Caofeidian: Emerald City by the Sea

This is the second post in a series about a recent business trip to Hebei province

China, now in the midst of an epic national construction boom, is building many things. It’s building forests of apartment towers. It’s building malls (many of which remain empty of shops and shoppers). It’s building an extensive system of highways and high-speed railways. It’s also building entire cities.

South of Tangshan, on the coast of the Bohai Sea, one of those cities is taking shape — or, more accurately, rising from the sea.

Caofeidian is the Hebei provincial government’s wundercity. Construction started in 2003 with a massive land reclamation project that extended the boundary of the coastline about 10 km into the sea. The city will be a marvel in green technology and a demonstration zone for China’s recycling economy — or so government officials told me.

Before we got to see the actual city and harbor area, they showed our group — two other foreign experts and a few Chinese staffers from the magazine — a few models of Caofeidian. The city is going to be a jewel of Hebei’s Bohai Sea economic circle, a new port to ship out all the great things northeast China manufactures — heavy duty construction vehicles, advanced medical equipment and an assortment of low-tech consumer goods to name a few — to northeast Asia and the rest of the world.

For the time being, Caofeidian mostly exists as a scale model with a Christmas-color array of red and green lights and small plastic buildings.

The city is still being built. Today it’s a ghost town of highrises and abandoned streets with the ubiquitous cranes on every corner. When it’s completed, the city will be home to about 1 million people, 400,000 of which will be workers in the city’s port and surrounding industrial facilities.

Some of those facilities are already pumping out products. The steel mills are particularly busy. Shougang Jingtang Iron and Steel officially opened its plant in Caofeidian in 2009 after moving its homebase out of Beijing municipality. Shougang is one of many heavy industries being relocated to coastal areas for financial and environmental reasons.

Beijing and Tianjin, in an attempt to clean up the ever-present clouds of smog hanging over their cities, have ordered a number of heavy industries out of their municipalities. Shougang was one of those companies asked to leave.

When I talked with one of the company’s managers, he bragged about the steel plant’s efficiency. More than half of the plant’s energy was generated internally, from the steel making process. He also said Shougang’s new facility produced zero — that’s the numeral 0 — carbon emissions. Outside the facility, smokestacks belched large plumes of grey into the sky, but apparently these contributions to the atmosphere didn’t contain any CO2, just other pollutants that added to the seaside mist hovering over the city.

On paper, Caofeidian has the potential to be an eco-city — a true milestone in China’s “go green” efforts — like no other in the world. It also has the potential to sink into the sea. While a leader in manufacturing solar panels that would be applied in the city, many of China’s other green techs are still in their infancy. Application on a city-wide scale would be met with bugs and breakdowns.

More importantly, China’s green movement has taken a back seat to the country’s economic growth, which relies on outdated technologies and heavily polluting industrial practices. Despite the government rhetoric of embracing eco-friendly means of production, these means are currently incapable of driving the economy. Until the country develops and applies newer, cleaner and greener methods of production, Caofeidian and other emerald cities in the Bohai economic rim will exist only in fiction, or as scale models with flashing lights.

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