Why China should move the capital

Beijing, China’s water-poor and overpopulated capital, is stretching its resources to the limit. It is time for a new strategy, writes Mei Xinyu, the country should seriously consider moving its capital.
<p>(Image: Alamy)</p>

(Image: Alamy)

If you are asking whether you read that correctly, then yes. China really should consider moving the capital away from Beijing. Any nation, particularly a major power, should choose a location for its capital that allows growth and can respond to challenges. The historical advantages that led Beijing to become China’s capital no longer exist, and the location’s disadvantages are becoming ever more apparent. If Beijing remains the capital it will not only be a burden on the rest of the nation, the city itself will be led down a dead end.

The Yan Kingdom may have chosen the area for its capital 2,000 years ago, but Beijing was never at the heart of Chinese civilisation. Its history as the capital of unified China stems from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Modern China, however, cannot remain wedded an old-fashioned perspective that uses a stronghold in the north for the plunder of the south.

With the rise of the Ming Dynasty in the fourteenth century, the Mongols retreated back north, but they hoped to return and were regarded as a major threat to the Ming. Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, was concerned about these enemies over the border and warned the military should stay ready for action. Therefore, the Ming maintained a strong army, but with the capital in the southern city of Nanjing they faced a dilemma. If their generals were given a free hand, could they be trusted to deal with threats over the border? If they kept the army on too tight a leash, would they lose the ability to act decisively and risk repeating the military disasters of the Song Dynasty? The Ming decided to move the capital north, even at the risk of putting the lives of the court on the line. In the twentieth century, choosing Beijing as the capital of the People’s Republic of China may have kept the government closer to its friends at the time, a similar fighting spirit was seen when Soviet armies massed on China’s northern borders.

Today, none of those reasons remain for keeping Beijing as the capital. Modern communications and transportation mean there is no need for today’s “emperors” to stay within easy reach of the borders. Ever since the Opium Wars, China’s military threats have come from the east, not the north. The Mongols were pacified, the Soviet Union collapsed and we are on friendly terms with Russia. Keeping the capital in Beijing does not keep us closer to our allies.  

Retaining Beijing as the capital continues to present problems. A city of 20 million people located in such a water-poor area raises concerns. Should the authorities not consider the capacity of the environment? Can we really afford the cost of locating the capital in Beijing? Are we already damaging the balanced growth of the nation?

Quenching Beijing’s thirst has already meant tapping the Hai River and water from neighbouring provinces. Now the Han River is to be diverted for a huge project transferring water from the south to the north. The impact of this project on the lower reaches of the Han River should not be underestimated. It will not necessarily solve water problems in the north, but it may well destroy the environment in the south. Beijing may have moved the Shougang steel plant for the sake of its air quality, but it continues to develop water-intensive industry. Why not move the industry and resources where there is more water?

As for Beijing itself, the city’s excessive population growth and expanding industry degrades the quality of life. Overpopulation means too many cars; the city’s congestion is the stuff of nightmares. Environmental pollution and over-priced property add to the problem. Even if the government keeps the price of water low for the sake of residents on low incomes, the cost of bringing that water to Beijing remains. The water could in fact provide greater economic and environmental benefit elsewhere.

If Beijing remains the capital, then damage to the environment and quality of life could spread irreversibly to other areas. The centre of power in any country will gather resources towards itself and that will attract people from elsewhere – at home and abroad – to come seek their fortunes. They have every right to do so, and this should not be restricted, but inevitably the pressures on the city are increased. At China’s recent seventeenth Communist Party congress, president Hu Jintao discussed the promotion of coordinated regional development and optimising the development of land. Leaving Beijing as the capital may be the biggest possible mistake.

If China faced a military threat from the north, or Beijing only had 3 or 4 million people, there would be no need to move the capital. However, in the current circumstances, we should give it serious consideration. In the long-term it will solve the wider problems I have mentioned, but in the short- and medium-term it will also provide a new focus for economic growth after the Olympic Games.

If China were to select a new capital, the ideal location would be a small- or medium-sized city, with undeveloped land for construction, around the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River. Such a geographic location would have high environmental capacity and land for government buildings – unlike an already developed city. Finally, a smaller population would mean local interests could not hold central government to ransom – and it would also be easier to spread Mandarin as the official language.

This article first appeared on FTChinese.com