Big Dreams And Ghost-Town Fears In China's New Mega Eco-City

A green city collaboration between Singapore and China has all the features of an environmentally sustainable future. But one thing it's missing: people.

Aerial view of Sino Singapore Tianjin Eco-City
Aerial view of Sino Singapore Tianjin Eco-City
Xie Liangbing

SINO-SINGAPORE TIANJIN ECO-CITY — After five years of construction, an initial area of eight square kilometers of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City is essentially complete.

This collaborative project between China and Singapore for an environmentally friendly and sustainable city has been designated as the first “National green development model zone.” With its rows of buildings weaving among the trees and the lush greenery, the project reveals a rare elegance and beauty for a northern Chinese city.

But a certain embarrassment and puzzlement lie behind the leafy appearance. The Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City is a virtual ghost town because it has yet to draw in people and businesses.

The plan for this eco-city is to include a national animation park, a national audiovisual park, a green industry park, an ecological technology park, as well as an information technology park. The idea is to attract companies working in the new energy and new materials sector, accompanying technology research and development, animation and creative industries, education and training as well as modern service industries.

The eco-city is scheduled to be built over the course of a decade on a 30-square-kilometer stretch of wasteland, and ultimately could welcome 350,000 inhabitants. It’s set to be a “new type of eco-city with 100% green buildings.” Five years on, as Singapore’s Emeritus Senior Minister, Goh Chok Tong, puts it, the eco-city has gone from the “adolescent” period into the “adult” stage.

More construction workers than residents

But only 4,000 inhabitants live in the finished district so far. And the 1,000 or so companies registered in the city are mostly small and micro businesses — not enough to support the entire eco-city development.

Though a business street at the south of the National Animation Park started operating in July last year, it’s clear that it would be difficult for service or retail businesses to thrive here. Many shops are closed or uninhabited, and there are few people on the streets and few shop displays.

In an ordinary Chinese city, each square kilometer of constructed area accommodates 10,000 people. By that measure, the Tianjin eco-city should be home to 80,000 residents by now. But there are fewer actual resident is smaller than there are construction workers on site — around 6,000.

Inconvenience of transport is the first problem. Whether you are coming from downtown Tianjin or from the Binhai New Area — an area east of Tianjin on the coast and part of the Bohai Economic Rim, destined to replicate the economic development of Pudong in Shanghai and Shenzhen — it isn’t at all easy. Just like other new towns, the eco-city’s residents are suffering the pain of being a fledgling town.

The city’s problem isn’t limited to imperfect transport facilities either. It is situated between two of Tianjin’s districts, Hangu and Tanggu, which have long been bases for heavy chemical industry and are both deeply affected by pollution.

Work in progress — Photo: Mao Zhenhua/Xinhua/ZUMA

The planned eco-city has an area of three square kilometers of wastewater reservoir, which has endured 40 years of industrial and agricultural pollution. Even though a green landscape transformation is planned and this area will eventually be turned into a large environmental theme park, the pincer effect from Hangu and Tanggu’s heavy chemical pollution is not a trifle affair.

Property developers lead the way

According to the eco-city’s official data, the town has already attracted more than 1,000 businesses with a total registered capital of 70 billion RMB ($11.5 billion). They are mostly companies in animation, clean technology, and information technology, but the majority of them are small businesses.

“It’s obvious that the eco-city has great difficulties in attracting business,” says Wang Xiaochen, planning manager of Kaicheng Real Estate Consulting Co. who is responsible for the new town’s investment recruiting. “To comply with a green city’s environmental standards, animation, audiovisual, and publishing have been designated as the city’s leading industries. But it is not at all easy to start from scratch and create a national-level animation industry park on a piece of saline land where no industrial base existed before. The main dilemma is that these planned leading industries don’t possess any strong need to cluster.”

But compared with the anemic industry recruitment, the real estate projects are booming. There are currently 19 property projects on sale from various large developers. To attract these real estate projects, the local government offered land at very attractive prices. What the developers worry about is where the buyers for the 20,000 units of housing under construction will come from.

At a crossroads

He Dongyen, chairman of the Tianjin Eco-city Investment & Development Company, is nonetheless optimistic about this new city’s future. In his view, the absence of urban facilities is being solved gradually. “A large comprehensive market is to be finished and start operating by the end of the year. A theme park and a hospital are going to open respectively in 2014 and 2015,” he says.

The government is also trying to attract people here. This includes personal income tax incentives for personnel with required expertise when they purchase homes here. In addition, the eco-city is providing full and free compulsory education facilities to school-aged children. Not only will the school buses and the lunches be free, the tuition will be subsidized. “That’s about 130,000 yuan $21,300 of savings for a child’s education from kindergarten to secondary school,” one local resident says.

Cui Guangzhi, Eco-city Management Committee deputy director, says that only three or four kilometers of the 30-square-kilometer area will be allocated to industries. “Will the small scale of business be able to support a city with 350,000 people? That is a critical issue we have to face." But he also says the eco-city is a sort of bedroom community to the entire Binhai New Area, which covers 2,270 square kilometers and obviously provides much greater business and employment opportunities.

Tianjin eco-city’s dilemma is in no way an isolated case in China. Nearly 300 Chinese cities have put forward the goal of building green areas. Unfortunately, just as worldwide standards for eco-cities are still debatable, some of China’s green projects are turned into mere real estate projects by unscrupulous developers. That’s the case in the China Zhiching Eco-city in the southern Yunnan province. Meanwhile, the uncompleted Tangshan Caofeidian Eco-city, another Bohai Economic Rim development project, has simply come to a standstill.

Alas, despite it being a national-level demonstration model set to be replicated, the Tianjin Eco-city seems to be at a crossroads right now.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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