Going as Planned
The widely-watched Beijing Urban Master Plan (2016-2030) has taken another step forward: after being briefed on the progress of the plan, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a key speech at a June 27 meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee.
The compiling of the latest version started in early 2014. After being reviewed and approved at the 14th Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Beijing Municipal Committee in mid-May 2017, it was submitted to the CPC Central Committee and State Council for final approval.
Once it gets the green light, the new plan will become an official blueprint that guides and constrains the arrangements for the capital city’s layout up to 2030. Based on the information that has been made available by Beijing local authorities, the newly-compiled blueprint is very likely to kick-start the city’s re-distribution of functions, and put an end to the current unplanned development characterized by an overcrowded downtown and urban sprawl.
Before the new planning blueprint was submitted to the CPC Beijing Municipal Committee for approval, its draft version went on public display at the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall for 30 days to gather feedback from the public. The draft version shows the new plans for the layout of the city, namely a central city, a subcenter, two axes, and multiple suburban areas.
After a review by the municipal authorities in mid-May, “one district” – the core district that incorporates the elements involved in Beijing’s functions as the capital city – and “one area” – the ecological conservation area – were incorporated into the new plan.
Since the merging of Beijing city’s four downtown districts into two, namely Dongcheng and Xicheng, in July 2010, there have been calls to further integrate them into a single district.
The newly proposed “one core district” concept, brought up in the latest planning blueprint, has led to renewed speculation that the two downtown districts are likely to merge to form a new administrative district, amid the ongoing effort to shift non-capital city functions out of the Chinese capital.
In an interview with NewsChina, a planning expert, who was among the compilers of the previous Beijing city planning blueprint, said the readjustment of Beijing’s existing administrative districts is highly possible, based on information already available to the public.
Ren Zeping, chief economist at Founder Securities, shares a similar view. The former deputy director of the macro-economy department of the State Council’s Development Research Center believes that the two old downtown areas’ restructuring into a central administrative area is set to move up the agenda, with the establishment of the Xiongan New District 100km southwest of Beijing, the ongoing construction of the Tongzhou sub-center on the eastern fringes of the city and the accompanying eastward relocation of Beijing’s municipal public sector agencies.
Ren believes setting up a central administrative district is doubly significant: first, it further strengthens the protection of the heritage of the ancient capital; second, it helps clear out non-essential functions, addresses the problems of the megacity, and facilitates coordinated development across the wider region.
According to an inside source interviewed by Caixin magazine, the new blueprint draft has reserved space for a central administrative area. But the source also said that the decision whether to set up a central administrative district will be made by the central government, instead of local authorities.
As a renowned urban planning expert in Beijing, Lian Yuming, president of the Beijing International Institute of Urban Development, was also the first to put forward the idea of creating a central administrative district. When compiling the Xicheng District’s 13th Five Year Plan guidelines, Lian increasingly believed that the administrative district adjustment in 2010 was not sufficiently thorough, as it failed to address some ingrained issues that impede Beijing’s urban development.
“After the adjustment, Dongcheng and Xicheng districts will still have to balance services and the economy. This has led to continued gathering of non-capital functions in the city’s central area, and the worsening of the metropolitan malaise,” said Lian, highlighting the necessity of further integrating the current two downtown districts to create a core district for capital functions.
This view is shared by quite a few. At the 2016 annual sessions of China’s top legislative and political advisory bodies, the Beijing Committee of the Jiusan Society (one of China’s eight minor political parties) put forward a proposal which suggested the integration of Dongcheng and Xicheng to form a central district, as a way to step up the protection of the ancient capital city.
The city model of Beijing at the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall
But merging and restructuring would present a number of challenges to the local government including massive job cuts in the public sector. Arranging staff redundancies is a major headache. As planning expert Lian Yuming said, even today, Beijing is still struggling to manage the redundancies of public sector staff that resulted from the 2010 merger of the four downtown districts.
These concerns may have long delayed the effort to integrate the two districts. But the drive has regained momentum since the 2014 roll-out of the strategy for regional coordinated development.
Compared with previous urban planning blueprints for Beijing, the latest version has one major difference, said Shi Yulong, head of the Institute of Spatial Planning and Regional Economy of the National Development and Reform Commission. He pointed out, with the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Coordinated Development Strategy in mind, compiling the new blueprint requires a bigger vision to accommodate regional inter-connection and interaction.
In a written reply to NewsChina’s interview request, the Beijing Municipal Planning and Land Resources Administration Commission said the new plans, which took three years to compile and saw seven major amendments, reflect the new ideas, new demand and new anticipation of the capital’s development at a key transitional period.
The released draft of the blueprint is one that focuses on curbing the city’s population, demands on the ecology and development boundaries. The plans look to keep Beijing city’s long-term residents under 23 million in 2020, compared with the city’s 2016 population of 21.73 million.
A notable detail was that the new blueprint was presented to both the CPC Central Committee and the State Council for approval – a rare diversion from the normal practice of submitting only to the State Council.
Speaking to NewsChina, Zhang Keyun, a member of the China National Planning Expert Committee and professor at the Renmin University of China’s Institute of Regional and Urban Economics, said Beijing city’s malaise is due to the burden brought by the concentration of multiple functions and the capital city’s failure to find a balance between the role of a capital of the country and the role of a large city in its own right.
According to Zhang, economic development is not a priority for Beijing as a capital, but it wants to manage its economy as a local economic entity. Therefore, he advised, addressing this issue requires drawing a line between the city’s functions as a capital and as a city.
How to go about building a central administrative district has sparked heated discussions.
Economist Ren Zeping suggested two options: the first is to set up a residents’ agency, such as an administrative committee. The second option is to establish a provincial government, which means the creation of a new capital and an amendment to the Constitution.
Ren said the first option shares some similarities to Washington D.C. and the Australian Capital Territory, and is more likely to be adopted in the short term. But, he added, building a central administrative district within the territory of a capital is not a feasible option for the Chinese capital.
“The US and Australia are federal countries, which are suited to this arrangement. But a capital territory is not in line with China’s legal basis for administrative district governance. It could also hamper the already complicated administrative coordination of the Beijng-Tianjin-Hebei region, and weaken the Chinese capital’s strength as the center of a world-class urban cluster,” said Ren.