Growth Challenges

Is Hebei crowned Cambridgeshire 3.0?


Pollution, congestion, population density and sky-high housing costs are among factors inspiring an emerging joint development plan for neighbouring Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province. This would involve relocation of some activities from Beijing to surrounding areas. A recent China Daily article, ‘Move colleges out of capital”, suggests this might include relocation of some universities. Here we take a leap forward, and ponder if Hebei might even be earmarked to become Cambridgeshire 3.0.

Home not just to China’s central government and whopping 20 million residents (little short of the entire population of Australia), Beijing is also home to up to 100 institutions of higher learning and multiple more research institutes. Home to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and three of China’s top 10 universities: Peking, Tsinghua and Renmin, Beijing that is, is China’s academic heartland.

Not so long ago these universities, many of which are located in Beijing’s North West Haidian district, were far from central Beijing. Distance as well as poor transport links meant that Haidian-based students lived a separate existence from much of the rest of Beijing. Urban sprawl, population growth and the recent opening of metro lines 4 and 10 changed that forever. Now with rapid and cheap transit to almost anywhere in Beijing at these universities’ doorsteps – Peking and Renmin even have their own subway stops – the universities have rather become part of the integrated and inter-connected crowded reality of Beijing. With their large campuses geographically they also take up quite some valuable space.

In the face of an otherwise strained urban Beijing reality, President Xi has announced the “Jing-Jin-Ji” plan. The idea is to development satellite cities proximate to Beijing, connect them to Beijing by fast train, and alleviate pressure in the capital while enhancing the development of the less advanced surrounding areas. First included in China’s national development plan in 2011, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei broader metropolitan plan has already been backed up by greater infrastructure investment to better connect towns and cities within the cluster.

The idea to relocate economic activity out of Beijing is contentious, and has already sparked massive property price inflation in places like the Hebei city of Baoding especially. A more polluted industrial heartland than even Beijing, the city has nonetheless been crowned as a potential satellite base for some of the potentially to-be relocated administrative functions from Beijing. Baoding may be an emerging Milton Keynes.

But what of the idea to create college towns in Hebei? In abstract that idea reflects the industrial path of academic and industrial giants the United States and Britain. Nearly a millennium ago amid thriving commerce in Cambridge England a cluster of thinkers began a process that led ultimately to the creation of one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities. In those footsteps, Cambridge Massachusetts emerged as America’s most elite university hub several centuries later. Home to Harvard and MIT, as the world’s most elite academic hub it probably also the only place in the world outside potentially of Haidian district to host a Chinese restaurant carrying the name ‘Zhuangyuan lou’ (状元楼). Zhuangyuan is the title given annually to the top ‘Gaokao’ (university entrance exam) student in each province of China.

Several centuries later again, could Hebei have been crowned a future Cambridgeshire? There are already emerging scientific laboratory research clusters outside of Beijing, where land is cheaper and there is more space to think. Chinese media also claim that such university towns also allow more innovation and start-ups after graduation. They cite the case of Yangling town-ship in Shaanxi that forms a state-level agricultural science park. The ability of the park to serve student, research and industrial needs is reported as related to its location outside of the provincial capital.

It seems that is that Hebei is earmarked for transformation. Those searching for opportunity and prosperity amid China’s goal of creating an innovation-led economy, as well as those interested in industrialisation history between and across national giants of history, might do well to keep an eye on the Jing-Jin-Ji plan. Cambridgeshire 3.0 that is, could be in the evolving in the most unlikely of places, such as Baoding, Hebei province, north China. It may however be some years yet until this prospective transformation inspires a Chinese restaurant with the name Zhuangyuanlou beyond Haidian district, Beijing or nearby to MIT.

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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