25 September 2018

Population overload sends Beijing scrambling

A drive during rush hours from the China World Trade Center, one of the most time-honored office complexes in Beijing’s central business district (CBD), to Tiantongyuan {天通苑}, a major commuter town just about 10 kilometers (km) away, can be a nightmare these days.

China Central Television journalists once spent almost two-and-a-half hours to finish the journey on a random weekday evening, thanks to traffic jams that seemed to last for an eternity. One can travel 250 km from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, on the expressway in the same time.

Forget the subway for the journey home, as the ultra-low ticket price — 2 yuan (US$0.33) for any ride — has attracted too many riders and crowd control is now a routine measure at many stations, including the one serving the CBD area. You are likely to have to queue up to enter the station during 6-7 pm, and possibly have to wait in line outdoors in the capital city’s notoriously filthy smog. And after getting into the train, there is the awful reality of being crammed in like sardines in the metal box.

Grabbing a taxi is a mission impossible since there are not many taxi stands in the CBD area. Also, rather than get stuck in the traffic gridlock in the business district, available cabbies may prefer to carry passengers in suburban areas during the peak hours.

That’s just one aspect of Beijing’s whole lot of crises that range from environmental pollution and runaway housing prices to shortage of public services. These can all be boiled down to the most basic problem — Beijing has too many people.

Statistics from the municipal authorities show the city’s population had swollen to 20.7 million as of 2012. What lends irony is the fact that the city’s development masterplan approved by the State Council in 2004 drew a bottom line that the population should not exceed 18 million in 2020.

China’s sixth national population census in 2010 also revealed that Beijing’s population density in urban areas worsened to 23,000 persons per square kilometer. In comparison, Hong Kong’s corresponding figure was 6,620 persons per square kilometer in mid-2012.

Analysts now fear that by 2030 Beijing will see an inflow of another 9.3 million people — more than the entire population of Hong Kong, Xinhua news agency has reported.

The factors that make Beijing a magnet for immigrants from elsewhere in the nation is its unparalleled cluster of quality public resources. Good schools and hospitals are always set up in urban centers and being the capital, Beijing has some of the country’s best. Also, numerous central government agencies, state-owned enterprises and foreign companies mean ample career opportunities.

For years, containing the overwhelming inflow of people and even squeezing out some of its mobile residents have been among the top agendas for Beijing officials. Yet, as the custody and repatriation targeting those without the city’s residence permit (hukou) or temporary living permit was officially abolished since 2003, authorities had lesser muscle in pursuing their goals.

But a fresh policy shift from the central leadership may come as a remedy. Together with a call to expedite urbanization efforts last December, top policymakers also laid out rules to put a cap on population in mega cities like Beijing. And, neighboring provinces and cities are urged to give a helping hand.

The latest development is a proposal by the Ministry of Land and Resources to cherry pick a number of mid-sized cities in the nearby Heibei province, like Langfang {廊坊}, Baoding {保定}, Zhangjiakou {張家口}, Chengde {承德}, Zhuozhou {涿州} and Qinhuangdao {秦皇島}, to be candidate sites for Beijing’s government-led migration and industrial transfer.

Some of Beijing’s universities, hospitals, museums as well as central governmental departments are planned to be relocated to these cities. Zheng Xinli {鄭新立}, deputy head of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, a Beijing-based government think-tank, told Xinhua that these cities can accommodate as many as 5 million people.

One example is a university town in Langfang, a prefecture-level city that borders both Beijing and Tianjin. Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, Beijing City University and China Civil Aviation Institute have built their campuses there.

Beijing also pins high hopes on the construction of its second airport that sits on its border with Hebei. The airport, planed to be operational by 2018, aims to be the world’s largest aviation hub with annual passenger volume projected to reach 130 million.

Aviation-related sectors like exhibitions, logistics and some of the wholesale markets that currently occupy large chunks of land in downtown Beijing are expected to cluster around the new airport to alleviate the burden of urban districts. The area can also be designated a free trade zone, Li Guoping {李國平}, director of the Peking University’s Center for Capital City Development Research, has suggested.

Local transportation holds the key to these lofty plans. In this regard, Beijing’s sixth express ring road now has already penetrated into part of Hebei, and Beijing Subway’s Pinggu Line {平谷線}, a mass transit heavy rail line to be built soon, will have a station in Langfang, Beijing Morning Post reported.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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