City limits

Beijing set to move bureaucrats to Baoding

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Baoding isn’t a popular destination for tourists. But this unheralded city has a richer heritage than many might think.

Home to modern China’s first academy for army officers, Baoding hosted the Kuomintang’s Chiang Kai-shek when he began his military education in 1906.

Nearby is the Yude Middle School, where Mao Zedong prepared the early leaders of the Chinese Communist Party for study trips to France in the 1920s. And also in the neighbourhood is the building that served as headquarters for one of the Qing Dynasty’s best known governor-generals – the Viceroy of Zhili, a man admired (almost uniquely) both by Chiang and by Mao.

About 140 kilometres southwest of Beijing, Baoding (see photo above) has always enjoyed strategic importance, given it makes up the third point of an equilateral triangle of territory incorporating the Chinese capital and Tianjin. Historically, it stands on land that any invader needed to occupy before they could capture Beijing. It got its name – “stable protection” in Chinese – after Beijing was made the imperial capital by Genghis Khan’s son in 1239.

Today Baoding remains as a military hub, home to an elite section of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The city’s economic history has been less storied. Political conflicts within the army in 1968 ruled out an attempt to become Hebei’s provincial capital with the less combustible Shijiazhuang picked instead. But thanks to China’s increasingly congested capital city, Baoding may have found another way to climb the municipal ladder. Citing unnamed sources, Caijing magazine has reported that local governments in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei have reached agreement to make Baoding the “primary choice for an auxiliary political centre” or spillover location for some of Beijing’s government departments.

Talk of a ‘deputy’ political hub to Beijing was quickly denied and senior officials in various local governments, including Baoding’s, said they had no knowledge of the move. But listed companies with links to the city – mostly property developers or toll road operators – saw their share prices surge by the daily trading limit of 10%. Newspapers like the Global Times also acknowledged that the details in the Caijing report looked “surprisingly persuasive”.

Beijing houses the entire apparatus of the central government, as well as the headquarters of most of China’s largest state-owned companies. Private enterprises such as Sany – and likewise many foreign multinationals – have also been sucked into the capital by the need to stay close to the political decisionmakers. The outcome is a vast urban population that has grown by an average of 430,000 a year for the past decade. But they have contributed to worsening air quality and gridlocked traffic, prompting one government think tank to label parts of the capital as “unfit for human habitation”.

Official statistics put Beijing’s current population at 21 million. But citing alternative indicators such as registered mobile phone users, some demographers believe that the capital was already home to more than 30 million people by 2012. The NDRC has denied this estimate, although there is increasing acceptance that Beijing is getting too big for its own good. For instance, the city’s municipal government vowed earlier this year that one of its policy priorities was to slow the growth of the city’s ‘floating’ population.

The Southern Metropolis agrees that “some sort of decentralisation from Beijing look inevitable” and believes that Baoding will benefit if the central government relocates more of its departments there.

And this week the Hebei government confirmed a move was afoot. Xinhua reported on Wednesday that the size of Baoding would be enlarged into an “important base” to accommodate the overflows from Beijing. Baoding’s future planning would focus on taking over certain administrative bodies, colleges, research institutions and elderly services from the capital.

If the Chinese government is looking for a small scale example of a similar urban switch, it might study the BBC’s move to Manchester. Concerned by the concentration of decisionmaking in London, the UK government ordered some of the broadcaster’s major units (including sports and children’s television) to move to a new hub in Salford. The move involved only 854 people but still cost £224 million ($371 million). In Baoding’s case a lot more people will be involved.

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