Bill Bishop’s Sinocism today links to a nice SCMP story on a proposed “Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin integration.” I think that the piece gets at what is principally driving these discussions–centralization of power and control:
China is readying an assault on the “fortress economies” of local governments by creating a super region around Beijing, with proposals that sources suggest will be more aggressive than have been publicly revealed. …
They [experts] say China’s “every region for itself” approach to economic growth is a cause of a wide variety of problems, including overinvestment, pollution and corruption.
“Right now, every official will think of his own region first – from the construction of projects to investment,” said Zhang Gui, deputy director at the Centre of Beijing-Hebei-Tianjin Development Research at Hebei Technology University.
That is, the goal of the mega-city plans is not building an open city that can compete with others on creativity but rather to empower the center and other higher level officials over those at local governments.
As I explore in my new book, Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China, China’s urbanization is relatively spread out across dozens and hundreds of cities rather than dominated by a few clusters. I argue that this aided the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), particularly in the reform era. Countries with high levels of urban concentration tend to have governments collapse at much higher rates and survive for much shorter durations than do countries with lower levels of urban concentration. Since before Xi Jinping and his generation came to power, there has been discussion about the desire to encourage urbanization and relax China’s household registration (hukou) system in ways to allow individuals more freedom to reside where they wish without discrimination.
I think that rather than presaging a new era of urban policy and free migration within the country, the mega-city plans of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou fit into the Xi Era’s centralization of power. The PRC has been relatively decentralized in its day-to-day operations with local officials flouting central dictates, often to line their own pockets and those of their friends. It appears as if breaking up such local power centers–through investigations coming from the CCDI or the creation of new mega-regions governed by higher level appointees–is at the top of the new leaders’ agenda.
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