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Xi Jinping’s ambitious dream for the Xiongan New Area draws sceptical responses

By Jack Hu

After the initial frenzy in property and stock markets as a response to China’s announcement of a new economic zone near Beijing earlier this month, concerns and doubts over President Xi Jinping’s bold initiative have begun to surface.

China announced it would establish the Xiongan New Area, “a strategy crucial for a millennium,” in the underdeveloped Hebei Province that is part of China’s arid north, in a bid to advance the coordinated development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.

The decision — which is expected to ease demographic and economic pressures on the heaving 22-million city of Beijing — is being billed as having the same national significance as the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and the Shanghai Pudong New Area, according to a circular issued by the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council.

Specifically, the plan should reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in notoriously smoggy Beijing and prompt a relocation of industry, while curbing population growth and soaring housing prices in the capital.

See also: China sparks real estate frenzy with plan for new economic zone three times the size of New York

Shortly after the announcement, Xiong, Rongcheng and Anxin — the three under-developed counties 130 kilometres south of Beijing selected as the site of the new economic zone — were transformed overnight into property investment hot cakes, even as authorities attempted to tamp down speculation by rolling out purchasing restrictions.

The investment frenzy has extended to the stock market, where more than 40 Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong-listed companies related to the new area, primarily developers as well as steel and cement factories, surged in the past week.

shanghai stock exchange

Shanghai Stock Exchange. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

But given that many of China’s recent experiments in building new economic zones have failed, what makes Xi’s Xiongan plan any different?

The most notorious failure in the last decade is the Caofeidian New Area, an island 230 kilometres east of Beijing, which had been planned around the relocation of Capital Steel, one of China’s largest state steel firms, from Beijing. Once touted as a future hub for heavy industry, it now resembles a ghost town low on meaningful investments.

See also: Beijing unveils new economic area to give millennials a shot at the ‘China Dream’

In Tianjin, a municipality 130 kilometres southeast of Beijing, the authorities promised to build the world’s biggest financial center, Binhai New Area. Binhai first emerged as a project in the 1990s but never blossomed as planned.

Last month alone the Chinese government added seven “new free-trade zones” across the country, aimed at spurring regional economies under pressure from China’s economic slowdown.

Inland and ‘backwards’

Despite the market frenzy, financial analysts have been more sober in their analysis of Xiongan’s potential.

Tianjin Binhai New Area

Tianjin’s Binhai New Area. File photo: Yaohua2k7 via Flickr.

Liao Qun, chief economist at China CITIC Bank International said that coastal areas tend to grow faster. Merrill Lynch’s research predicted that the new area would not herald another round of massive infrastructure investment in China. Nomura analysts estimated that direct incremental annual infrastructure and property investment there could be around RMB 500 billion (HK$564 billion) in the next five years, translating to just 0.3-0.6 per cent of GDP.

Some Chinese economists and researchers have also been worried about the new area’s future as economic and political reforms move along sluggishly.

Li Zuojun, a fellow within the state think-tank Development Research Center of the State Council, said on China’s social media platform Weibo:

[Conditions for the sustainable growth of a new area] It is easy to set up new area, but tough to sustain its growth. Here are some of the necessary conditions for the new areas to sustain growth: 1. Ability to produce and energise a batch of competitive companies; 2. Ability to aggregate a large number of innovative entrepreneurs; 3. A system to boost social innovation; 4. Should not be dependent on national policy favours beyond the start up period; 5. Should treasure resources and environment during development.
【新区持续成长的条件】设新区易,使新区持续健康成长难。新区持续健康成长需要以下条件:一是产生和壮大一批有市场竞争力的企业;二是聚集和成长一批有创新意识的创业者;三是建立一整套能激发社会活力的体制机制;四是起步时利用国家倾斜政策但不依赖于囯家政策;五是在开发过程中对资源环境保持敬畏

Xiao Feng, a popular current affairs commentator, warned the new area risked being overhyped:

If the idea of “special” in special development area does not transgress the pre-existing system, it can’t be really special. If it does not transgress our imagination, Xiongan New Area will just be another hype-driven concept. The success of Shenzhen Economic Zone did not depend on property developers, but a large number of rebels who wanted to change the [centrally planned] system. In Hebei, where people believe in the planned economy, how can they attract and embrace alternative [people] who go against the establishment?
特区“特”在观念。没有体制突破,难称特区。如果没有观念突破,雄安新区不过是另一次概念炒作——深圳当年的兴起,靠的可不是房地产商,而是一大批体制反叛者。而在计划经济色彩浓重的河北,如何能吸引和包容那些体制另类?
foshan guangzhou

Real estate in China. File photo: Lindley via Wikicommons.

Ordinary Weibo users also cast doubts on the development of the new area, under the Weibo Headline News’ comment threads:

Another large speculative property project designed by government emerges!
又一个大型政府炒房楼盘诞生了!
Less hype and more serious development of industry, otherwise the idea of catch up with Shenzhen and Shanghai will remain a joke. How can [Xiongan] be successful when it begins with property speculation in an area that is backwards in terms of culture, ideology and business environment?
别炒作这些了,踏踏实实做点实业吧,不然什么比肩深圳上海,那就是个笑话,这破地方本来就人文文化,意识形态,商业环境都落后,现在还啥都没干呢先炒房,能发展起来才怪了。

This article originally appeared on Global Voices. Read the original article here.

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Xi Jinping's ambitious dream for the Xiongan New Area draws sceptical responses