China’s Futuristic City Is a Test of Its Planning Power

Xiongan is a window into Xi Jinping’s ambitions.

By , a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanization.
An aerial view of the citizen service center of the Xiongan New Area in China.
An aerial view of the citizen service center of the Xiongan New Area in China.
An aerial view of the citizen service center of the Xiongan New Area in China on June 2, 2018. VCG via Getty Images

About 60 miles south of the center of Beijing, a new city is being built as a showcase of high-tech ecologically friendly development. Its massive high-speed rail station and “city brain” data center have been heralded by Chinese state media as evidence of the speed and superiority of China’s growth model—not least because the city is a “signature initiative” of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xiongan New Area is also a test for whether China can boost domestic innovation and climb into the ranks of advanced nations in the face of slowing economic growth and efforts by the United States and others to restrict its access to advanced technology.

Xiongan offers a window into what Xi’s vision of state-led innovation looks like on the ground. Xi has called the city his “personal initiative” and a qiannian daji, or “thousand-year plan of national significance.” The plan for Xiongan, which was formally unveiled in 2017 to relieve pressure on Beijing and promote the “coordinated regional development” of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, has faced financial struggles due to the huge investment costs—even more of a problem given China’s mounting real estate crisis. Overall, the new area encompasses about 650 square miles, with a planned population of around 3 million; currently, the three counties comprising the zone have around 1.4 million long-term residents. As of September 2022, 400 billion yuan (about $57 billion) in completed investment had been reported in the city overall.

While Xi has stacked the new Politburo Standing Committee with officials loyal to him, he has also elevated those with strong science and engineering backgrounds. In his speech at the 20th Party Congress last October, Xi declared that “innovation will remain at the heart of China’s modernization drive” and that China has “worked hard to promote high-quality development and pushed to foster a new pattern of development.” Nevertheless, a confluence of factors including COVID-19 lockdowns and trade tensions is contributing to overall slower growth in China.

About 60 miles south of the center of Beijing, a new city is being built as a showcase of high-tech ecologically friendly development. Its massive high-speed rail station and “city brain” data center have been heralded by Chinese state media as evidence of the speed and superiority of China’s growth model—not least because the city is a “signature initiative” of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xiongan New Area is also a test for whether China can boost domestic innovation and climb into the ranks of advanced nations in the face of slowing economic growth and efforts by the United States and others to restrict its access to advanced technology.

Xiongan offers a window into what Xi’s vision of state-led innovation looks like on the ground. Xi has called the city his “personal initiative” and a qiannian daji, or “thousand-year plan of national significance.” The plan for Xiongan, which was formally unveiled in 2017 to relieve pressure on Beijing and promote the “coordinated regional development” of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, has faced financial struggles due to the huge investment costs—even more of a problem given China’s mounting real estate crisis. Overall, the new area encompasses about 650 square miles, with a planned population of around 3 million; currently, the three counties comprising the zone have around 1.4 million long-term residents. As of September 2022, 400 billion yuan (about $57 billion) in completed investment had been reported in the city overall.

While Xi has stacked the new Politburo Standing Committee with officials loyal to him, he has also elevated those with strong science and engineering backgrounds. In his speech at the 20th Party Congress last October, Xi declared that “innovation will remain at the heart of China’s modernization drive” and that China has “worked hard to promote high-quality development and pushed to foster a new pattern of development.” Nevertheless, a confluence of factors including COVID-19 lockdowns and trade tensions is contributing to overall slower growth in China.

In Xi’s vision, however, party control is not a hindrance to innovation. Rather, Xi’s vision of innovation is one in which the state and party play a leading role. Xi has led a crackdown on private technology firms such as Alibaba but has also promoted policies, such as his Made in China 2025, that aim to boost research-and-development spending and subsidies to give Chinese firms competitive advantages in industries including biotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors. Xi’s policies favor “hard tech” over software-based platform app companies. The first party secretary of Xiongan was Chen Gang, who oversaw Beijing’s Zhongguancun high-tech park before being transferred to Guizhou, where under Xi ally Chen Miner he helped turn the southwestern province into a center of big data and cloud computing.

The approach to innovation in Xiongan involves embedding technology within the fabric of the city as well as innovation processes within the party-state. Xiongan Group was created as the investment vehicle for the area’s overall development, under the control of Hebei province but backed partially by loans from China Development Bank. The first central state-owned enterprises to begin construction of offices in the new area were China Satellite Communications Co., the energy giant China Huaneng Group, and Sinochem Holdings. Others now include the big three telecoms and China State Grid, as well as China Mineral Resources Group, a conglomerate set up last year to centralize China’s coal mining industry. These state-owned enterprises could use Xiongan as a test bed for new technologies. Research institutes and satellite branches of several Beijing universities are planning to open in the area around 2025. The relocation of these major units and their thousands of employees will determine how quickly Xiongan’s development proceeds.

Even as China’s economy has slowed during COVID-19 lockdowns and the global downturn, construction of the first phase of Xiongan has marched on: A huge high-speed rail station to connect the city with Beijing opened in 2020, followed by residential slabs, massive underground utility corridors, and the city brain data center, which will serve as the nerve center of the city’s digital systems. The first section, Rongdong, has been mostly completed, with housing for 170,000 people. Media reports of new schools opening show the effort to build high-quality public amenities to attract residents to the city: Branches of Beijing institutions such as Shijia Primary School and Tsinghua University High School are among the new educational institutions being built in Xiongan.

The goal of Xiongan seems to be to deploy novel city-scale technological systems within the urban fabric itself: underground logistics systems, water treatment facilities, infrastructure for data collection and management. Xiongan has been described as “three cities”: the city aboveground, the city underground, and the city in the cloud. The underground city is the utility corridors that have been laid beneath major roads and will carry water and electricity mains as well as space for automated logistics delivery. The “city in the cloud” refers to Xiongan’s digital twin, a virtual digital copy that is being built alongside the actual city’s construction. This digital twin is supposed to allow for better real-time traffic navigation, better maintenance of infrastructure and technology systems, and for algorithm-driven management of traffic and other urban systems. Similar systems have been piloted in other Chinese cities to control traffic, for example, relying on pervasive surveillance technology. Yet the use cases of Xiongan’s digital twin and 5G-powered autonomous vehicles have not yet been deployed from the ground up at the scale of an entire new city like Xiongan.

Such large-scale infrastructural systems enable the trialing and showcasing of new technologies on a scale unseen in most new city projects. Xiongan has also been a testing ground for China’s efforts to establish a new digital renminbi, a central bank digital currency that could ultimately reduce dependence on the U.S. dollar and allow the government to collect data on consumer transactions. Construction workers in Xiongan have received wages via digital blockchain currency, thus incentivizing adoption even as most consumers have been slow to embrace the digital renminbi.

If Shenzhen signaled China’s experimentation with market reforms under Deng Xiaoping, then Xiongan represents a partial reversal. Today, the phrase Xiongan zhiliang (“Xiongan quality”) is used to describe the city as a symbol of “high-quality development,” a term that emerged in 2017 during the 19th Party Congress to signal China’s progression away from heavy manufacturing to an era of so-called cleaner knowledge-intensive growth. It also references the term Shenzhen sudu (“Shenzhen speed”), which was used to describe Shenzhen’s rapid growth as one of China’s first special economic zones in the 1980s.

In addition to its emphasis on innovation, the city’s design has social engineering goals. Xiongan’s plan calls for putting social and cultural facilities at the heart of urban life, reflecting the importance that the Chinese Communist Party has placed since 2014 on promoting a more “human-centered” urbanization. Urban design guidelines call for new “five-minute blocks,” allowing residents to access community medical clinics, child and elder care facilities, and a range of other one-stop services within a five-minute walk, and for “cultivating a new Xiongan person with healthy mind, noble character, and artistic temperament.” If implemented, this plan would recenter the party’s presence in everyday urban life while streamlining and modernizing the image of government bureaucracy.

Xiongan’s design also infuses elements of traditional Chinese culture into modern architecture, reflecting Xi’s emphasis on “cultural self-confidence.” The Xiongan New Area Management Committee ordered “three no-builds in Xiongan—no high-rise buildings, no cement forests, no glass curtain walls.” While there will be some high-rises, heights will be controlled in most areas. Xiongan may be Xi’s Shenzhen or Pudong, but in style and form it is the opposite.

Environmental quality is a large part of Xiongan’s symbolic power. Recognizing that toxic pollution had become a threat to the party’s legitimacy, the State Council issued new urbanization guidelines in 2014. Xiongan is the crystallization of this. Energy is to be generated from various renewable sources. Public transport is planned to shoulder 90 percent of traffic. Autonomous electric vehicles will operate with intelligent sensing cameras that will allow them to navigate the city’s streets. Media reports claim that the Baiyangdian wetlands have been revitalized through pollution removal and habitat restoration.

Several buildings nearing completion communicate this fusion of nature, high technology, and elements of traditional Chinese culture: The city brain data center floats on a body of water and is surrounded by greenery that will cool the servers and moderate the energy required for the operation of cloud computing servers. A power transforming station built by China State Grid features a Chinese-style garden on its roof. A recent CCTV documentary described the building of “shan shui city style, integrating practical use and aesthetics.” This references the classical Chinese painting tradition of water and mountain landscapes. The message is that high-tech innovation doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment or public health and that China can innovate on its own terms.

Of course, Xiongan cannot propel China’s innovation by itself. It may be unwise to sink so much fixed investment into technologies that may never be fully implemented or that may become obsolete, especially given the fast pace of technological change. Modernist cities of the 20th century such as Brazil’s capital of Brasília and Chandigarh in India are widely considered failures in planning history for their failure to accommodate urban growth and rigid separation of uses—though they remain functioning cities today. South Korea’s smart city Songdo, whose first phase opened in 2009, was meant to feature teleconferencing screens from Cisco in its apartments—an idea now outdated thanks to the rise of teleconferencing as an everyday norm on multiple devices.

There have been discussions in Xiongan about implementing new models of affordable and subsidized housing. But a former employee of one of the state-owned developers involved in Xiongan told me that he thought ultimately there would be a mix of housing types, including subsidized rental units and homes for purchase. Rongdong, Xiongan’s first phase, has mostly comprised resettlement housing for villagers whose homes were destroyed to make way for the city’s construction. This continues a nationwide policy of trying to eradicate rural poverty by relocating villagers to new apartment blocks—although this often fails to reduce poverty and creates new problems.

Given the centrally led investment and personal commitment of Xi himself, it would be unwise to write off the Xiongan experiment. The city is the latest example in China’s long history of using model cities to communicate political ideals, from the socialist oil city of Daqing in the 1950s to Deng’s Shenzhen as a testing zone of market reforms in the 1980s. If the city takes off, private companies may want to move there to tap into what could be a cluster of high-tech talent and resources. But until then, central government support will be the main source of resources and capital. Though the city has been called a “thousand-year project,” the next few years will be a critical period for Xiongan and for Xi’s larger vision of party-state-led innovation.

Andrew Stokols is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanization. He is a former Fulbright Scholar and Princeton-in-Asia Fellow. Twitter: @astoks

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