Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with The China Project. Subscribe to Access from The China Project to get, well, access. Access to, not only our great daily newsletter, but to all of the original writing on our website at thechinaproject.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to China’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.
I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
I am heading back to China at the end of June for my first visit, since October, 2019, which is the longest I’ve been away from China, since the gap between 1981 and 1986, I think. One of the things that I am determined to try and go see is Xiong’an new district, the futuristic city around a lake just 100 kilometers to south by southwest of downtown Beijing. It was first announced in 2015 while I was still living in China, and now it’s already on its way. It’s supposed to be all the things that Beijing isn’t — green and sustainable, uncongested and human-scaled, and highly walkable. It is touted as a truly smart city, loaded up with sensors, powered by AI and digitized. So, today on Sinica, we are talking all things Xiong’an, why it’s being built, what it’s supposed to represent, and what it tells us about China’s ideas, about itself, and about the future.
“Xiong’an,” writes my guest today, “has been conceived and designed as a tangible living representation of Xi’s new era, a bold vision for a China, confident that it has found its own path to modernity based on its own system and values.” That guest is Andrew Stokols. He’s a PhD researcher at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He’s lived in Beijing, in Seoul, in Singapore, and today he joins us from Bangkok. Andrew writes about cities, geopolitics, and urban technology. A few weeks ago, he published a terrific piece in The China Project about Xiong’an. If you’d like to read it, it’s called China’s techno-natural utopia: A deep dive into Xiong’an, and we will put a link to that, obviously on the podcast page. Andrew Stokols, welcome to Sinica.
Andrew Stokols: Thanks, Kaiser. Thanks so much for having me on the podcast.
Kaiser: So, Andrew, let us dispense with some of the basics first about Xiong’an. I mentioned that it’s a hundred kilometers south-ish from Beijing, and that puts it like what? Half that distance from Baoding, but what was already there when the project was announced?
Andrew: Yeah, the project was officially announced in 2017 where the state council and three counties, Xiongxian, Anxin and Rongcheng, these three rural county towns around the Baiyangdian wetlands were created as Xiong’an New Area. As you mentioned, it was part of Baoding City, and is basically mostly rural area, but with several villages and with some existing industries and sort of small-scale manufacturing, that kind of thing.
Kaiser: So, not a whole ton there. Wetlands, though, that’s interesting. So, they’re building a city in wetlands.
Andrew: Yeah. The Baiyangdian wetlands, actually one of the lowest points in North China, so it’s called, going back decades, known as the kidneys of North China. One of the sort of ecological pearls of the region, but also one of the lowest elevation areas of the region. So, that’s one of the challenges in the sense of building a city in a low-lying area. Obviously prone to flooding and those kinds of risks, but not a lot there in terms of existing industry. So, a blank slate in a sort of sense, or at least conceived of as a blank slate.
Kaiser: Okay. So, what is the basic plan? I mean, I know that it’s being launched in a few different stages, but what is the current focus right now? What are they building?
Andrew: Yeah. After 2017, it took a couple of years for large-scale construction to really get underway. During the pandemic, the main part of the construction was the Rongdong District, which is essentially resettlement housing. So, the first stage of the city was basically resettlement housing for the villagers whose villages were demolished to make way for the rest of the city. Having been mostly completed that first phase, the general construction phase right now is in the main core district of the city, the Xibu District, which is this sort of core central business district. Some of the large-scale enterprises, mostly state-owned enterprises are building offices and headquarters, that are under construction currently. So, this is the beginning, I would say, of the main part of what’s planned as the main core area of the city.
Kaiser: I remember in my last few years in Beijing, there was a lot of talk about actually moving the capital. They had talked about it. And then when Xiong’an came along, I think a lot of the idea was that a lot of the non-essential administrative bureaucracies would get moved out of Beijing, along with a lot of SOEs.
Kaise: What is going to be moving there currently under the plan, and what’s the intended size of the city in terms of its population once it’s done?
Andrew: I was also in Beijing in the early 2000s, and there was talk about moving the capital. There was the moving of the municipal offices to Tongzhou, and then there was talk about Baoding becoming a sort of secondary capital. But I think the specifics of the plan emerged after the Jing-Jin-Ji coordinated development plan for the region was announced in 2015. And then in 2017, Xiong’an was actually chosen as the site. And so yeah, the idea was to relocate non-essential non-capital functions from the city, which mostly seemed to be the central large SOEs, which wouldn’t necessarily be central ministries, but state-owned enterprises. I think the idea was to relocate pressure off Beijing, relocate some of the population pressure and convince people to relocate to the city. I think, historically, there’s been a lot of concern.
I found documents going back into the ‘80s and even earlier talking about the unbalanced development. If you look at the northern region of Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, in comparison to say the Yangtze River Delta or the Pearl River Delta, it’s the lesser developed of those megapolitan regions. So, this Jing-Jin-Ji plan has been conceived of for quite a while in terms of how we integrate capital better with the surrounding area because Beijing and Tianjin are large cities in China, but they don’t necessarily have a lot of spinoffs or subsidiary industries such as the smaller cities of the Yangtze River Delta or the smaller cities in the Pearl River Delta, which form more of a city cluster or a city region system. So, how do we create that in Xiong’an, or how do we create that in northern China? I think that was the thinking behind the plan.
And I think in terms of the scale of the city, I’ve seen statistics for about 3 million planned population. I mean, there’s currently over a million people if you count the existing residents of the county towns and all the villages. So, I think it’d be almost like doubling the existing population and bringing in more population, educated workers, service workers, that kind of thing.
Kaiser: Oh, wow. 3 million.
Kaiser: What year do they think they’re going to be at that point?
Andrew: The first phase of the city’s construction is supposed to be 2035, which coincides with this near-term development milestone of Communist Party. I think the announcement was at the Party Congress, they’ve achieved this 小康社会 (Xiǎokāng shèhuì), moderately prosperous society. And that now, over the next 15 or so years, China would become a developed socialist center. The city is supposed to be reaching that point in 2035, and then probably by 2050, which actually coincides with 100 years or so of new China that the city would be a fully developed, innovative global city, basically.
Kaiser: So, if I live to see it.
Andrew: Yeah. A thousand-year project.
Kaiser: One of the things that seems to have already been completed is the high-speed rail station. It looks like, I’m looking at it on maps, it’s about eight kilometers or so northeast of the center of the new district. From the air, if you look at it, it’s completely covered in photovoltaic arrays. There are some videos you can check out on YouTube, rather breathless videos about it. But it is pretty impressive. It is said to look like a dewdrop on a lotus leaf or clear water rippling in a pond. To me, it actually looks like a silicon wafer. Other friends of mine have said that too. I think that might be deliberate. It’s really kind of a cool design. Anyway, what do we know about that high-speed rail station?
Andrew: Yeah, the high-speed rail station was the first major project to be completed, and it was really a symbol of the city. Like a lot of high-speed rail stations in China, this station is being built on sort of a periphery of Xiong’an, which is unusual because Xiong’an doesn’t really exist yet. So, you would think it’s actually quite easy to orient the city around its station. But this station is actually planned. There’s a separate commercial cluster that’s planned around this station, which is actually separate from the main part of the city. The reason for that, I believe, is that the Xiong’an railway station lies on this main north-south line between the existing high-speed rail line between Beijing, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. The idea was that also there would be another line connecting from Tianjin East-West that would then pass through the Xiong’an railway station and then into the central part of Xiong’an.
The city itself is almost conceived through these transportation corridors. Once you have these corridors in place, that sort of determined where the city would be built and then around a high-speed rail station. It allows quick connections to Beijing and a new line from Beijing South Railway station, the existing high-speed rail terminus, and also from Daxing Airport. Daxing Airport was this new airport that’s opened almost on the border of Hebei Province, south of Beijing, and is the city’s second major airport. So, Xiong’an is quite close to Daxing Airport. And that would allow the city to have international links and convenient transportation to the airport as well.
Kaiser: I’m really hoping that I fly into Daxing this time, because I’m kind of sick of T3, but I would love to see it. I haven’t seen Daxing Airport in person yet, so I’m really looking forward to that.
Andrew: Yeah, me neither.
Kaiser: Yeah. I read a little passage from that piece of yours in the intro, and I think you really put your finger exactly on what the underlying motivations are for this massive project. I think it really is intended as a showcase for, or an embodiment of these various elements of Xi Jinping thought and the current party’s ideas, right? So, we’re going to, I mean, for the next, I don’t know, most of the rest of the show, break down what those ideas are and talk about how they’re manifested in Xiong’an. But first maybe we can talk about the very idea of Chinese cities as expressions of political ideas. Cities in China have often served that purpose. I mean, I think of Chang’an, the capital during the Tang Dynasty, where Xi’an is, of course, today. Even Beijing under the Mongols. I mean, they’re very much cosmologically designed to be in harmony with Chinese ideas about rulership. The Forbidden City itself. I mean, the whole idea of Tongzhou. The sort of axes cities under Mao’s time as well. I mean, as you talk about in your piece. Can you get into that a little bit? Talk about cities as expressions of political ideas.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, one of the first courses I took in college actually at Berkeley, which got me interested in China in general, was a comparative course on China and Rome by a guy named David Johnson. So, he talked-
Kaiser: Yeah, I had David Johnson.
Andrew: Yeah. So, he talked a lot about the differences between ancient Rome and ancient China, right? That was one of the first things that got me motivated to study Chinese urban planning. Then I lived in Beijing shortly after that. I’ve been interested in Chinese city planning traditions for quite a while. And I think when I looked at Xiong’an, it’s easy to see it as, oh, it was just simply another rendering, another glossy new area. China’s built a lot of these new districts over the last few decades, and a lot of countries are building new cities. But there was something different about this city. To me that struck a chord because it seemed like there was a lot of meaning invested in it, a lot of national meaning, a lot of sort of cultural intentions invested in it.
That made me think that there’s something going on here, which, okay, maybe it’s not just another new area. Or maybe it is, right? But I think in terms of the plan itself, the East-West axis, the central corridor, it looked very much almost like a mirror of Beijing. And when you look at a lot of new cities, they’re often mirrors of existing messy cities, right? If you think about Brasília, it was sort of the antithesis of Rio de Janeiro.
Andrew: Utopian modernists thinking about new cities oftentimes have postulated the new city as a solution to the existing city’s problems. That was the immediate actual impetus, I believe, for Xiong’an in the early 2000s. As a former resident of Beijing, you dealt with the apocalypse and all those kinds of issues. And I think there was a lot of talk of the 城市病 (chéngshì bìng), or the 大城市病 (dà chéngshì bìng), the big city disease in policy discourse around that time. The idea was that to solve that would be to create a new city so that Beijing wouldn’t be spreading outward like a pancake. I think, sometimes in the discourse of the policy documents, they use this term, big pancake. So, that development would be channeled and controlled. The obvious other precedents in terms of historical thinking of China, I mean, you could go back very long in terms of Chinese urban history, but immediately it would be Shenzhen kind of precedent for China’s reform and opening urban development under Deng Xiaoping. Shenzhen was a special economic zone. We all are sort of familiar probably with Shenzhen, its position, or importance to China’s economic opening.
Xiong’an is talked about as the third, new area of national significance after Shenzhen, and then Pudong, which was sort of Jiang’s special economic zone to boost Shanghai in the 1990s. So, Xiong’an is talked about as the third kind of a national significant new area, very much tied to Xi Jinping’s political tenure as China’s most powerful leader in a long time, perhaps since Mao. I think you’re right, Chinese cities’ traditions of city building often are that the new dynasty would build a new capital somewhere, which is very different from, say, ancient Rome, right? Which maintained itself as Rome, even though many different dynasties came, polities came and went around Rome. The city itself was actually relatively constant in a sense, right? The Eternal City.
Beijing obviously has a long history as well, but various dynasties have left their different impact on that city from the Ming, and then the Qing. Or the building of the outer wall of Beijing. I think that’s true that leaders have looked to city building as a way to leave legacies in China. Definitely.
Kaiser: Yeah. Let’s talk about what some of the facets are of the Xi Jinping legacy that he intends to build into there. Maybe we can start with this idea of quality growth. I mean, quality is something that’s been emphasized since the 19th Party Congress in 2017, and Beijing has held up this third new area, as you say, of national significance. They’ve said Xiong’an is sort of the successor to Shenzhen and Pudong. Shenzhen was all about speed, right? Shenzhen speed. Not really sure what Pudong was all about. But what is this phrase “Xiong’an quality?” What does that mean?
Andrew: Well, if you go back to the mid-2000s, even before Xiong’an was announced. I think it was 2016 when they announced this. I think Xi personally critiqued weird architecture, right? There was a sort of the beginning of that criticism of the avant-garde Western architecture, like the CCTV building or the giant, Opera Hill Hall in the center of Tiananmen. There’s this beginning of a sense that China’s breakneck growth has led to cultural or spiritual pollution, right? And you’ve talked about this, I think, with Wang Huning’s writing on culture and the idea that the party was sort of losing track of culture. I think you could think about that in an urban sense, too, that Shenzhen and the reform and opening up ushered in a very sort of rapid breakneck, chaotic pace or chaotic model of urbanization.
The party began to see that as something that needed to be controlled and really modified. So, you had the new type of urbanization plan that was issued in 2014, which was a general call for a more balanced, coordinated approach to development. Cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen had gotten rich first, and they needed to balance that with the rest of the country, and also control pollution and the runaway conversion of arable land, farmland. All these negative externalities, you could say, of market-oriented urbanism were part of the ills that Xi, diagnosed as problems. Not just with urbanization, but with the governance system as well. But urbanization was such a big part of the development story in China, so Xiong’an really aims to create something slightly different to this breakneck model of urbanization that you had under Deng and the decades after Shenzhen.
Kaiser: It reflects this idea of how it used to be sort of GDP, uber alles, and now the emphasis is on high-quality growth, right? So it’s very much the same as a macroeconomic principle that they’re-
Andrew: Yeah. And also quality of life had become quite a political issue. If the party could provide a high quality of urban life, reduce pollution, and also provide good jobs, that would be an important source of legitimacy. But just in terms of urban design, early on in the city, there were talks about limiting skyscraper construction, so having no skyscrapers, having no sort of gated communities. Xi had also spoken out against gated communities. There was guidance that was trying to open up gated communities in China because these were also symbols of socioeconomic inequality. That was another thing that was talked about in Xiong’an, smaller block sizes. Now, how that’s actually happening remains to be seen, but that was the intent. That was sort of the ideology behind it, that the city would be a green city, a smart city. Those are all buzzwords, maybe internationally, but then those buzzwords are sort of adjusted to the Chinese political discourse, and they take on some greater significance, I think, in China’s system.
Kaiser: Right. And the word now in China is, of course, ecological civilization, right?
Andrew: Yeah. Ecological civilization was, I think, during the Hu Jintao period, but Xi has really promoted it. And of course, Xiong’an is talked about as a model or template of ecological civilization. The idea of actually improving the environment first before the city’s construction is built. A lot of the news and publicity about the city in the first few years I was following was that, Baiyangdian wetlands have been restored, and pollution was reduced. Of course, how they did this was they shut down a lot of factories, a lot of the existing small cottage industries in these towns surrounding the wetlands, so of course, the pollution would be reduced. And there were other more large-scale ecological remediation efforts going on and are still going on. So, that’s part of the symbolic values that we can develop and we can also improve the environment at the same time — those things are not in conflict.
Kaiser: Right. Let’s talk about what some of the measures are that they intend to build into the city itself. You say 70% of it is supposed to be reserved for green areas. It is being built into a wetlands area, so there’s a real emphasis on the sponge city concept.
Kaiser: And of course, on a low carbon footprint. I’m not sure what the energy mix is supposed to be, but I think they’re making use of geothermal. There’s that huge solar array on top of the new high-speed rail. There’s going to be solar arrays everywhere and a lot of wind piped in from Zhangjiakou.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, one of the signature projects that I wrote about in the piece was this powered station which is developed by China State Grid, and it’s bringing power from wind farms in the northern part of Hebei Province. But the building itself, when I was reading a lot of the media coverage of these different buildings, the way that they talk about them does suggest a sort of symbolic showpiece, a purpose for them. This power station, power converter station has a swimming pool in it and has a garden on the roof. I was just thinking, well, why would you need a swimming pool and a power converter? I’d never heard of anything like that before. Really funky stuff. And I think, maybe this is really a renewable innovation in the sense. A lot of the companies investing in Xiong’an are these large state-owned utilities, right?
So Huaneng state grid, different infrastructure companies. And I think in that sense, positioning Xiong’an as promoting a certain type of innovation in domestically phasing industries, power generation, those kinds of things, is another purpose of the city. They talk about the city getting 90% of its energy from renewable sources, geothermal, that kind of thing. And there are also contradictions as well. Of course, there’s the creation of a new mining giant that’s supposed to be headquartered in the city. But I think in general, this is the goal of Xiong’an, to try to be a symbol of green less energy-intensive development.
Kaiser: It’s also supposed to be a largely car-free city. Automobile traffic is to be shunted underground as it enters the city in my understanding. And above ground, you’re just going to have these fully autonomous cabs, electric cabs. Is that right?
Andrew: Well, I think there was talk of putting all transportation underground. I actually spoke to a planner who works in China, who was familiar with some of this. He was saying that was the initial idea of planners. And actually, at one point, Xi rejected these ideas as too fantastic and too crazy. I think some of these ideas actually were talked about. Right now, there’s something called the 地下管廊 (dìxià guǎn láng), or basically these underground utility corridors which are being built under the main roads of the city. These are supposed to channel all of the utilities in large easily accessible tunnels for maintenance. And also deliveries of packages or the logistics corridor so that logistics package delivery could happen underground. But the surface roads are built on the ground, but then also being connected to AI, 5g.
A lot of the experiments right now with autonomous vehicles in Xiong’an, are trying to create this autonomous driving system in the city. So far, I don’t know how much of that is actually borne fruit in terms of actual solutions. But I think that something that they’re working towards is using this embedding digital infrastructure in the city from the ground up.
Kaiser: Right. Hopefully including sensors. I mean, there was this idea when I was working at Baidu that Andrew Ng was really pushing. Rather than having fully autonomous vehicles that were independent of the infrastructure, they should build sensors, and build transmitters, into the infrastructure itself, and train the terrain rather than just train the cars.
Andrew: That’s right. Yeah.
Kaiser: Anyway, that would be very cool.
Andrew: Yeah. You can talk of an intelligent expressway. I think the new expressway connecting Xiong’an to Beijing actually has 5G capacity installed so that cars driving on the highway would be able to communicate with each other. But you have to embed this in the roadway itself. So, like you said, it’s part of the infrastructure.
Kaiser: Yeah, no, that would be outstanding. I would love to see that. There’s also an electrified rail link that links all the different villages in the outlying area. But just focusing on the city itself, I think the idea is that it’s going to be a 15-minute city, as you say. It’s sort of like parts of Paris, where all the sorts of day-to-day services that one requires, everything from education to daycare and shopping, and of course, your employment is all 15 minutes walkable from your house.
Andrew: Yeah, that’s right. Well, there is the notion of the 15-minute city, which I think the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo was promoting a couple of years ago. And then in the UK recently became a kind of strange conspiracy theory that this was kind of a socialist plot to get people to give up their cars. But actually, I mean, it’s not a very controversial idea in a sense. And the neighborhood unit urban planning concept that has been around for a long time, the idea of creating self-sufficient communities, et cetera. I grew up in a new town myself, Irvine, California, and that city was based around these villages. Basically centered around schools, and shopping centers, but all car dominant. And so Xiong’an borrowed some of those ideas.
The interesting thing, I mentioned in the piece as well, the way that this is talked about in Xiong’an, the 15-minute city, they call it these 15-minute life clusters, life circles, 生活圈 (Shēnghuó quān). And they also talk about that as being centered on like 社区 (shèqū), community facilities. One thing, I don’t know how far this will be actually developed in Xiong’an, or if this is unique to Xiong’an, but there’s been talk in other cities in China, these complete communities similar kind of idea. From my perspective, it seems like a sort of re-imagination of the Danwei system. Not entirely. And I don’t know exactly how far that will go, and it’s a bit speculative. But I think there’s partly this notion in Xi Jinping’s ideological world of embedding more control into society, not through necessarily coercive means, but really providing more social infrastructure, dealing with some of these social discontents, lack of culture, these kinds of things.
The urban design guidelines on Xiong’an talk about creating a new Xiong’an person with artistic qualities, and sort of this suzhi discourse of quality. There really is some of that in the plan. Now, again, I don’t know what entirely to make of it. The person I spoke with, actually a friend of mine who’d worked in Xiong’an said that the resettlement housing hadn’t been able to really implement these new urban design features because it was just done very quickly to resettle villagers. But possibly in the next phase of development, they will start to build some of those out.
Kaiser: We talked about how ecological civilization actually predated Xi Jinping. There are other elements that also come before, and a lot of them have to do with the digitization, the smart city aspects of Xiong’an. Things like internet plus, these things have been around for a very long time. It’s all very integral, though, to what Xiong’an wants to be. When we talk about Xiong’an as a smart city, what are we talking about here? What are the elements of it that would make it smart?
Andrew: The smart city is one of these concepts in urban planning that just won’t go away. But no one is ever really sure exactly what it means. Sometimes people ask me to give a definition of it, and I’m unable to give one single definition. But I think the general idea, it actually comes from this, if you want to go even further back into the history of cybernetics and the idea of regulating complex systems. Thinking of cities as systems that need to be regulated through feedback loops of information, that’s the general idea of smart cities. The traffic, if you look at cities like Hangzhou where Alibaba has helped roll out this sort of traffic management system using a huge network of cameras surveillance, but also AI to manage traffic flows. The idea is that system control of traffic infrastructure or traffic lights is all automated through feedback from cameras. And then this stuff sort of happens autonomously.
The other image we have of smart cities is this control room, a giant room of screens with someone managing. I think Rio de Janeiro has one of these control centers that became an emblem of smart cities. So, there’s something of control and managing, integrating lots of different systems into control. But again, some of this has really fallen out of favor, I would say, in the urban planning field in the U.S. Another part of my broader interest, research interest, is looking at how the smart city imaginary has become a national development imaginary in a lot of countries, in Asia particularly. So, I think in China, Alibaba is one company that’s doing a lot of this. They have a-
Kaiser: The City Brain.
Andrew: Yeah, the City Brain. The building in Xiong’an that I mentioned in the piece, the City Brain or Supercomputing Cloud Center, I think Alibaba is still a consultant or a partner on this project. But actually the Xiong’an Group, which is the company set up to build Xiong’an, the state enterprise, essentially the City Development Company is right now the main builder of this project. I think there is some effort, and not just in Xiong’an, but nationally, to standardize the smart city standards and infrastructure in China. Because, again, it goes with the theme of the broader crackdown on the growing power of these tech companies. The data they have, the management capacity, and the infrastructural capacity these companies have has been also, partly seen as a threat to the Party’s power. Xiong’an represents, from my perspective, a way to use some of these technologies, but also control them more and implement them more on a governing scale from the ground up in the city.
One of the phrases mentioned in news articles on Xiong’an is that it’s three cities, 三座城 (Sān zuò chéng), I think. The city underground, the city on the ground, and then the city and the cloud. So, they’re building the digital twin of the city as they construct the city. Every piece of rebar, every material that’s put into a building, they create a digital copy of it and have the sort of digital twin of the city that’s supposed to facilitate maintenance, driving, having a precise knowledge of where everything is in the city. I think there’s part of this sort of fantasy of control, having the whole city as basically known digitally and physically which would, I guess, be a smart city in some ways. But I think there’s debate about what smartness is and how important all those things are, also very subjective in a sense.
Kaiser: I can just imagine how James Scott grinds his teeth when he reads about this, though. It’s just unbelievable. We’ll get to that. I do want to ask you about that in a little bit, but I can also imagine that hearing about this digital twin of the city, there are a lot of people who work in Metaverse who are thinking, “Oh my God, this will make my job really easy.” I put in mind when you talk about the feedback loops and things like that, a conversation I had with Josh Chin about his book about the surveillance state. He talks about cybernetics and the whole sort of origins of this technocratic thinking when it comes to urban planning and how that underpins a lot of the surveillance state as it’s developed in China. This sounds like this whole idea is just sort of on steroids. It’s such a contrast with where Western thinking is right now.
Again, something that I’ll want to get to. I mean, before we do that, I want to ask you about the digital yuan, how this is supposed to be sort of approving ground for that as well. They had rolled it out in Shenzhen and some other communities in the Pearl River Delta. Supposedly these tests have been pretty successful. Do you know what’s in store for that, the digital yuan?
Andrew: Yeah. Well, I’ve been trying to find out a little bit about that. I was initially curious, why do you need a new city to test out a digital currency or what’s the significance of having a city being a test pit for the digital end? So, Xiong’an’s one of the test cities of the digital yuan. I believe Shenzhen and a few other large cities are as well. But in Xiong’an, what I’ve seen is that there’s been talk or discussion of different use cases. For example, workers in Xiong’an have had their salaries transmitted quickly and immediately using digital yuan blockchain currency, central bank digital currency. Then also you could use the digital yuan to pay for city services, to pay taxes. There’s an automated tax payment center that was built in the Xiong’an Citizen Service Center quite early on. That was actually the first complex to be constructed in Xiong’an.
I think the digital yuan, in this context, is a part of effort in Xiong’an to really convey this image that services, government services are being modernized and streamlined. That the Party and the government are still central, but that the image of governance is being modernized. So I think the digital yuan could incentivize people to switch to that, right? I think the digital yuan, I don’t know what the uptake is, currently, it’s probably pretty small in general. Most people are quite willing to use Alibaba and WeChat Pay and all those things. But if the government could have that digital currency, they’d have a window into all these transactions going on, they could monitor the economy in real-time. The amount of data you could collect from that is probably quite staggering. But incentivizing adoption, I think, depends on making it more convenient or more attractive for people to use it.
I think there’s some thinking in Xiong’an about how do you tie the digital yuan into daily transactions within the city and different aspects of urban life in the city that requires payments, utility payments, this sort of thing?
Kaiser: Yeah. Andrew, we’ve looked at some of the ways in which Xi Jinping’s ideas and modern Chinese Communist Party ideology map onto these plans for Xiong’an. But one feature of this new ideology, and I would say maybe its most essential feature, is this emphasis on Chineseness. There’s this sort of ethnonationalism. I mean, maybe that’s an extreme way of putting it, but there’s a very culturally grounded idea. I wonder in what ways do you think Xiong’an is an expression of Chineseness? Is Xiong’an at all a distinctly Chinese project?
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Andrew: When I was reading the master plan itself that talk about the architectural style, it should be… it says a combination of Western and Chinese, but with Chinese leading. That’s the official concept in the master plan that’s mentioned. But if you look at the actual architecture in the city, a lot of it doesn’t necessarily look Chinese per se. A lot of the landscaping features are what you’d think of as maybe stereotypically traditional Chinese, garden architecture, pavilions, this sort of thing. There’s a wetland park, a suburban park that’s already open in Xiong’an that has pavilions from each of the cities in Hebei Province, which I don’t know how interesting that is for tourists, but is some sort of political statement of the city relationship to the province. I think the landscaping features convey that a lot of the buildings seem to be very generic, modern, and contemporary architecture.
There definitely is a sort of a subdued rather classical style to the architecture that does contrast a lot with some of the exuberant, weird architecture that you would see in the last few decades. So, I think there’s some sort of cultural conservatism, may not be particularly Chinese, but probably connected in a way to Xi Jinping’s architectural preferences, which I think have been known in a way from the last 10 years or a few years ago. And then there’s also, in terms of the development model, talk about moving away from gated communities. But still, the development is happening at this large course scale of development. The land isn’t necessarily being developed by private owners, right? Land is controlled by the government in China, and in most Chinese cities, this is a huge source of revenue. And that seems to me the same or even strengthened in a way in Xiong’an.
If you look at, like you were talking about imperial cities and these kinds of things, the axes, these kinds of like north, south, east, west orientations, those are all present in the way that Xiong’an’s being built. But that’s not particularly, I would say, unique in terms of other cities.
Kaiser: I mean, I think that it isn’t uniquely Chinese, but it also is Chinese, right?
Kaiser: You mentioned just now that local governments have been overly dependent on land sales. It’s been the foundation of their revenue. And they’re in fiscal straits because of issues that they’ve had recently with developers. Xiong’an’s wants to get away from this. What’s the plan there?
Andrew: Yeah, that’s also my question. At the time that Xiong’an was founded, they put a moratorium on land sales in the three counties. But that was to reduce speculation because as soon as they declared this area, a lot of the villagers in the area would rush to profit from the land suddenly becoming valuable.
Kaiser: I don’t know if you remember, there was a joke, in those marriage markets in Beijing. One guy, the only thing he had on his sign was “I own land in Xiong’an”.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, my colleague actually sent me a picture of an apartment that’s people’s in Beijing with signs promoting new apartments in Xiong’an, but the price is extremely cheap compared to most cities in China, like 3,000 yuan per square meter or something.
Kaiser: Wow. Oh my God, I’m going to buy one.
Andrew: Yeah. One of the people I’ve spoken with who’s directly involved, someone I knew was a graduate of Peking University and worked for one of the developers in Xiong’an. He actually lived there for a few years, and was telling me that there were discussions in the early years he was there, he’s no longer working in Xiong’an, but that they were discussing what kind of housing model to adopt? Would it be something like the Singapore model where housing would be provided by these large state-owned developers, China merchants poly group, these SOE developers, the main ones who built all of the housing so far? But you’re right, if you’re not selling the land to private developers, then where’s the financing coming from?
There’s talk about a new model, but it’s still very vague about what that all means. I haven’t been able to dig too much into the details of it not being in China, but I think there’s been a lot of bond issuance. A lot of the financing is coming from the central banks, the big four banks, China Development Bank special purpose bonds, which have become more popular for cities as a way to finance infrastructure. Sort of these longer-term bonds for specific projects. I think the long-term goal is that land finance is not a sustainable model for Chinese organization. Again, I don’t know how to figure out a way to move to a more sustainable tax system where you basically just tax land or property on a more recurring, sustainable basis. So far, it’s been politically difficult to implement that kind of system, and land is still the very quick fix for a lot of city governments.
I think that’s a big question for Xiong’an. One reason why I’m interested in Xiong’an and have been interested in following is because I think the city has a lot of interesting “windows” onto these contradictions or these dilemmas facing China’s development.
Kaiser: For sure. Andrew, how would you characterize the way that Xiong’an has been written about thus far in the English-language press outside of China, obviously?
Andrew: Well, one of the reasons why I wanted to write these couple articles, and I’ve been following the city from afar for the last couple of years, almost as a kind of way of keeping abreast with what’s going on in China. Because I started my PhD during Covid and was initially hoping to do some research in China, but that became difficult. And so, I’d been following the city for a while but hadn’t seen a lot of coverage recently. I had spoken to people about it, different experts, Chinese professors at Harvard and MIT who had heard about it. But mainly their context was: “Oh, so far it’s been a failure.” I was curious, well, how has it been a failure? I think there’s sort of a tendency to see these new city projects as maybe sort of a folly of authoritarianism or something like that.
As I followed what was going on, I saw they’re still building everything. Things are still going ahead. They’re still pouring money into the place. So, at the very least, it’s worth following to see what’s going on. I have my doubts about the merits of this sort of new city concept in the middle of a low-lying wetland, to begin with. On the other hand, it’s not a whole lot different from what a lot of countries have done. Malaysia built a new capital city, Korea, South Korea built a new administrative city, the new cities in the mid-20th century. Qualitatively, it’s a different scale perhaps, but it’s not necessarily different from some of those large national new-scale projects. I think there has been a tendency to view it as a folly. Some of the Chinese-language media, obviously the media inside China is mostly talking about it in positive terms and it’s hard to know how accurate that media is.
It’s also hard to know some of this English-language coverage, how accurate it is, and maybe they’re missing the forest for the trees, so to speak. Because even if it is a kind of crazy project, which it might be, it’s still going ahead and it still seems to be taking a lot of investment from the central government.
Kaiser: I think a lot of the narrative has to be informed by this whole Ghost Cities idea that was so widely reported on. Usually, I have to say, with very little follow on. There is still this assumption, for example, that Jingzhou new area, which was like the poster child for the supposed Chinese white elephant projects from 10, 12 years ago. It actually has very, very high rates of occupancy and more people than it was originally projected. I’m not just saying that because my family’s originally from Hunan. But there are not a lot of people who were aware of this. There are not a lot of media outlets that’ve actually eaten humble pie or have said, “Oh yeah, we were kind of wrong about that.”
I mean it’s like Jeremy likes to talk on the podcast about how there were all these people who were just dissing this idea of the subway expansion in China, or even the building of the fifth Ring Road, which is now a parking lot. These empty subways, “Ah, nobody’s going to ride this thing.” And then two days later, it’s just sardines in there.
Andrew: Yeah. I think it’s a difficult sell for people from Beijing. I’ve spoken to some Beijing residents who don’t know much about it or are sort of curious about it, but not really sure what’s going on, and not really that interested in moving to Xiong’an. But for people from second- or third-tier cities, I mean there’s a huge youth unemployment problem as we know. Providing these sorts of opportunities in Xiong’an may not be a terrible idea. Definitely from a political sense, a hundred thousand workers were employed last couple of years at the peak of construction of this first phase of Xiong’an. It’s a massive public works project just in that regard. But I think the key question will be, in terms of its goals as an innovative city, as a model for innovation, how innovative will it be?
What kind of companies will be attracted to work there? You worked for Baidu previously, right? They were talked about as a partner. They were talked about as investing in Shaan. But right now most of the investments seem to be coming from SOEs, from large central SOEs. I think that some of the discourse or conventional wisdom in Western writing about SOEs is that they’re not innovative, they’re inefficient, they don’t use capital very well, and they need to be restructured. Xiong’an seems to be suggesting that Xi thinks of SOEs really as a driver of innovation. That includes some of these large power companies, and utility companies. We don’t think about them as technology giants, but they are trying to deploy more high-tech innovations in those sectors. So, in a sense, Xiong’an is a model of an infrastructure innovation city.
Given China’s ability or interest in projecting that capacity globally, they could have that function as a sort of showroom, not just for China, but also for countries as sort of, “oh, look at what you can purchase”. This is what Chinese infrastructural capacity can develop. But again, all that is maybe too early to speculate on.
Kaiser: I mentioned that James Scott would be grinding his teeth as he reads about this, the author of Seeing Like a State who talks about authoritarian folly. He talks very down on planned cities. Brasilia, right? This is just the sort of planned top-down intended to make a society legible to the state project that he just hates. It strikes me that this kind of a project, something on this scale animated by this particular vision, still happens in some places of the world. Outside of East and Southeast Asia, you mentioned South Korea and Malaysia, but outside of East and Southeast Asia, you only have the UAE, Dubai, and maybe other places there. It’s kind of unthinkable. It reminds me of this interview that I did years ago with this woman named Anna Greenspan who’s a philosopher who wrote a book called Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade, or something like that. I mean, the Future Remade — I can’t remember what the subtitle of it was. Shanghai Future, a really good book. She talked about this distinct Chinese mindset when it comes to futurity about how China is still one place where you can still talk without embarrassment, without irony about a technologically enhanced future. It sounds like you’re familiar with this book.
Andrew: I haven’t read it, I don’t think, but I’ve heard of it and I’m familiar with it.
Kaiser: Yeah. It’s definitely worth a read. So, do you think that there’s something to this? Do you think that there is a different relationship with technology in the future in China that makes this sort of thing still possible? I mean, I can’t even imagine if the United States endeavored to do something like this, how much popular criticism it would come in for.
Andrew: Yeah. I sort of, without any real scientific reason, trace it to the 1960s in the U.S. and the rejection of modernism. I mean, the rejection of Robert Moses and the Moses-Jane Jacobs’ approach in New York, opposition to top-down planning, and more cynicism about technology in a way. I think that’s certainly not the case in China, at least not for now. There is an ambition and a capacity to reimagine that. I’m curious really, I’m quite eager to visit Xiong’an because I’m struck by the differences of opinion. Even people in China, I mean, there are plenty of skeptics in China also about the project. Maybe not about technology innovation, but it’s seen as a political project too. So, I think that will be a question of how much legitimacy Xiong’an will have.
If there are political changes going forward, will future leaders be committed to or forced to continue investing in it in the way that Shenzhen took on self-fulfilling momentum afterwards. For now, there’s definitely a lot of focus on high-tech innovation in China as a means to national power. And that’s been something that’s been a part of political discourse for a while. Xiong’an is definitely a part of that in that sense. And I think that you’ll probably see continued investment in the city. At this point, it’s too big to fail. And one of the more striking things about a lot of the buildings in Xiong’an that I’ve been looking at is this fusion of technology and nature. What I called in the piece techno-naturalism. I think the sustainability and conservation debate in the U.S. is often sort of framed in this like binary of …
Andrew: Yeah. Protect wild spaces, conserve. There’s been an emphasis on that, the unspoiled aspect of nature. Whereas in China, I don’t know if others have echoed this as well, but the natural world and the human world, maybe it’s a cliche to say that, that’s a sort of lineage in Chinese thought. Ecological engineering, moving in a natural world around, so to speak, is not really seen as a taboo and, in fact, a part of political legitimacy in China going back a long time. So, I think ecological remediation, if it’s done through these artificial tree planting or shelter belt programs in Inner Mongolia or the North-South Water transfer project, these are all large-scale ecological engineering projects, not seen to be really in conflict with the natural environment, but just engineering or re-engineering of the natural environment.
I think that’s something that Xiong’an really symbolizes. And the buildings, this data center that’s surrounded by a pool of water and supposed to be covered in trees, it can’t get more in your face as that. There’s this high-tech data center that’s basically the symbol of ecological fusion with technology. That building really struck me in that way as being this amazing symbol essentially. Maybe there is actually a practical benefit to putting servers underground, reducing energy use and cooling. But what will be something to see in the city’s development is how much more of these sorts of symbolic projects are built and how effective they are actually.
Kaiser: Well, this is exactly why I wanted to talk to you about Xiong’an. What you’ve written about it, obviously you’ve reflected on it, you’ve thought about the philosophical dimensions of what the city means. You’ve thought about the semiotics of it, you’ve thought about the aesthetics of it. And it’s been wonderful talking to you about Xiong’an. You’re going there, you said, in about a month. I mean, if I’m there at the same time, let’s try to hook up.
Andrew: Yeah. I’ve booked a hotel in the Wyndham Xiong’an, so we’ll see if they honor my reservation.
Kaiser: Yeah, I’ll talk to you offline about the dates and then we’ll see.
Andrew: I’ve talked to some Chinese friends that are like, “Oh, can you, can you visit Xiong’an? Is it off limits?” And I’ve been trying to arrange contacts with some of the design institutes, Xinghua Design Institutes, that were involved in it because we have some affiliation through my university. We’ll see how much access I actually am able to get. It’s a very sensitive project, so there might be some concern about that. But also, at this point, becoming further along and maybe having something that people want to show. So, maybe there’s a reason to give more international attention to it. We’ll see.
Kaiser: Andrew Stokols, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Once again, the piece that I referenced is called China’s techno-natural utopia: A deep dive into Xiong’an. Andrew’s also written about Xiong’an in other publications, including in Foreign Policy. Definitely check out all of what he’s written. We’ll put links up to it. Meanwhile, thank you very much, and I hope that I’ll see you in Xiong’an.
Andrew: Thank you, Kaiser. Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure.
Kaiser: Let’s move on to recommendations before I let you go. Before we do that, just a quick reminder that the way to support the work that we’re doing here at the Sinica Podcast and The China Project more generally is to subscribe to Access, our daily newsletter. It’s just fantastic. It’s just been recently revamped. If you haven’t, check it out. Check it. It’s so, so good. Of all the newsletters on China out there, it’s definitely the one that I read end to end every day. All right, let’s move on. Recommendations. Andrew, what do you have for us?
Andrew: Yeah, so a book that I actually just picked up, it’s a bit academic, but it’s called The Institutional Foundation of Economic Development by Shiping Tang. It’s a Chinese professor from Fudan University. It’s a critique of new institutional economics. People like Acemoglu and political thinkers that have been talking about the importance of institutions. It’s an interesting critique, but also an analysis of what actually institutions matter for different countries, different development stages. Has some interesting thoughts too on innovation implications for what he calls the innovation advantage of democracies. Through some statistical analysis he was able to say that innovation is one advantage that democracy still has, but only at the later stage of growth. So, I think it’s interesting, and both challenges a certain mainstream thinking on institutional development and political development, but also has some specifics on the China case.
Kaiser: Oh, that’s good. A little academic, but yeah, that’s never put me off.
Andrew: Not for a beach read, but maybe a long flight, I guess.
Kaiser: Well, I’ve got more of a beach read book to recommend. I’ve been enjoying, I’m almost done with it now, Selwyn Raab — that’s S-E-L-W-Y-N. Raab is R-A-A-B. His book Five Families is about the history of the major New York crime families, from their origins in Sicily through prohibition, all the way up to quite recently. I don’t know if anyone knows this, I grew up for the first 12 years of my life, in this little, technically a hamlet, not even a town called Apalachin. It’s in Tioga County in the southern tier of New York. It’s about 20 miles, 20 minutes anyway west of Binghamton, right on the Pennsylvania border. But the only reason anyone might know of the hamlet of Apalachin is that in 1957, there was a conclave of mob bosses that was held there, or was to be held there.
It actually got broken up before they started really meeting. There are all these scenes of mob bosses fleeing into the corn fields and throwing money. Anyway, I’ve always been really interested in the Mafia, so I’ve read a bunch of books, but this is by far the best one that I have come across. Raab is a former New York Times reporter. He writes very, very well and just spins a great yarn. I also happen to have heard a talk the other day, I’ve been going to the Rotary Club meetings here because they always bring in really fantastic speakers, and one of them was an attorney who was a federal prosecutor, who ended up working on the John Gotti case and got quite close to Sammy the Bull, Gravano, who was, of course, instrumental in that trial. She had some amazing stories to tell. And I think it was fate demanding that I recommend this book, Five Families, and yeah, I think it’ll be a fun beach read. You’ll end up talking like a wise guy at the end of it.
Andrew: That was a lot juicier than the book I recommended.
Kaiser: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I always go for stuff that’s frivolous and fun, but this was a lot of fun. It’s vicarious, living those criminal impulses that we all have, sublimate, hopefully, because we’re civilized. All right. Hey, what a fantastic conversation with you. I really, really enjoyed talking to you, Andrew. I can’t wait to see what more you come up with about Xiong’an. I will be following your work closely.
Andrew: Thanks so much, Kaiser. Pleasure to be on, yeah. Hope to see you maybe in Xiong’an.
Kaiser: Yeah. See you in Xiong’an.
The Sinica Podcast is powered by The China Project and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at [email protected]. Hey, by the way, a lot of people have been writing me and it’s been really great. I’m really super glad that people have been writing. So, please keep that up. Or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. Oh, hey, and by the way, no one’s writing reviews. Write some reviews on Apple Podcasts. If you like the show, really, come on, I’m not asking a lot, just write a damn review. Anyway, this does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @thechinaproj, and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.