China might not be willing to relocate its capital city, but it can make it bigger. The country’s top economic planner has reportedly drawn up a plan for a Beijing-centered “economic circle” (link in Chinese) that combines the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin and parts of Hebei province into one huge megalopolis.
Officials believe that integrating the three areas will help alleviate traffic, population, and housing pressure in Beijing, which is struggling with air pollution, water scarcity, and a flood of migrant workers. Last month, officials said that some administrative bodies in Beijing would be offloaded to Baoding, a nearby medium-sized city in Hebei. Other initiatives range from a joint plan for improving air quality to expanding transportation links so that more families opt to live outside Beijing, easing demand for housing in the capital.
The effect would be to create one of the country’s largest regions—already colloquially known as “Jing-Jin-Ji” (for (Bei)jing, (Tian)jin and Hebei, which is sometimes referred to by the character ji). Already, Hebei is China’s 12th largest province in terms of area—adding on Beijing and Tianjin would increase its total area to about 216,000 sq. km (83,400 sq. miles)—bigger than the total area of Uruguay. The combined economic output of Jing-Jin-Ji surpassed 6 trillion yuan ($970 billion) last year, accounting for about 10.9% of the country’s total GDP. The area’s total population is over 100 million, more than that of Germany or Vietnam.
However, it’s not clear that this will help conditions in Beijing. Hebei province is a poor steel-making region that isn’t likely to attract workers away from Beijing. Some cities like Yanjia function as suburbs of Beijing, but most of its residents still work in the capital, which doesn’t alleviate traffic.
Moreover, if the new “economic circle” is more or less a larger version of Beijing—which is already built around six concentric and interminably congested “ring roads” (beltways), it may just worsen Beijing’s urban problems. “I’m a great critic of the way Beijing has developed,” Jan Wampler, an architect at MIT, told the Wall Street Journal. Officials are currently building another ring road to connect to Hebei, to help the integration process. Wampler adds, “You can’t continue to build ring roads. It’s got to stop sometime.”