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Some background: Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei unification

March 13, 2015

konjaku: The phrase“Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification” seems to have become an important concept defining the future of the Beijing periphery, at least to the east. The reasoning is that Beijing’s expanding population is outpacing the growth of urban services and even basic urban functions. The only way to release this pressure is expand outward, into areas of Hebei surrounding the city that have up to now suffered from a lack of development. This expansion must also be coordinated with the nearby large city of Tianjin (population of 10 million). This derives from the same underlying assumptions for driving out the “low-end masses” from the city center.

The area tries to reverse an unbalance through forced cooperation– the Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification reaches a critical juncture

The Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification has become a hot topic all over, both in terms of regional planning and in the exclusive value put on high rise building projects. The world outside the capital, that always looks to economic trends in Beijing to decipher which way the country is going, sees this as a sign that in the new process of economic reform the Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification is “number one.”

However, the “urban disease” [over-development], and impoverished [under-developed] areas co-exist. Entrenched barriers to economic benefits, and [untapped] latent economic capacities also co-exist. Environmental destruction and the call for more development lead to difficult dilemmas. The contradictions of development under the Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification plan reflect the problems of urbanization across the whole country. These problems have forced a reevaluation of the plan, and Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification now faces a new critical juncture.

2013 early spring, dense thick haze repeatedly covered the Beijing Tianjin Hebei area, causing deep concern among the public. At the same time the topic of the Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification again became widely talked about. With the haze in the skies it was impossible to not to confront the problems of development, “we all breathe the same air, and share a common fate.”

While Hebei has been enthusiastic about the plan, Beijing and Tianjin have been less so. Yet nowadays, there is an urgent need for these cities to cooperate more fully, to relieve the congestion of their central urban areas. According to Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Research Fellow Dan Jingjing, Beijing, with its expanding population, can no longer carry its burden. It has reached the limit of its resources, and must respond to environmental ultimatums.

Ten years ago the Beijing Master Plan 2004-2020 was released, based on a projected population of 18,000,000, but this figure was soon rendered obsolete. By 2012, Beijing had 20,693,000 residents. Along with this increase, land became scarce, traffic became more backed up, pollution increased, housing prices rose, in short, all the symptoms of the “urban disease” appeared.

Beijing especially has reached the ceiling in terms of development, the only way out is Beijing Tianjin Hebei cooperation. Urban economy and management professor Zhu Erjuan said the only way Beijing can get out of its deadlock, a point at which basic systems no longer function, is to expand outward, and seek areas of development in the larger area. “As Beijing and Tianjin look for a solution in integrating and assimilating into the areas on their peripheries, this will also form a new opportunity for those areas.”

If by analogy Beijing and Tianjing need to “lose weight” there are areas in Hebei which “do not have enough to eat,” and whose need for development coordinated with the two urban centers is quite acute.

Although it adjoins the two largest cities of Northern China, encircles the capital[Beijing] and to the east has a coastline, the benefits Hebei receives radiating out from Beijing and Tianjin are next to nothing. Beijing and Tianjin suck in all the resources and capital from the surrounding area, even to the point of creating a “poverty zone.” “Under a large tree grass does not grow tall” is the expression public opinion uses to describe the embarrassing situation of poverty zones near Beijing and Tianjing.

In 2005, the Asia Development Bank announced the result of a survey: in the areas surrounding Beijing and Tianjin there were 3798 impoverished villages, 32 impoverished counties. 2,726,000 people whose average annual income is under 625 yuan.

Nine years later, in 2014, at a time when Beijing describes itself a “fully modernized international city,” the Hebei provincial government issued a report stating that poverty assistance was still urgently needed.

“The three areas, Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei, have to some degree become linked together, but each is fixated on its own immediate self-interests. They are not looking at the distribution of business interests and real estate in the area as a whole. This is because everyone is waiting for the national plan to be issued.” said Zhu Erjuan.

konjaku: on the way to a national plan.

Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification –Three large plans appear, soon to be announced by the State Council

Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification can be traced back to 1982. That year, the “Beijing construction master plan” came out. In it for the first time the expression “greater metropolitan area” was used, to refer to the capital and its surrounding area as one concept. Since then, for the next 30 some years,we had first “Beijing Tianjin Hebei economic unification,” next, “Beijing Tianjin Hebei metropolitan area” and now, finally, “Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification.” This latter term represents the escalation of the concept to a national strategy, a project on which there is now a high level of attention, as of 2014-07.

This reporter has learned that the master plan, still in the draft stage, is divided into three sections that are meant to be synchronized together: besides the overall development plan, there are also sections devoted to transportation and environmental protection. The plan is in the final stage of revisions, and is about to be announced by the Council of State.

Council of State Research Fellow Chang Jiwen told this reporter that solving traffic problems was a major focus. “How can Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei be unified? The first step must be to unify the overall transportation system. Developing high speed trains or light rail will bring the area together under one convenient transport grid.” This will spur urbanization and economic development.

As for the environment, Chang Jiwen said they had to have measures in place to implement detailed rules and regulations that follow the just released “Ten stipulations on the atmosphere” and “Ten stipulations on water.” Besides that, they needed to control pollution by automobiles and other vehicles by unifying gasoline quality, unifying restrictions on CO2 emissions, and unifying regulations to limit vehicle traffic [for instance, banning cars with even numbered license plates on certain days].
Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification is not only a matter of local development of that area, but it also ushers in a new level of expanded growth on a national level. The appearance of this new large scale plan will require the attention of the central authorities and the cooperation of different departments. Chang Jiwen said, “They will need to listen to the opinions of every side –this is a big plan, and it will not do for each to act by their own selfish calculations.”


Why 30 years has not produced unification

“In localities which needed development, the main financing came from local taxation. However, in places in which there were no major companies or businesses [Hebei non-urban areas], there was very little tax revenue,” Hebei Polytechnic University research specialist Zhang Guigao said.There may be only a few businesses generating a significant amount of profits, and if even one leaves a locality, it makes a big difference in tax revenues. He added that in the current tax system, tax officials are entirely responsive to the concerns of the local government in their area. They are only concerned with collecting taxes in the area under their jurisdiction. If one takes a locality as the unit of taxation, it is very difficult for different localities to participate in any kind of revenue sharing. This has restricted unification.

Local government officials are only concerned with the development of their own regions. Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei administrations each do things their own way. Officials are haunted by the need to boost the GDP in their own area, which will be an impressive mark on their own careers.

To give an example, the Tianjin alkali factory must import salt. It is faced with the transport cost, and a lack of railroad capacity to fulfill its demand. Xiao Jincheng has suggested that the Tianjin factory relocate to someplace in Shandong, or, from the Tanggu district next to Tianjin to the Dagang district nearby, but neither Tianjin city or the Tanggu district were willing to allow the move.

Chen Changzhi(Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China): Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification faces many problems

He believes the major difficulties and problems are these: 1) the orientation of the three areas are not well defined, the division of employment possibilities is not rationally set out. There are too many social and administrative functions concentrated in Beijing, the population increases rapidly, leading to extreme traffic congestion and a shortage of water resources 2), the economical discrepancy between the three regions is great, and only loosely integrated 3) the two large cities (Beijing and Tianjin) siphon off the resources of the area around them, and do not radiate out any beneficial energy in return. Hebei forms a ring around Beijing and Tianjin, but it has many impoverished counties. The Beijing average output value generated by individuals is three times that of cities in Hebei such as Baoding and Zhangjiakou, and there is also as great difference in the level of public services, such as education and medical care.

In pushing forward Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification, we must ask: how will the markets of the three areas be unified? how can there be a balanced development of public services? how will eco-compensation mechanisms be set up? To put in place an appropriate strategy, we must fully solve Beijing’s “urban disease” problem, Tianjin’s latent development potential problem, and Hebei’s industrial development problem.

1) We must strengthen the upper levels of the plan. To make the plan hard and firm, we must smash the “one third of a mu” way of thinking[see note], in which each acts according to their own sphere of influence. Instead of everyone doing things their own way, the plan should clearly identify the inherent strengths of each region as a basis for cooperation.

2) Strengthen industrial unification. Beijing needs to “thin down,” transfer out some of its superior aspects: its functions, its science and technology, its people with technical knowledge, its international economic connections. This will improve the economic structure based on high tech research and development. Hebei has lots of open space, good natural and human resources. If new industries enter Hebei, integrate with those already there, and through vigorous winnowing the surplus is eliminated, this will lead to a more optimal, advanced industrial structure. Tianjin’s strong point is its harbor, trade, better circulation of materials, including international trade. Through cooperation a mutual industrial base can be hammered out.

3) Strengthen environmental protection. According to an analysis, 30% of the PM 2.5 in the Beijing Tianjin Hebei area derives from burning coal, the rest is from motor vehicles, industry, burning sorghum stalks, and raised dust. Air, water, and soil pollution problems cannot be solved by doing better in only one area, all must cooperate.

4) Build a convenient traffic network.
konjaku note: one third of a mu, a phrase often used by old-time Beijingers, means “one’s own sphere of influence.” One third of a mu refers to the size of the sacred imperial field which the emperor ceremoniously tilled in springtime in the Ming and Qing eras.

Cai Yihong: Beijing Tianjing Hebei unification: put people first, as the basis for unification


Xi Jinping General Secretary put forward the question: what is the core value of Beijing Tianjin Hebei unification? Recently government, industry, media, and scholars have all tried to answer this question, but this writer feels what is most implied in the plan for unification is –take people as the basis!

Looking back on the history, Beijing Tianjing Hebei unification first appeared with the concept “larger metropolitan area” in 1982. Since then, for 30 years, only the words “Beijing Tianjing Hebei unification ” have existed, but there has been no real results. Compared with the continuous success and prosperity of the Pearl River triangle and the Yangtze River Delta, Beijing seems like a fixed star, remote from the masses, shining in the vast night sky, its brightness acting to set in relief the 39 impoverished counties of Hebei –an example of the saying, “darkness under the lamp” [light radiates up and outward, thus directly under a lamp it is dark]. Tianjin resembles another heavenly being stuck in the same old ways, the flourishing bull in the sky, while its surroundings do not share the same space.

Just as netizens have come to doubt, for some decades the nation has made a lot of noise about Beijing Tianjing Hebei unification, but Beijing has continued to expand, “spreading out the flatbread,” and Tianjin has been the beneficiary of many policies, but Hebei has been ignored. Unification has been just empty talk.

In my humble opinion, what General Secretary Xi Jinping should personally stress as of first importance is the problem of Hebei economic development. This will be what readily solves Beijing’s “urban disease.” The policy must be one of sustainable development within a new type of urbanization –any policy that considers only economic factors, or only the environment, or only population, or only society, or only regional cooperation, will not be enough.

Therefore, the first step is to eliminate Beijing’s special prerogative, and accelerate a series of initiatives to develop the infrastructure of Hebei. Step by step, the public resources of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei must be redistributed fairly and impartially, such that the high quality elements in Beijing are diverted to flow outward. As one specialist says, this can be done gradually, first the easiest steps, than the hard. For example, an easy step is to have Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei share the same prefix 010, for long distance calls, the same health insurance system, the same social security system, won’t these put into practice the policy of unification? In education the three areas could be unified with the same college entrance exam system. And traffic systems of course…

The unification cannot do without economic development, but certainly it must also rely on the market. For instance, if Beijing’s low-end service industry transfers to Hebei, this sort of industrial shift must also follow market principles. There are many cases in which industries are shifted mainly through government policy and not through market forces, and this merits rethinking.

At this point, when the central government has not yet released the specific details of the unification project, the various local governments are keeping their mouths shut, but racing to seize the best positions at the starting line. How about using the golden opportunity presented by Beijing Tianjing Hebei unification to explore how to elevate the region as a whole? This would make everyone a winner.

Cai Yihong is Secretary-General of the Research Committee of China International Urbanization, and Director of Urbanization Magazine

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