x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Gateway to north China on a build-up

With cranes stretched across a flat landscape and vast areas of seemingly never-ending building sites, China's Binhai New Area is easy to compare with Dubai.

It was another perfect photo opportunity for China's media-savvy premier, Wen Jiabao.

While in Tianjin for the World Economic Summit last month, Mr Wen took a detour to Binhai New Area, a development zone that sits between the main city area and the sweeping Bohai Bay.

It wasn't long before China's head of government found himself in the cockpit of an Airbus A320, the airliner assembled in Binhai New Area, and Mr Wen was grinning broadly as he grabbed the cockpit controls with characteristic enthusiasm while the photographers' flashbulbs went off. One could hardly have imagined China's more reserved president, Hu Jintao, doing the same.

In an official statement released that day, Mr Wen "urged the Binhai New Area to take the lead in China's development".

The development zone was, according to the premier, "at the forefront of China's reform and opening up drive, and must seize opportunities and explore a new path to reform boldly".

All very inspiring stuff, no doubt, but the wonder is that Mr Wen felt the need to offer Binhai New Area any encouragement. The hyper-ambition of this 2,270 square km scheme, which comes under the jurisdiction of Tianjin municipality, has long been evident.

An array of development areas are being created to make use of what the local authority describes as the area's prime location, good transport links and vast undeveloped tracts of land.

Billing itself as a "gateway of north China", the district is aiming to become - according to its own literature - nothing less than a new Shanghai or a new Shenzhen.

As one travels through its vast acres of seemingly never-ending building sites, parallels with Dubai are equally easy to draw.

With cranes by the dozen stretched across a flat landscape, countless prefabricated buildings put up for the construction workers to live in and orange JCB diggers levelling the ground for building work to start, this could easily be an area beside the Dubai section of the Emirates Road.

There is more greenery and, in some areas, wetlands, than in the UAE, but otherwise the similarities with the Middle East's business capital, at least in appearance, are striking.

The project also has many parallels with Abu Dhabi, not least that it is looking to experiment with more environmentally friendly ways of living through the building of an eco-city similar to the capital's Masdar City.

Using a multi-coloured map to illustrate their scheme, the officials from the local authority describe their hopes for the area with a zeal and unrestrained optimism probably hard to find outside modern China.

Theirs is an almost bewildering initiative that includes a series of manufacturing, chemical, free trade and tourism areas that are going to transform the landscape of what was once a sleepy rural idyll.

"It is said that Binhai New Area will be the third growth area of China after Shenzhen and Pudong, and the premier, Wen Jiabao, said this. Everybody says this," Yu Jingshen, the director of the information office of the municipality, says with a smile."This project hasn't been affected by the [downturn in] the world economy."

Last year, the GDP of the Binhai New Area was 381 billion yuan (Dh209bn), a rise of 23.5 per cent on the 2008 total of 310bn yuan, which represented 23.1 per cent growth compared with 2007. Last year, the area attracted more than US$5bn (Dh18.36bn) in foreign direct investment.

High-technology research and development and manufacturing, along with a shipping and logistics centre, are the main focus. Large-scale, high-tech manufacturers have already moved in, with Samsung and Toyota among the global names to have set up facilities. About 95 of the Fortune Global 500 are said to have operations there.

The hope is this is just the start and Binhai's development could follow the furious growth of Shenzhen, the city in the southern province of Guangdong from which the genesis of China's modern economic boom can be traced, after the liberalising economic policies introduced from the late 1970s by the former leader Deng Xiaoping.

Pudong, the district of Shanghai that like Binhai is officially known as a "New Area", has in two decades, through the building of an array of dramatic skyscrapers beside the Huangpu River, turned its cityscape into the defining image of China's modern-day development.

Beyond the official hyperbole, analysts believe Binhai New Area does have significant strategic advantages, suggesting the frequent comparisons with Shenzhen and Shanghai are not misplaced.

Ben Simpfendorfer, the chief China economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland, says Tianjin "can become a service capital for the north" of China. He describes the area's location, within easy sailing distance of Japan and Korea, as a major plus.

"It provides a hub for the region in much the way Shenzhen provides a hub for Hong Kong and Guangdong," Mr Simpfendorfer says.

Another benefit, he says, is that Tianjin escapes "the suffocation of politics" that plagues Beijing.

But avoiding the air of Beijing could be more difficult, as Tianjin and the surrounding area also suffer the pollution haze that often blights the capital.

This means the authorities' long-term aim of creating an environmentally friendly industrial development and living zone seems a distant ambition, even if it is something they insist is a priority.

"We have formulated a series of measures to ensure it's environmentally friendly and low carbon," says Mr Yu.

"An industrial policy has been formulated that no polluting industries can be allowed into Binhai New Area. And the materials for the construction are also environmentally friendly."

An improvement in the environment of the area will require wider efforts in outlying districts to remove polluting industries and reduce vehicular emissions, something that could prove difficult as development continues at a breathless space.

While some studies indicated there were improvements in Tianjin's air quality in the early 2000s, the authorities' aim of creating another world-class industrial zone, without the ecological hazards that have hampered many of China's other primary development areas and are now increasingly seen as a drain on GDP, will not be easy to realise.

dbardsley@thenational.ae