Sacred lakes threatened by China's growing capital

A statue of the Goddess of Mercy in the main lake of Baiyangdian, China, in the newly earmarked area of Xiongan, on June 4, 2017.
A statue of the Goddess of Mercy in the main lake of Baiyangdian, China, in the newly earmarked area of Xiongan, on June 4, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Men row boats and operate motorised speedboats that ferry Chinese families in the main lake of Baiyangdian, China, on June 4, 2017.
Men row boats and operate motorised speedboats that ferry Chinese families in the main lake of Baiyangdian, China, on June 4, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LAKE BAIYANGDIAN, CHINA (NYTIMES) - A few hours by car south of Beijing is a delicate string of lakes and ponds famous over the centuries for its fishing, hunting and cooling summer breezes.

But over the coming decades, these fragile wetlands are to be transformed into an enormous satellite city for China's overcrowded capital. Hospitals, universities, wholesale markets, corporate headquarters - almost anything that does not fit into Beijing's role as the political centre of China - are to be moved near Baiyangdian in what officials call "the project of the millennium". The idea is to turn Beijing into something more like Washington - a city built around a national government, with stately streets and monuments that manifest power.

"The government is redefining what Beijing should be," said Zhang Yue, a native of the capital who is now an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of a book comparing Beijing with other global cities. "It doesn't want a city with old neighbourhoods - a city of culture and history - but a political city that serves the needs of the central government."

Planners have started to move many of the capital's municipal services to another satellite city, Tongzhou, and there are plans to tear down chaotic but lively markets and neighbourhood streets.

The government's expansionist ambitions are clearest here in what will be known as Xiongan New Area. Three times the size of New York City, it is to be built from scratch out of the delicate swath of meres and marshlands of Baiyangdian, in Xiongan county.

The region is dotted with scores of villages clinging to the sides of lakes and levees, an area that used to be impassable but for boat traffic until a half-dozen years ago. New road construction brought tourism and modest prosperity. Homes were expanded, making construction a major industry.

Locals know big changes are afoot, but they are unsure what those changes will mean for life in the wetlands.

"Of course it's a great honour that the central government would pay attention to us here in Baiyangdian," said Mr Chen Dazheng, a boatman who fishes and ferries people along the region's canals. "We just don't know what to expect - except that we're going to have to move."

That became apparent as soon as the plans were unveiled in April. Real estate prices in the area began to skyrocket, and authorities immediately imposed a strict ban on any sort of new construction.

In China, compensation for expropriated homes is based on the area that the dwelling occupies. In the past, that led residents to slap up additions to their homes or businesses so they could claim more money.

Now, everything is at a standstill. At almost every street corner and next to many homes are 3m-tall stacks of red bricks awaiting labourers. But they cannot be touched. That is true even when a son marries and a new room is needed for the new couple - traditionally the most pressing need for new space.

In one of the region's most picturesque villages, Quantou, a jigsaw puzzle of narrow alleys and high walls, residents wait anxiously to find out if their homes will be demolished. Just last year, the village was listed on a register of historical villages, not only for its architecture but also for the culture that is tightly linked to its geography.

Quantou is home to a complex singing style derived from Buddhist scriptures. The music is sung by a choir of locals who each year take boats across nearby Damaidian Lake to a temple honouring the god of medicine.

"We hope to keep this going even after the village is torn down, but it depends where we live," said Quantou choir member Xia Manjun, 36. "Will we live nearby or be scattered? Will we even be allowed on the lakes if it's all lined with offices?"

This kind of forced urbanisation and redevelopment has already badly damaged traditional cultures in places like Beijing. There, the destruction of the traditional hutong alleys uprooted traditional martial arts and music groups, scattering residents across far-flung suburbs.

In places like Quantou, the situation is even more fragile. People like Mr Xia are among the last who still know the old music. He sells agricultural products to cities during the week and returns to Quantou on weekends to teach the tradition to local children.

One recent Sunday, he led 20 students in a four-hour workshop to learn the music many of their parents learnt growing up in what was a relatively isolated part of the country.

Even with roads, the area is still hard to traverse. Just 24km from Quantou Village but an hour drive along bumpy roads is Anxin, a county seat of 55,000 people. It is one of the few urban areas in the region. There, Professor Zhou Runbiao, a historian in the local government, says concerns about the coming development are overblown.

As one of the few officials willing to talk publicly about the project, Prof Zhou gave a fairly upbeat assessment. First, he noted that the plan was announced only in April and that details had not been worked out. So, he says, talk of demolitions is "premature". He said the New Area could likely help improve the region's poor water quality. In the 1950s, wetlands and lakes covered nearly 777 sq km and were fed by nine rivers flowing from the Taihang Mountains. The area was famous for its aquaculture and clear waters.

Then began a programme of dam-building that has transformed much of China, limiting chronic flooding that has plagued the country for centuries, and providing clean hydropower. But the effect on wetlands was catastrophic. The area's marshes and lakes shrank in half, industries appeared and the water is now undrinkable.

"The reason is that local governments did what they pleased," he said. "Now, under central government control, the factories will be closed and the water cleaned up."

Independent experts said they believed this could be the case. Mr Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a think-tank in Beijing, said the project would lead to an influx of new residents, which would increase water use. But it would also very likely qualify for new government funding that could restore the ecosystem.

"It basically depends on how big the efforts, how firm the resolution and how forceful the monitoring mechanism can be," he said. "If they are not cautious enough at the beginning, there will be problems."

At the main lake of Baiyangdian and a 130 sq km nature reserve is the site of an unusual private museum to Chinese guerillas who fought the Japanese in the marshes and waterways during World War II. One of the museum's founders, Mr Wang Mutou, 66, said he expected little resistance to the new plan.

"Our systems are different," he said. "You own your land, but in China, we just have user rights. The land is owned by the government."

He had one plea, shared by many of his neighbours who fish, travel and worship along the local waterways. "We know we will have to move," Mr Wang said. "We just hope that when all the research institutes move here and all the companies move in, that we are left with some access to our waters. Please let us stay near the water."