size of one of them: Beijing. While the massive project, which will see Beijing, the port city of Tianjin and the Hebei hinterland region connected by high speed rail, began two years ago, Chinese authorities have been talking about creating it for more than a decade. China already has two megaregions, the Yangtze River Delta (south of the Yangtze River) and the Pearl River Delta (which comprises of nine cities including Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau), and has plans to create ten more, but Jing-Jin-Ji (“Jing” for Beijing, “Jin” for Tianjin and “Ji,” the traditional name for Hebei Province) is considered different because it was born out of political pressure rather than economic prosperity.
Over population, traffic congestion and high levels of air pollution have forced Chinese authorities to devise a new way of dealing with the growing problems, according to University of Sydney associate professor Duanfang Lu. “Beijing actually wants to make itself smaller — it has more than 20 million people — and the traffic is really bad as well as pollution,” Dr Lu explained. “Because the air pollution has become so bad, it has become a political issue for the central government. Pollution is a health issue and a lot of people are very concerned about it.” So how does a country go about reducing the size of one of its largest cities to create a megalopolis? By shifting its hospitals, schools and “non-core” industries out of Beijing and placing them in the other areas.
Sounds simple enough but in reality is quite a big project, and well, quite harsh. Dr Lu, who is an expert in urban planning, said the ambitious project, which is set to be completed within six years, has already had some unintended consequences. One of the key strategies for the Jing-Jin-Ji megalopolis is to spread economic opportunities throughout the entire region. But in order to do this, authorities have to direct investment away from Beijing. Traditionally Tianjin and the Hebei region have competed with Beijing but now they will share in its economic wealth. But Dr Lu says for this to happen “some people will gain, some people will lose”. “Unlike other existing megaregions, which are based on economic concerns, the new Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei region is more based on the political concerns, I would say,” she told news.com.au. “It will have economic success but it will come at a cost for some people. So basically Beijing wants to move its non core industries out of Beijing and focus more on political, cultural and high tech industries, the high end functions. “The heavy industries will be moved into the other provinces.”
The first “non core” industry to be moved out of Beijing to date has been the wholesale markets, a well known staple of Beijing. But Dr Lu says this has been a big failure. She explained those who would visit the markets were those on lower incomes who cannot afford to travel an hour or more to the new site. “I have just done my field research there and I think it’s a big failure because when I was there were few people were shopping there,” Dr Lu said. “When those markets were in Beijing they used to be very crowded. Now it’s very few people. “It doesn’t make sense.
Low income population will not spend half a day to travel to the market to buy a few things then travel back to the city.” But it’s not just the moving of markets that don’t add up for Dr Lu. She says the recent announcement that the municipal government (local councils) will also be moved out of Beijing also doesn’t make sense. “Apparently they want the central government to stay in the core of Beijing but not the municipal government which is quite a surprising arrangement,” she said. “I think it is quite a big sacrifice for the officials. They have to move their families or lose their jobs”. This sacrifice is the harsh side of the mega-project. Millions of loyal workers will essentially be forced to move to less developed areas or lose their jobs completely.
Instead of creating employment they will just move existing jobs out of Beijing and into Tianjin and the Hebei region. “Although it’s an effort to solve the urban problems such as air pollution and overcrowding, a lot of people are not very happy about it,” Dr Lu said. “They don’t actually think it will reduce the population in Beijing. It might just leave the whole megaregion with even more people. “That’s what I have seen from people commenting on the internet.” Dr Lu says while the reasons behind the megaregion might seem like a good idea, it was also a bit narrowminded. She explained the central government doesn’t take into account that a person will have to give up their social networks as well as access to some of the best facilities once they move.
Many of the large cities in the outer region lack facilities, although she concedes some might be attracted to the cheaper housing and cleaner air. Beijing, she says, has higher house prices than Sydney. A good example is the city of Yanjiao in the Hebei Province. Over the past decade the population has increased tenfold. It is littered with 25-story housing blocks but has very little public infrastructure or facilities. The city has no bus terminals, no cinemas and only two very small parks.
“The streets flood in the rain because there is no good drainage,” Xia Zhiyan, a 42-year-old employee of a printing company told the New York Times. “They just built more and more apartments without the most basic facilities.” Dr Lu says she is not sure whether the Jing-Jin-Ji megaregion will have a negative or positive affect but she is certain the Chinese government will ensure it happens. She says some people fear the megaregion will become even bigger than the 130 million because people from outside that huge area might be attracted to the employment prospects. “It will happen,” she said. “Especially now with China’s high speed trains; I think like a lot of things that involve large investment, as long as the cen.