Xiong'an: Designing a "modern socialist city"
Decoding the ideology and aims of China's ambitious new city now under construction.
China’s “city of the future” has been promoted as an engine for innovations like autonomous vehicles and the digital Yuan. But there are deeper ideological goals embedded in the design of this ambitious state-led project.
Xiong’an New Area, or 雄安新区 is a priority initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping. A major planned new urban area about 100 km south of Beijing in Hebei Province, the city has no residents yet but one of the largest train stations in the world, which can now whisk passengers to the also recently completed Daxing Airport and onto Beijing itself. The development of Xiong’an has several goals, chief among them to relieve pressure on Beijing by relocating “non-capital functions” and to stimulate new innovative industries. Just recently, The Financial Times recently reported1 on firms unwilling to relocate due to the lack of amenities in the city currently. However, such reporting in Western media has rarely explored the full implications of the city, preferring to view it as just another folly of China’s authoritarianism.
Of course, there are real risks that the city will fail to live up to the lofty expectations ( what do you expect when you label it as a “1000-year project of national importance?”)2 , but it is clear that the goals of Xiong’an are far deeper than simply innovation or relocating functions out of Beijing, as the project was rationalized early on. Planning new administrative urban areas is not unique to China: South Korea’s Sejong Administrative City south of Seoul, Malaysia’s Putrajaya outside Kuala Lumpur stand out as obvious comparisons that didn’t explicitly move the capital but rather non-essential ministries or companies”.3 However, neither of these projects had quite the ambition, scale, or ideology that Xiong’an does.
Here I explore the city’s urban design and how it reflects an emerging ideology of governance under Xi Jinping’s China:
Re-claiming the centrality of the state and party in economic development
Socialist Modern City: an effort to re-brand the relationship of the people to government
Promoting traditional culture
The State Advances, the Private Sector Retreats
Just as Shenzhen, the city initiated as part of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up Period, came to symbolize the rapid ascent of China’s manufacturing sector and embrace of private enterprise, Xiong’an is the urban embodiment of guojin mintui 国进民退 - “the state advances, private sector retreats”. This attitude favoring state control has been a key theme of Xi’s tenure, particularly in the last year as Xi has made an example of disciplining and curtailing Jack Ma’s ambitions, and in general making private firms submit to the will of the government in all respects. Xiong’an also represents a clear attempt to re-center growth and development closer to China’s capital. For nearly all of the post 1979 reform era, and even for centuries prior, the most economically prosperous regions of China have been the Yangtze River Delta (Jiangnan), and the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong. Xi’s first major political assignment was as Party Secretary of Hebei’s Zhengding County in 1983, so he has a personal connection to the region chosen for development.
How does Xiong’an embody this new phase of state retaking control of the economy?
Xiong’an is supposed to achieve several things for the Chinese economy, and for Northern China in particular. Here are some of the explicitly mentioned rationales of the project:
Relocation of non-critical ministries and companies from Beijing to reduce population pressure on the capital
Create an additional growth pole in the Jing-Jin-Ji region to put the Beijing-Tianjin urban region on a closer parity with Yangzte Delta and Pearl River Delta regions4
Promote innovation in digital technologies
Model of sustainable development
What are the key new features of Xiong’an (compared with Shenzhen, for example):
All real estate will be state-owned, a key difference with Shenzhen (some reports that Singapore’s public housing is a model)5
Emphasis on high-tech clean innovation as opposed to heavy manufacturing
Integration of digital technologies with urban design
The first point, “state-owned real estate” perfectly illustrates just how diametrically opposed Xiong’an and Shenzhen are. Shenzhen was known for its pioneering of market-led real estate development by private Hong Kong developers. As a Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen embodied the idea of “spaces of exception”, spaces lying outside the existing social or political orders that enable controlled change. However, Xiong’an is seeing a reversal of these policies in its jurisdiction; as Martin de Joong and Zhaowen Liu note:
“From June on, a broader “five freezes” policy entered into force: new plans, changes in land ownership, citizen registration, real estate transactions and construction activities were all banned indefinitely”6
Xiong’an thus embodies the state taking back control from the market system, and experimenting with something very different from the process of land-leasing and land-base finance that had developed in Chinese cities since the 1990s.7 Whereas Shenzhen emphasized market-based reforms, Xiong’an explicitly reverses this, calling for government owned rental housing throughout most of the city.
A Socialist Modern City
In addition to the focus on sustainability and entrepreneurship, Xiong’an also seems to embody new attempts at social engineering and cultural control. For example, it doesn’t seem to be an accident that the first section of the city to open to public view in 2018 was the innocuously named “Citizen Service Center”, a more transparent and soft version of government administrative offices seen in most Chinese cities. The name also connotes the Party maxim “always serve the people” wei renmin fuwu 为人们服务 , found emblazoned inside the main building. As the architecture firm involved with the building writes:
“J & A broke the traditional party and government office building design method, hoping to adopt a more modern design method and design language to ensure a solemn and elegant building while creating a new image of open and transparent party and government office.”8
Of course, the “Citizen Service Center” is an updated version of a Party or City Government headquarters seen all over the country, integrated into a sort of mixed-use commercial quarter with shops and services. In recent years, city government buildings in China have been large, imposing, and have become symbols of municipal corruption and overinflated spending that Xi publicly attacked in his anti-corruption campaign. Some cities even built ersatz copies of Western-style buildings like the U.S. capitol, a practice also now shunned in the drive towards architectural and ideological purity.9 The modest even Spartan looking “Citizen Service Center” is an architectural statement of a more lean, accessible government attentive to the needs of citizens.
This manifest slimming down of government offices presents a facade of government transparency despite the latent fact that Xiong’an represents a massive reassertion of state control over economy and society. Whether or not Xiong’an leads to actual changes in urban governance throughout China remains to be seen, but this seems likely given the longstanding practice of using such new districts as “pilot zones” for trialing policy changes at the national level.
“This manifest slimming down of government offices presents a facade of government transparency despite the latent fact that Xiong’an represents a massive reassertion of state control over economy and society.”
Re-emphasizing Traditional Chinese Culture
China’s architecture boom over the last few decades has been characterized by flashy designs by foreign superstar architects. However, Xi’s position on architecture became clear after he criticized “weird architecture” such as OMA’s CCTV tower in Beijing. Not unlike Donald Trump’s similar but ultimately fruitless call for American government buildings to reflect traditional neoclassicism, Xi also called for architecture to “disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture and reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit.”10 The design of Xiong’an fully reflects this new priority under Xi of moving away from flashy foreign architecture in favor of more restrained design and celebration of “traditional Chinese culture”, however that is defined.
However, it should be noted that SOM was involved in masterplanning the core area of Xiong’an, and a Spanish firm Guallart has designed a model “Covid-proof” housing development to be built within Xiong’an. Of course, as in many Chinese planning projects, foreign firms are solicited for a plan concept which then undergoes significant modifications by local implementing agencies and local design firms. While there are some traditional elements in the overall plan and design of key open spaces, the style of much of the architecture suggests rather generic building typologies with multistory residential buildings capped by slanted roofs. In some of the render images such as the proposed streetscape of a commercial area, the effect is more contemporary ski town aesthetic than Chinese (see images below).
East-West and North South Axes
In terms of the overall master plan concept, the East-West orientation of the city along the north shore of the Baiyangdian Lake accords with traditional feng shui concepts—traditionally cities are sited north of water bodies such as rivers or lakes. In this case the city is directly abutting the sensitive wetland area, but parkland buffers are designed to mitigate runoff and pollute. There is a central North-South Axis, a common feature in imperial Chinese planning such as Beijing. The central focal point of this axis is the administrative area. The plan of Xiong’an is not unlike that of the Futian district of Shenzhen, the recently developed CBD of Shenzhen. However, much of Shenzhen had been developed in a much more piecemeal manner, with various state-owned enterprises having somewhat autonomous control over particular areas. Not so with Xiong’an: the design and development suggests a much more comprehensive aesthetic and development.
Xiong’an presents a different direction for the future of China’s innovation economy than that embodied by Shenzhen. In the early heady days of Shenzhen, the central government granted large degrees of autonomy to various state-owned enterprises like China Merchants Group to develop their own corporate zones within the city.11 However, in Xiong’an the overall concept design will be much more integrated. It is not clear far if any companies will be granted sway or discretion of planning within any of the districts. Despite the agreements signed with Baidu for autonomous vehicles in the city, there have been no further indications that companies will be given the degree of autonomy to develop their own zones, such as what Tencent is doing in Shenzhen. 12
Why does innovation need a city?
Decades of research in economic geography and planning have suggested that innovation is primarily an urban phenomenon. Since at least the 1980s, high-paying jobs in finance and services have increasingly clustered in several “global cities” like New York, London and Tokyo.13 More recently as technology innovation has become a chief economic sector for cities, there remains a consensus that the density of people in urban environments contributes to the exchange of ideas and creation of new products, firms, and industries.14 The San Francisco Bay Area is perhaps the clearest embodiment of this. While China seeks to replicate the success of Western innovation hubs, it is also relying on a rather different set of economic development logics than that which led to the growth of places like Silicon Valley.15
One key anchor of many innovation hubs is universities. The rise of Silicon Valley stemmed from US federal investments around research at Stanford and Berkeley. Beijing’s Zhongguancun cluster lies in the city’s northwestern university district next to Tsinghua and Peking University, two of the country’s premier institutions. So it’s a bit counterintuitive to force firms already based in Zhongguancun to relocate to a currently underdeveloped backwater in the middle of Hebei province. The goal of relocating innovation to Xiong’an could essentially uproot an existing successful innovation ecosystem simply to accomplish some vague central planning goal of “reducing the non-capital” functions of Beijing. This logic is highly dependent on an understanding of functional roles for cities, and China’s increasing focus on creating “city clusters” to coordinate development among nearby cities.16 There is a “university park” planned for Xiong’an, but it is so far unclear which universities will be setting up here, and if they will be satellites to the main campus of prestigious universities or new institutions created in Xiong’an
However, Xiong’an represents a different innovation paradigm to the model of innovation as it is understood in mainstream economic geography. Pronouncements by leaders on the city’s development suggest it is a sort of sandbox of technologies that rely on tight interweaving of the physical design of the city itself. For example, Baidu has announced plans to introduce AI controlled autonomous driving in the city. 17 Xiong’an is also a trial city for the new “digital Yuan” that China’s central bank recently announced, and which some commentators have labeled as China’s alternative to the US Dollar.18 One unanswered question is how will the Digital Yuan, if it expands, be integrated into the urban design of the city, or integrated into the way residents access services and pay for other things in the city. Other plans discussed include a UK-China jointly developed financial innovation hub. However it is unclear if this is still going forward given the increased friction between China and the U.K.
Rithmire, Meg. 2015. Land Bargains and Chinese Capitalism. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Chen, Ting. 2017. A State Beyond the State: Shenzhen and the Transformation of Urban China. Rotterdam: nai010 publishers.;O’Donnell, Mary Ann, Winnie Wong, and Jonathan Bach, eds. 2017. Learning from Shenzhen: China’s Post-Mao Experiment from Special Zone to Model City. 1 edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sassen, Saskia. 2001. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Revised edition edition. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Storper, M., and A. J. Venables. 2004. “Buzz: Face-to-Face Contact and the Urban Economy.” Journal of Economic Geography 4 (4): 351–70. https://doi.org/10.1093/jnlecg/lbh027.