For years, Cai Jinlian had envied her sister Cai Jinrong who lived a much better life than her, just 1 km away: Jinlian is in Hebei province and Jinrong in Beijing.
The two sisters grew up in a mountain village named Lishuigou in Hebei. Jinrong married a farmer some 30 years ago and moved to a village that is within walking distance from Lishuigou but administered by Beijing.
Jinrong has been enjoying clean tap water and lives in a two-storey villa. Jinlian, who never leaves Lishuigou, was still drinking well water even two years ago and the road to her rundown bungalow was badly potholed. She even had to pay long-distance call charges to ring her sister.
But the gap is narrowing. Jinlian now has running water, and long-distance fees for calls within Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei have been canceled. Her road will be upgraded soon.
“I had heard talk about integrated development for years. To my surprise, real changes have begun to take place in recent years,” said Jinlian.
A NATIONAL CURE FOR LOCAL ILLS
Sandwiched between Beijing and Tianjin geographically, Hebei lags far behind in terms of its economy and public services. In 2013, per capita GDP was around 40 percent of those of the two municipalities.
Since central authorities ordered coordinated development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (BTH) region in February 2014, obvious progress has been made in transportation, industry and the environment.
The national strategy for regional development addresses unbalanced development, tackles pollution and seeks a new means of growth. It demands local authorities abandon their old selfish mindset and see the bigger picture.
Hebei has extended and repaired 12 highways connecting the province with Beijing and Tianjin in the past three years, said Zhao Kezhi, Communist Party chief of Hebei. These bottlenecks were a major obstacle to economic integration.
In December 2015, a rail link opened between Tianjin and Baoding in Hebei so passengers no longer had to pass through Beijing. There are plans for at least 20 more intercity railways.
Hebei has been struggling to cut excess industrial capacity in steel, concrete and glass. From 2014 to 2016, it attracted 1.1 trillion yuan ($160 billion) of investment from Beijing and Tianjin, more than half of its total inflow. Last year, 1,300 high-tech firms from the two cities opened up in Hebei.
Value added from equipment manufacturing accounted for 26 percent of Hebei’s industrial total last year, outdoing iron and steel industry to become the biggest industry, according to the provincial statistics bureau.
High-tech companies from Beijing have now set up more than 3,000 subsidiaries or branches in Hebei and Tianjin.
To control its population and address congestion, Beijing has closed 1,300 factories and moved more than 300 markets from downtown to the outskirts or neighboring areas.
“Shijiazhuang has good transportation and logistics. Property is cheap and labor costs are low,” said Hui Jihua, a tea seller who closed her shops in Beijing last year and moved to the Hebei capital. With plenty of government support she is confident that her business will flourish in its new home.
CLEARING THE AIR
A concerted attack on pollution has also proved effective. PM2.5 density is down by about 33 percent from the 2013 level, but the air pollution is still seriously bad and smog is frequent.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection has demanded that capacity cuts in some cities are accelerated and heating plants are made to run more cleanly.
All coal in and out of Tianjin, the largest port in northern China, will be carried by rail from September, drastically cutting diesel fumes from road haulage.
“Tianjin port will focus on container services while Hebei’s will develop bulk cargo business such as steel and coal, in line with environmental standards,” Zhao Mingkui, vice president of the port.
Coordinated development has contributed to poverty reduction in Hebei, whose counties bordering on Beijing and Tianjin were once described as a “poverty belt.”
One million people emerged from poverty last year in Hebei, but about 2 million remain in miserable conditions. Another 700,000 should be freed from their shackles this year through supplying agricultural products to those two rich neighbors. There are plans for a number of resorts to accommodate city residents keen to spend their weekends in the mountains.
FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
“Clearly, Hebei is the weak link, but it has the most potential, too, “ said Party chief Zhao Kezhi. Closing the gap involves farming out Beijing’s noncapital functions including manufacturing, logistics and wholesale markets, transforming the BTH region into a new growth pole, he said.
“The past three years have been a good start,” said Wu Hequan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and deputy head of a committee of expert consultants on BTH coordination. If concerted efforts continue to lead to tangible results, the region may outdo the Yangtze and Pearl river deltas in overall economic strength by 2030, he said.
Integrated customs clearance has increased efficiency and Tianjin’s free trade zone has helped regional opening-up. Beijing’s new satellite-center in Tongzhou District, close to the Hebei border, will become home to the municipal government, and a new international mega-airport will be closer to Hebei than the capital’s downtown. Beijing and Hebei’s Zhangjiakou are to jointly host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
As for her personal hopes, Cai Jinlian wants the same as all people everywhere — better health services and better education. These things will come in time, now sooner rather than later.