Mon, Apr 17, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Tears and cheers greet economic zone

‘NATIONAL ISSUE’:Business owners in the planned Xiongan New Area are bracing for forced relocations just as speculators crowd to snap up properties amid a real-estate boom

AFP, XIONGAN, China

Business owner Hu Weibing weeps at the prospect of losing everything, including his home, after China’s surprise announcement to transform a rural spot outside Beijing into a modern metropolis nearly three times the size of New York City.

Hu’s family-run clothing factory in the northern province of Hebei could close at the expense of a new special economic zone similar to those in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

The planned Xiongan New Area (雄安新區) currently measures 2,000km2 and has less than 1 percent of Beijing’s economic output, but last weekend’s announcement sparked a real-estate speculation frenzy as out-of-town home buyers from across the country descended on the previously unknown area.

“It’s certainly good for Hebei and the regional economy, but it’s a disaster for mid and small-sized business like ours,” said Hu, staring at the bare concrete walls of the four-story dream home he began building last year, but will never be able to finish.

Though authorities have not yet told him what is next, he is bracing for things to progress in the fashion that has become typical for government mega-projects: forced relocation and modest monetary compensation.

The changes will scatter his 40 local employees, each painstakingly trained for two years to produce the winter jackets that Hu’s Yuhua Clothing Manufacturing Co Ltd (裕華) sells to clients in Moscow, and land prices elsewhere are guaranteed to be out of his reach.

“To build another factory or another villa like ours will be impossible. It’s a terrible shame,” he said quietly, unable to stop tears sliding down his face after devoting decades of his life to the business. “There will be no way to ever compensate us, but this is a huge national issue, so whatever comes we must support it.”

There are about 19 national-level “new areas” scattered across China, 13 of which have been established since 2014.

However, Xiongan stands out: Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) personally designated its location during a February trip to the fields just outside Hu’s village of Dawang, according to Xinhua News.

Following the announcement, housing prices doubled in a single day, as speculators queued outside real-estate offices, clogging the streets with luxury vehicles as they battled to snap up properties for cash.

Shocked by the chaos, local authorities quickly imposed strict bans on home sales and ordered brokers to close up shop.

By mid-week, offices across the area were closed, their metal grates pulled down and crosses of white tape over them for good measure.

However, individuals with properties for sale were still willing to approach potential buyers with prices that had gone up 300 percent in three days, they told reporters.

An investor, surnamed Wang, had come to check out opportunities from Beijing, 100km away, but declined an offer to buy at a rate higher than the average cost of a home in the port city of Tianjin.

“I could have accepted some 13,000 or 14,000 yuan [US$2,000] per square meter, but 30,000 is simply too much for an investment of at least 10 years where you don’t even know how things will turn out in the end,” he said. “It’s crazy — they’re still planting crops here. What if old Xi steps down and they never build anything here at all?”

The flat fields of the three counties that make up the proposed Xiongan New Area are speckled with traditional tombs — waist-high mounds of dirt topped with fluttering paper offerings.

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