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Reaching for Star Status

China wants to create cities of global stature that allow the country to compete internationally and boost the regional economies. At the moment, the provinces are competing to enter the global competition

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

The new designation of “national central city,” expected to be introduced soon, could reshape the current hierarchy of Chinese cities and give policy support to those which are seen to have the potential to become world-class metropolises. 

The concept was originally proposed by the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD) in 2005 in the initial draft of the country’s National Urban System Planning, a policy guideline currently under discussion. 

So far, eight Chinese cities are known to have already been granted the new status. In addition to four centrally-administrated municipalities – Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing – the list also includes four provincial capitals, namely Hubei Province’s Wuhan, Sichuan’s Chengdu, Guangzhou in Guangdong and Zhengzhou, capital of Henan. Last year, a so-called final list with 15 cities started to circulate online, but an anonymous inside source close to the planning process told NewsChina that it’s only one of a large range of alternative plans. Li Xiaojiang, former director of the CAUPD, complained at a conference last year that pressure has been huge since contradictory opinions between different ministries have confounded any consensus-making on urban systems planning. 

Meanwhile, to compete for the remaining positions, however many there are, provinces have issued official documents to support their capital cities or regional economic giants to become national centers. A competitive atmosphere has since been spreading among China’s big cities, all of which are looking to climb the greasy pole. 

Global Strategy 

The term “national central city” represents the government’s aspiration to create more star cities, which can rival in influence world-renowned metropolises like New York and London while also energizing the regional economies in which they sit. 

According to the original CAUPD plan, which started blueprinting the country’s overall urban hierarchy in 2005, such central cities should be of global influence and competitiveness that will allow them to accommodate international political, economic and cultural exchanges. Domestically they are to act as regional hubs for economic activities, transportation and information networks. 

Competition between countries is believed to be essentially one between cities. All developed countries, said Li Xiaojiang, turn out to have a highly-developed central city that performs a function unlimited by geographical boundaries. 

“For example, New York, London and Paris all play a pivotal role in international finance and trade,” Li said to NewsChina. “Shouldn’t China also build cities that have a serious economic reach and can compete internationally on behalf of the country?” 

Jia Ruoxiang, a department head at the Institute for Spatial Planning and Regional Economy under the National Development and Reform Commission, defines a central city as a place that demonstrates the highest input and output efficiency in an economic region. “The building of a central city is a process of having factors of production gather in that place and thus maximize the production efficiency of that region,” said Jia, adding that the central cities are expected to reshape the country’s economic geography from an administrative capital-based structure to one organized around separate economic hubs. 

The building of new central cities is also expected to effectively relieve the urban malaise currently afflicting Chinese metropolises. Li Xun, CAUPD’s vice director, told NewsChina that top-level design is needed more than ever to enable Chinese cities to accommodate the 300 million more rural migrants that urbanization will continue to create in the following 20 years. 

At least 10 more super-size cities are needed at the moment to share the population burden that is pressing ever heavier upon Beijing and a couple of other metropolitan centers, said Yang Weimin, deputy head of the Leading Group on Finance and Economic Affairs, China’s top economic policy-making institution. These central cities will serve as the country’s new engines of growth, he said. 

New economic engines are needed to drive the growth of less developed areas and relieve the pressures faced by existing metropolitan centers that are currently attracting far more migrants than they can take because of the advantages they enjoy in infrastructure and public services, said Lu Zhiyan, a researcher of urban development and environment at the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). 

“When we classify cities by the so-called first and second tiers, they are evaluated individually in terms of their residents’ income levels and housing prices,” Li Xiaojiang told NewsChina. “A central city, however, focuses on a city’s ability to lead the growth of a region, namely its radiative capacity and its influence both at home and abroad.” 

Their selection is thus based on stricter assessment standards, which will take into consideration a much wider range of urban aspects such as the size of population, economic capacity, cultural influence, international trade volume, innovation level, transportation and their fundraising and fund using capacities, according to Li Xun. He said the most important requirement is for these cities to be able to support and drive the growth of the regional economy. 

For those who have already been officially recognized as central cities, there is no guarantee that they will keep that status for good, Liu Zhiyan told NewsChina, saying the title they are carrying is only a message of anticipation. Whether the chosen cities live up to the name will depend on their own efforts, he said. 

Game of Policies  

Since last year, at least nine cities have announced in official documents their resolution and proposed efforts to make it to the list of national central cities. Zhang Hongming, former mayor of Zhejiang’s provincial capital Hangzhou, told NewsChina that they contacted relevant departments to propose their plans immediately after the message was issued last year. 

In August, Zhejiang made it official in their written 13th Five-Year Plan for urban development that Hangzhou would join the competition for the status while encouraging the city to take full advantage of the opportunity of hosting the G20 summit in 2016 and the Asian Games in 2022. 

Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, has written into the report of the regional Party Congress its commitment to placing the construction of a national central city among the city’s core strategies over the following five years. Similar statements have also appeared in the congress reports of cities like Changsha (capital of Hunan Province), Zhengzhou (capital of Henan) and Ningbo in Zhejiang. Shandong Province, China’s third largest regional economy, released an urban development plan earlier this year to support both its capital Jinan and the coastal industrial city Qingdao in their endeavors to build themselves into qualified national centers. 

The earliest to announce a central city plan was Wuhan, capital of central Hubei Province. The city started an economic campaign as early as 2013. Its major effort was a so-called economic multiplication plan that primarily promises notable growth in industrial output. In 2013, Wuhan’s GDP grew by 10 percent year-on-year to 900 billion yuan ($130.9 billion), making it the fourth-largest economy among provincial capital-level cities, after Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu. 

National central cities need a substantial population and economy. Many cities are making efforts to get bigger.  

Believing that a city’s economic capacity is primarily determined by its physical size, officials in Xi’an, who previously reported much smaller economic figures than the city’s counterparts along the wealthier east coast, have endeavored to make the city seem bigger. 

Following in the footsteps of Chongqing, Chengdu and Wuhan, all of which have incorporated smaller neighboring cities and counties on their way to becoming GDP giants, the provincial government of Shaanxi made Xianyang, a highly promising industrial zone, an official part of Xi’an earlier this year, bringing the provincial capital an additional one million in population and 10,000 square kilometers in size. 

The move has effectively given Xi’an more space for development and allowed the city to qualify on physical and economic scales to be a national center, said Xi’an’s mayor Shangguan Jiqing in an exclusive interview with NewsChina during this year’s annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing. 

“Being chosen as a national center means a city has its development potential, advantages and prospects recognized by the country’s top policy-makers,” said Yang Kaizhong, professor of economics at Peking University. Yang said the title will also mean marketing success for the city. 

What truly matters is the promise of practical benefits, as national central cities are likely to enjoy more preferential policies, especially in infrastructure and public services, Liu Zhiyan of CASS told NewsChina. The title will soon be followed by a large number of construction projects that will instantly boost a city’s economy and transportation, said Lü Renyi, professor at Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology. 

Using Shenzhen as an example, which grew from a fishing village to a modern metropolis in no more than three decades, Lü said preferential policies have proven highly effective in creating economic miracles in China. The construction of a national center will turn a city into a huge magnet that attracts a continuous flow of funding and human resources, said Liu Zhiyan. 

Behind these benefits there stands a fundamental duty for the central cities, said Li Xiaojiang of the CAUPD. They are expected to join the rank of world-class cities so that they can support China’s global strategy, Li said. While China endeavors to move its manufacturing up the global industrial chain and open up further to international trade, it needs a number of national centers to perform global functions such as free trade zones, international exchange centers and transportation hubs, said the CAUPD’s Li Xun. 
To ensure that a national strategy is properly implemented on a city level, the central government will need to practice policy interventions, suggested Tsinghua University’s architecture professor Yin Zhi in an academic paper. 

He said interventions can be done through establishing a national-level pilot zone for policy reform, launching large-scale national-level construction projects and supporting national strategic resources. Only these can make sure that the construction of national centers will follow the country’s overall strategic path, he said.