BEIJING » For more than 65 years, government officials here have tried to emulate China’s imperial rulers, working and living in the city center near the emperor’s old palace, the Forbidden City.
Now, in a telling reversal, officials are finalizing plans to move Beijing’s municipal government, including tens of thousands of civil servants, to a satellite town, Tongzhou. The move is a recognition, urban planners and historians say, that the existing strategy has created ever-worsening traffic problems and widespread destruction of Beijing’s old city.
It is also a sign of the determination of China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, to forge a new urban blueprint for China. Over the past year and a half, officials have been slowly unveiling an ambitious plan to create a new urban cluster of 130 million people that would be the size of Kansas or Belarus.
Called Jing-Jin-Ji, it is named after the three areas it encompasses: Jing for Beijing, Jin for the nearby port city of Tianjin, and Ji for the traditional name for the province of Hebei, which surrounds both cities. The idea is to promote less haphazard growth by developing coordinated urban belts and corridors, something the central government would like to see in other parts of China, too.
A new municipal government center of Tongzhou would help this project because it lies in Beijing’s eastern suburbs near Hebei Province. In theory, this could allow the municipal government to focus on regional integration and economic development, while leaving the city center to China’s national ministries.
"Moving noncore functions from the central area to other places is a trend since the downtown of Beijing is overpopulated," said Li Junfu, vice dean of the Beijing University of Technology and a researcher of Beijing urban issues. "A subcenter in Tongzhou can accelerate the development in its nearby regions."
For decades, moving government offices outside Beijing has been a taboo subject. In the 1950s, a prominent architect and urban planner, Liang Sicheng, proposed building an administrative center outside the old city. The idea, however, was rejected by Communist China’s first leader, Mao Zedong, and his associates as running against the revolution. Instead, they put national ministries and the urban administration of their capital in the old city, purposefully using palaces and parks to symbolize the Communists’ overturning of the old order.
Over the years, however, this has meant the destruction of the old city, as alleys, temples, city walls and old buildings were torn down for an ever-expanding bureaucracy.
"The move is ironic given that earlier planners advocated something similar in the 1950s," said Thomas Hahn, a geographer and historian of urban China affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. "They were outmaneuvered, which eventually led to the wholesale gutting of the traditional urban core."
The exact details have not been released, but some published reports say the city’s Communist Party headquarters, as well as several other political committees, could move to Lucheng, a part of Tongzhou where a subway connection to the inner city recently opened.
Local government websites have publicized new orders not to construct buildings on the land. Those also state that local residents would be reclassified from rural residents to urban ones, which would end farming on the land and allow for more intensive construction.
Officials at several Beijing offices refused to confirm or deny the plans. Speaking anonymously, however, numerous officials said the move was definite and could be announced on the National Day holiday on Oct. 1. A senior official with the city’s Bureau of Industry and Commerce said his office received a notice from his superiors last month to prepare for the move, but it would take years to complete.
According to Zhang Wuming, a researcher at the Fangtang Think Tank in Beijing, which specializes in urban and cultural issues, the plan would leave the core part of the city home only to central government ministries.
"The idea is to strengthen the function of Beijing as the capital, which means that Beijing should serve the central organs more efficiently," Zhang said. "If the Beijing government can move to Tongzhou, it actually can better manage the city from there."
In Tongzhou, locals have mixed feelings about the move. Some said it would make it easier to find work nearby, rather than having to commute far into the city. Others said they were worried they would not be able to afford housing in the new administrative area. Many still live in villages that until a few years ago were centers of grain production and the raising of sheep.
"We got notice about our village being demolished last month," said Hao Wenliang, 73, a resident of Dongxiaoying, one of 17 villages set for demolition. "Real estate agents have been coming by to offer us new places to live but we can’t afford it."
Villagers said universities were also likely to move to the area, and plans include a new campus for Renmin University, which faculty members confirmed. New hospitals, elementary and secondary schools are also planned, according to officials and locals.
The area already has a half-finished look. The new subway stops that end in Tongzhou often exit into lands that are empty except for meticulous new highways — not uncommon in China, where basic infrastructure often heralds new projects. Outside the 6-month-old Haojiafu subway stop, for example, there are fields, sheepherders and a six-lane highway.
This could also reflect the fact that the plan has been floated for years but delayed by officials unwilling to move outside the city center.
"Officials stopped this before because they thought it would be too troublesome," said a retired party official in the Beijing secretariat of the Communist Party. "But Xi is pushing integration so they have to do it."