Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Capital Idea

China’s Capital Idea

After heading southwest from Beijing for two and half hours on a highway, a traveler might decide to stretch her legs at Baoding, a medium-sized city of under two million people. She would almost certainly not think the dusty town in northern Hebei province, one best known for its donkey meat burgers, looked like a candidate for China’s next capital. But that very notion gripped the Chinese Internet on March 19 after Caijing, a reputable state-owned financial magazine, reported that Baoding would become a "secondary political center," writing that certain government offices and education institutions would start moving there from Beijing at an unspecified future date.

The news soon became one of the hottest topics on Chinese social media. The Baoding local government, not to mention China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission, the state organ responsible for macro-level economic planning in China, both quickly denied the report. But the genie was out of the bottle, and Internet users have continued discussing the possibility of relieving Beijing of its duty as China’s capital. 

It’s not the first time — nor, in all likelihood, will it be the last time — that talk of a capital move has fired the public imagination. In February 2012, an unfounded Internet rumor claimed that a town in central Henan province was one of the top choices for a new seat of government. Compared to that, Baoding seems like a credible choice. It lies about equidistant from Beijing and Tianjin, another large municipality, and since 2004, the central government has sent signals about strategic urban planning that would "integrate" Beijing, Tianjin, and the surrounding areas in Hebei.

Beijing has been China’s capital for most of the past 700 years, but a city originally built to house palaces and to fend off Mongols now groans under the weight of its 21 million inhabitants and 5 million cars. Multiple subway lines have opened since 2008, but the subway only seems to get even more crowded, with single-day ridership reaching 10 million in March 2013. An April 2012 report by the International Monetary Fund showed a 750-square-foot apartment in Beijing costing over 22 times average annual pretax income there in 2011. That makes even apartments around Beijing’s peripheral Fifth Ring Road, which lies over 10 miles from the city center, a "pipe dream" for the average white-collar worker.

On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, Beijing natives who arguably reaped the most benefits from the boom also voiced the loudest complaints about outsiders changing their beloved city. Others wondered aloud what would happen to Beijing’s sky-high real estate prices should the capital move. One user wrote that uprooting China’s government was a "great" idea — as long as the leadership doesn’t move to the rival city of Shanghai.