Beijing’s new mayor has vowed to gut the city of all functions unrelated to its status as national capital, in an effort to push the growing population into the surrounding provinces.
The city’s functions would be reduced “like peeling off cabbage leaves”, with the economy and cityscape restructured to make it “leaner and more efficient”, Cai Qi said.
Asian states have historically moved capitals when they have become too crowded and have depleted local resources. Most recently, Myanmar and Kazakhstan have built new capitals from scratch, moving the government away from historic commercial cities that were the traditional centres of power. But Mr Cai, a rising political star, may be the first to seek to move the city away from the capital.Beijing has been the Chinese capital and a centre of power and culture for most of the past 750 years. It was founded as a walled city in the 11th century BC on a well-watered plain. After serving for centuries as a military garrison and capital of several independent states it first became the national capital in the 13th century AD during the Yuan dynasty, when Mongols ruled what is now China.
Its population expanded rapidly after the Communist party took power in 1949 and created the headquarters of a Leninist state. The population boomed again in the reform era, as relaxation of China’s strict hukou, or residency, regulations combined with a property bubble near the centre of power.
Almost 22m people now live in Beijing or surrounding satellite cities, up from 4m in 1950 and 9m in 1980. Most of the ancient city’s unique architecture and distinct hutongs, or lanes, have been bulldozed to make way for highways, shopping malls, office buildings and state-owned banks and enterprises.
The result has been traffic jams, increasing strain on water resources, and rising public dissatisfaction with the city’s choking pollution.
Administrative action could temporarily reduce the city’s population, says Dai Qing, an environmental activist who has long argued that Beijing’s growth is dangerously depleting its underground aquifers. “But if you don’t restructure the system whereby interests and resources are concentrated in the capital, people will come flooding back in.”
Mr Cai’s announcement is a twist on central government plans revealed in 2014 to shift some of the national bureaucracy to Baoding, a nearby military and industrial city that was denoted the nation’s most polluted that year.
Plans to develop the “Jing-Jin-Ji” area (a shorthand for Beijing, the port city of Tianjin and the surrounding province of Hebei) have resulted in economic stimulus and new property development across the region.
They have been accompanied by campaigns within Beijing to tear down neighbourhood shops and wholesale markets where migrant workers work, in an attempt to force lower-income residents out of the city. Schools have closed their doors to the children of migrants. The number of new migrants to Beijing halved in 2015.
Areas that have been cleared would not see new construction, and would instead be turned into green and public space, Mr Cai vowed.
Beijing has also encouraged its universities to develop new campuses in satellite cities.
Hollowing out the city may help Mr Cai in his December pledge to prevent property prices in Beijing from rising this year. On Monday he also vowed to cut coal use in the capital by 30 per cent. The city is phasing out its last coal-fired power plant in favour of a gas-fired plant. It already sources much of its power from the smoke-shrouded city of Zhangjiakou, four hours’ drive to the north-west, which will host the Winter Olympics in 2022.