BEIJING - For more than 65 years, government officials in Beijing have tried to emulate China's imperial rulers, working and living in the city centre near the emperor's old palace, the Forbidden City.
Now, in a telling reversal, officials are finalising plans to move Beijing's municipal government, including tens of thousands of civil servants, to a satellite town, Tongzhou.
The move is a recognition, urban planners and historians say, that the existing strategy has created ever-worsening traffic problems and widespread destruction of Beijing's old city.
It is also a sign of the determination of President Xi Jinping to forge a new urban blueprint for China.
Over the past year and a half, officials have been slowly unveiling an ambitious plan to create a new urban cluster of 130 million people that would be the size of Kansas or Belarus.
To be called Jing-Jin-Ji, it is named after the three areas it encompasses: Jing for Beijing, Jin for the nearby port city of Tianjin, and Ji for the traditional name for Hebei province, which surrounds both cities. The idea is to promote less haphazard growth by developing coordinated urban belts and corridors.
A new municipal government centre of Tongzhou would help this project because it lies in Beijing's eastern suburbs near Hebei province. In theory, this could allow the municipal government to focus on regional integration and economic development while leaving the city centre to China's national ministries.
"Moving non-core functions from the central area to other places is a trend since the downtown of Beijing is overpopulated," said Dr Li Junfu, vice-dean of the Beijing University of Technology and a researcher of Beijing urban issues. "A sub-centre in Tongzhou can accelerate the development in its nearby regions."
For decades, moving government offices outside Beijing has been a taboo subject. In the 1950s, prominent architect and urban planner Liang Sicheng proposed building an administrative centre outside the old city. The idea was rejected by Communist China's first leader, Mao Zedong, and his associates as being against the revolution.
But over the years, the combination of national ministries and the urban administration of their capital in the old city has meant the destruction of the city, as alleys, temples, city walls and old buildings were torn down for an ever- expanding bureaucracy.
The exact details of the relocation have not been released, but some published reports say the city's Communist Party headquarters, as well as several other political committees, could move to Lucheng, a part of Tongzhou where a subway connection to the inner city recently opened.
Local government websites have publicised new orders not to build on the land. Those also state that local residents would be reclassified from rural residents to urban ones, which would end farming on the land and allow for more intensive construction.
Speaking anonymously, numerous officials said the move was definite and could be announced on the Oct 1 National Day holiday, A senior official with the Beijing city's Bureau of Industry and Commerce said his office received a notice from his superiors last month to prepare for the move, but it would take years to complete.
According to Mr Zhang Wu-ming, a researcher at the Fangtang Think-Tank in Beijing, which specialises in urban and cultural issues, the plan would leave the core part of the city home only to central government ministries. "The idea is to strengthen the function of Beijing as the capital, which means that Beijing should serve the central organs more efficiently," he said.
In Tongzhou, locals have mixed feelings about the move. Some said it would make it easier to find work nearby, rather than having to commute far into the city. Others said they are worried they would not be able to afford housing in the new administrative area. Many still live in villages that until a few years ago were centres of grain production and the raising of sheep.
"We got notice about our village being demolished last month," said Mr Hao Wenliang, 73, who lives in Dongxiaoying, one of 17 villages slated for demolition. "Real estate agents have been coming by to offer us new places to live but we can't afford it."
NEW YORK TIMES