With a fur­ther 100 mil­lion ru­ral mi­grants set to move to ci­ties by 2020, China faces huge chal­lenges in cop­ing with ur­ban­iza­tion. The pre­vi­ous strat­egy of build­ing brand new me­trop­o­lises has proved trou­ble­some and the re­sult­ing “ghost” ci­ties have failed to draw the in­vest­ment re­quired to pro­vide jobs and jus­tify con­struc­tion costs.

The an­swer now ap­pears to be the mega­lopo­lis. Although in­ter-city con­nec­tiv­ity and co­op­er­a­tive eco­nomic plan­ning is not new to China, a slew of re­cent an­nounce­ments have sig­naled the gov­ern­ment’s in­ten­tion to push ahead with ma­jor in­te­gra­tion projects. Per­haps the only city clus­ter to match the pro­posed Beijing mega­lopo­lis in scale, the Yangtze River Delta Eco­nomic Zone is made up of 16 ci­ties and ac­counts the re­gion – in­clud­ing Nan­jing, Suzhou and Ningbo – are be­ing built up as hubs in to in­crease the phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture link­ing the re­gion.

But this may only be the start. In April, Premier Li Ke­qiang out­lined an even more ex­pan­sive vi­sion for the re­gion – an eco­nomic “su­per zone” sweep­ing in­land and cov­er­ing an area of land home to 600 mil­lion peo­ple, almost half of China’s pop­u­la­tion. Although de­tails re­main scarce, the project is in­tended to con­nect the Yangtze Delta economies with the so-called Silk Road Eco­nomic Belt, China’s gate­way to Cen­tral Asia and the West.

The Pearl River Delta mean­while, is ar­guably China’s post-Mao suc­cess story. back­ing has seen ci­ties in Guang­dong Prov­ince (such as Guangzhou and Shen­zhen) de­velop around man­u­fac­tur­ing and elec­tron­ics in a model known as “front shop, back fac­tory.” While al­ready far more in­te­grated than other city clus­ters in China, there is now in­creased pres­sure to strengthen ties.

Ru­mors of a project called “Turn the Pearl River Delta Into One” emerged in 2011, with a re­ported 150 in­fra­struc­ture projects be­ing planned to con­nect trans­port, but there are signs that Guang­dong’s smaller ci­ties are be­ing pulled into the or­bit of larger ones. Last year, the lead­ers of Shen­zhen, Dong­guan and Huizhou signed an agree­ment to di­rectly link their city’s metro sys­tems by 2020.

The com­ing decades are likely to see many other mega­lopolises de­velop in China, with state me­dia re­port­ing there will be 32 com­pleted by 2030. Among them, the Cen­tral Liaon­ing area is ex­pected to trans­form into an eight-city, 28-mil­lion-per­son clus­ter cen­tered around Shenyang and Dalian. The Shan­dong Penin­su­lar, which in­cludes the size­able ci­ties of Ji­nan and Qing­dao, has a larger col­lec­tive pop­u­la­tion than the Pearl River Delta.

In­te­gra­tion ef­forts in some of th­ese ar­eas re­main at a com­par­a­tively em­bry­onic stage. But while the Beijing-Tian­jin-He­bei mega­lopo­lis may be the most am­bi­tious, and ur­gent, of the projects, the face of Chi­nese ci­ties across the coun­try is set to rad­i­cally trans­form in the com­ing years and decades. nec­es­sar­ily have to be near Beijing, you could be some­place else in the coun­try and still be con­nected.”

Nonethe­less, after decades of in­de­ci­sion, the project now ap­pears to be in full mo­tion. With po­lit­i­cal ob­servers sug­gest­ing that Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping sees the mega­lopo­lis as a cru­cial part of his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s legacy, the north­east of China is set to trans­form rad­i­cally over the next decade. Whether the clus­ter eases or wors­ens the bur­den on the cap­i­tal re­mains to be seen. BT

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