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China wants to build an innovation capital by fiat. Can it?

Jessica Meyers, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

RONGCHENG, China -- Farmers often stop to stare at the cement trucks running through their cornfields outside this dusty, frigid town south of Beijing. They're watching the destruction of their livelihoods for the promise of a more prosperous future.

Chinese President Xi Jinping stood in nearby fields in April to herald a project "crucial for the next millennium." Officials described a massive high-tech hub three times the size of New York City that would resuscitate poor areas and transform how China builds urban centers.

They called it Xiongan, "magnificent peace."

The country's sprawling propaganda apparatus compared it in significance to Shenzhen, the wealthy southern metropolis where China first loosened suffocating Mao-era controls and dealt itself in as an aggressive new player in the global economy.

Xi, the most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, envisions Xiongan as the next chapter of the four-decade boom that helped define modern China. Only this time, he's betting on the Communist Party, more than the markets, to steer it.

A richer, more assertive China faces an unprecedented political test. Shenzhen lit the fuse for decades of rapid economic growth without regard for the legacies of environmental degradation, shoddy construction or gaping inequality. Xiongan is intended to avoid those downsides through a more controlled approach -- the world's most modern, sustainable city created by fiat.

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Shenzhen transformed from a cluster of fishing villages into an electronics manufacturing powerhouse.

Deng Xiaoping, the former leader who blessed Shenzhen, encouraged society to "let some people get rich first." He catapulted China down the road to capitalism by easing the state's grip on the economy. Xi, through Xiongan, is tightening it. He aims to build a city -- a society -- that prospers more thoughtfully because the party orchestrates that future.

"Xi has a more convinced view of the necessity of a very large, direct state role in the economy than Deng ever did," said Arthur Kroeber, a longtime China researcher and managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics, a Beijing research firm.

Shenzhen grew rich as a factory for the world. Xi wants Xiongan to grow rich as an innovation center that leads the world.


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