A mammoth new airport shows China's strengths - and weaknesses

Construction workers outside the Beijing Daxing International Airport, on Oct 26, 2018.
Construction workers outside the Beijing Daxing International Airport, on Oct 26, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS
A Chinese flag seen at the Beijing Daxing International Airport, on Oct 26, 2018.
A Chinese flag seen at the Beijing Daxing International Airport, on Oct 26, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - Rising out of the farmlands of southern Beijing in a web of concrete, rebar and glass, one of the world's largest airports is preparing to open after just five years of construction - a striking contrast to the infrastructure travails of far richer places.

Just as impressive as its speed are the airport's broader goals. It is meant to shift the Chinese capital's centre of gravity away from its high-tech university district in the north towards its poorer southern suburbs - part of an even more ambitious plan to remake Beijing and its hinterland into a 212,379 sq km economic locomotive for northern China. And it will do so by relocating thousands of residents with few protests, at least so far.

Yet the airport also reflects a less glamorous side of China's rapid change: a reliance on the heavy hand of big infrastructure as a salve for deeper problems in politics and economics.

These intractable problems include an overbearing military, whose dominance of Chinese airspace hobbles existing airports, as well as a broad retreat from market-driven economic reforms, leading to a dependence on infrastructure investment to increase growth.

Scheduled to open in September next year, the Beijing Daxing International Airport will lift China's capital into the stratosphere of aviation superlatives.

The golden, starfish-shaped terminal designed by Iraqi-British star architect Zaha Hadid, who died in 2016, is billed as the world's largest at 700,000 sq m but promises short walking distances despite its size.

By 2025, the airport will be able to serve 72 million passengers a year. That, along with the existing Beijing Capital International Airport's annual capacity of 96 million passengers, would make Beijing one of the world's busiest city airport systems, rivalling for top spot against the 170 million carried by London's six airports, based on 2017 figures.

Ultimately, Daxing is expected to handle 100 million passengers a year.

One reason for the new airport is rapidly increasing passenger volumes, which rose in 2017 by nearly 13 per cent nationwide.

Beijing Daxing occupies 46.6 sq km, more than two-thirds the size of Manhattan, in southern Beijing and the adjacent province of Hebei. Obtaining this land was not a problem, because in China, all land is owned by the state.

Local media reported little about the relocation of more than 20,000 people. Besides clamping down on public discussion, the government is offering what residents say are generous packages. Residents say that on average, they are getting 50 sq m per person in living space, US$150,000 (S$206,000) per family in one-time compensation, and a monthly stipend of US$300 to cover basic living costs.