move the capital?

December 28th, 2007

And not for the first time this year, I’m reading an article suggesting that China should move its capital. It’s the same argument always applies: The historical reasons for Beijing to have been chosen as the capital no longer apply, and Beijing’s continued growth is stretching its environmental capacity to the limit. Shifting the capital would remove a large part of the reason for continued excessive growth in Beijing and therefore remove a huge amount of the stress on the environment.

What’s different is that the author, Mei Xinyu (I really can’t stand China Dialogue’s policy of Westernising the name order in the English editions of it articles. Nobody else does that, so why should China Dialogue?) points out that Beijing’s history as the national capital dates only from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Exactly. And its status as national capital has not been without interruption over the last 736 years. The first Ming capital was Nanjing, which is also where the Republic established its capital before being forced into exile in Wuhan, then Chongqing, and finally Taipei.

I also like Mei’s suggestion that instead of moving water north, it may be better to move water-intensive industry south.

But what would happen if the capital were to move?

Well, I guess that in the short term it would cause merry havoc in the economy, with the sudden spike in construction and all that would entail.

Then Beijing’s population would drop drastically as all the bureaucrats and diplomats moved south. That would lead to better traffic and therefore cleaner air, lower house prices, less crowded schools….

Would business move? Hard to say. I guess a lot of companies that have head offices here specifically because this is the centre of power would pack up and move. Then again, I can imagine a lot of businesses would shrug it off and continue on as per normal right here. Beijing, after all, already has a pretty well established business community.

Beijing would remain a cultural centre (and major tourist attraction, unfortunately). You can’t pack up all that history and culture and ship it south just ‘cos the government is moving out. Oh, wait….. Um, no, Beijing would remain a cultural centre. Take the universities as an example: Even if some hare-brained excuse for a university’s leadership decided they had to move with the capital, the spike in prices for construction materials caused by the construction of all the new government offices and embassies and housing for bureaucrats and diplomats would price the universities out of the moving market. And there is simply too much history tied up in the campuses of places like BeiDa and Tsinghua for them to move out. The same applies, I think, to every other aspect of Beijing’s cultural life. What would happen to Beijing punk if it were suddenly transplanted to Nanjing (for the sake of argument)? Nothing good, so far as I can see. Might I humbly suggest that Beijing’s culture has at least as much to do with its location at the edge of the plain, up againts the mountains, a stone’s throw from the grasslands and the deserts, in the dry, dusty north, and with its bitter winters, dry, cutting, windy springs, and torrid summers as it does with its imperial history? I mean, plenty of other cities have served as the national capital, and none of them have produced a culture like Beijing’s. They all have their own, unique local culture.

My only fear, really, is that to make up for the sudden, collossal hole the departure of  the bureaucrats and diplomats would leave in the economy, the municipal government would invite heavy industry back into the city, leaving us with even worse air. But if the city could react by relying on and fully developing its technology, education and culture, and tourism industries and keep the CBD thriving as a high-end business centre, I think Beijing would suddenly become almost liveable again.

Alright, I’m sold. Let’s move the capital tomorrow.

But I don’t see it happening, at least not for quite some time. There’s too much cultural and political capital tied up in Beijing’s status as the National Capital. I mean, every time I ask my students to present a convincing, persuasive argument why people should visit Beijing (and they fail miserably every time, but that’s not Beijing’s fault), I wind up in a conversation that goes something like this:

Student: Beijing is the capital of China.

Me: So what? Everybody knows that, first of all, and secondly: Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, Tokyo is the capital of Japan, Paris is the capital of France. Big deal. Every country has a capital.

Student: Beijing has been the capital of many Chinese dynasties.

Me: Oh? Name them.

Students (as a collective): Ummm, ahhh, ohhh…. Qing…. ahhh…… Ming…… ahhhh….. ummm….. Tang? NO!…… ummm…….

Me (frustrated that I have to teach my Chinese students Chinese history yet again): Beijing was the capital of the State of Yan and the Jin, Liao, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. But so what? Xi’an, Kaifeng and Nanjing, among many other cities, have also been the capital….

Conversation meanders its frustrating, superficial way until I give up and tell them they should argue that Beijing, having been the capital of several dynasties, has a rich imperial history, and that a lot of the sites and relics and culture of that imperial history are very well preserved. The Forbidden City, for example…..

Anyway, the point is that most of my students seem to have this instinctive faith in Beijing as The National Capital very deeply ingrained into them.

And then there is, of course, the modern political and cultural significance of Tiananmen Square and its surroundings.

Perhaps a more realistic suggestion would be to keep national politics in Beijing and shift as much of the bureaucracy as is humanly possible, setting up a “dual capital” system at least for the short to medium term.

Anyway, I can’t imagine the capital actually moving any time soon, but still, it’s an intriguing thought.

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