Move Beijing to … somewhere else

While my wife and her friend watch seriously weird-ass Russian Winnie-the-Pooh clips (their laptop is turned away from me. I read the books. Everything else was a crime against A. A. Milne). China Dialogue has a truly fascinating article up at the moment. Originally from

China really should consider moving the capital away from Beijing. Any nation, particularly a major power, should choose a location for its capital that allows growth and can respond to challenges. The historical advantages that led Beijing to become China’s capital no longer exist, and the location’s disadvantages are becoming ever more apparent.

Yes, the article is an argument that Beijing will not hold as China’s capital (like I said – fascinating). Why move?

First: the location is no longer strategic:

Modern communications and transportation mean there is no need for today’s “emperors” to stay within easy reach of the borders. Ever since the Opium Wars, China’s military threats have come from the east, not the north. The Mongols were pacified, the Soviet Union collapsed and we are on friendly terms with Russia. Keeping the capital in Beijing does not keep us closer to our allies.

Second: the location is not proximate to the clean water that a city of 20m people needs:

Quenching Beijing’s thirst has already meant tapping the Hai River and water from neighbouring provinces. Now the Han River is to be diverted for a huge project transferring water from the south to the north. The impact of this project on the lower reaches of the Han River should not be underestimated. It will not necessarily solve water problems in the north, but it may well destroy the environment in the south. Beijing may have moved the Shougang steel plant for the sake of its air quality, but it continues to develop water-intensive industry. Why not move the industry and resources where there is more water?

Third: Beijing cannot handle the growth:

The centre of power in any country will gather resources towards itself and that will attract people from elsewhere – at home and abroad – to come seek their fortunes. They have every right to do so, and this should not be restricted, but inevitably the pressures on the city are increased … Leaving Beijing as the capital may be the biggest possible mistake.

Their conclusion:

If China were to select a new capital, the ideal location would be a small- or medium-sized city, with undeveloped land for construction, around the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River. Such a geographic location would have high environmental capacity and land for government buildings – unlike an already developed city.

Now, to the issues not addressed. I ran through the urbanisation issues back during the Summer. Specifically, I discussed the wonderful book, Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis. In it, he uses (2003) UN HABITAT data to estimate urban slum populations. Guess who wins? China. With 193.8m people and a proportion (urban population that can be categorised as ‘slum’) of 37%. This isn’t the highest proportion (Ethiopa and Chad rode that in with – no kidding – 99.4%), but it is definitely the greatest number. Using the same data, Beijing had – then – a little over 10m people. So build that sort of population growth into the slums as well, and figure out that magnitude.

So to the issue not addressed. If Beijing packs up and moves, will it take those people with it? Some, sure. And many more will re-migrate – but many, many millions will not. Who will care, then, for the resource-poor, slum-laden, destitute Beijing that is no longer the capital of China?

The second issue is the resource use. This (a) will involve a fucking tonne of bad-for-the-environment trucking, shipping, cement, contstruction, steel – you name it; (b) the relocation itself will (i) be expensive, financially and environmentally, and (ii) subsume a lot of public money that will be lost to human, social and environmental capital investment.

Yes, I realise I sound like a (profane) misery-guts. I can’t help it. I just can’t help it. This argument, while – as I said – fascinating, strikes as the urban planning equivalent of loosening one’s belt a few notches, as the solution to obesity. China should, sustainably, channel the resources required into Beijing, constrain urban sprawl/density, deal with urban migration, etc. etc. Yeah – I’m glad it’s not my problem, don’t get me wrong. It’s a wicked problem and I’d be an old man fast if I had to worry about fixing it. What an interesting debate this could become, though.


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