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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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