The latest in the ad-hoc series of Guest Posts is authored by Beijing-based Shi Jin. The article is about the latest developments on “Happy Island” in Hebei Province and was originally published on Shi Jin’s excellent Chinese Currents website this Spring. It makes very interesting, if a little sombre, reading, in particular for anyone who has visited this birding hotspot. It should be added that, despite the development ongoing at this site, it is still attracting an amazing number and variety of migratory birds…!
So, over to Shi Jin..
For some, Happy Island is now a happier place. The small island in the Bo sea has been promoted from 5th to 3rd tier. The shedding of two tiers is no small matter, particularly if you happen to be one of the Tangshan [3rd tier] government officials who can now make the most of the island’s sumptuously appointed sea-view villas. If you are an official of Laoting County [5th tier], however, the situation is not nearly as happy as it used to be.
That’s because the Tangshan city government has promoted Happy Island (Kuaile Dao) to an area that falls under its (not Laoting County’s) direct jurisdiction. And to make sure that everyone knows who’s the lord of this particular manor, Tangshan officials have re-named the place Puti Island (“Happy Island” was a Laoting County invention apparently). The locals, however, continue to refer to it by its ancient name of Shijiu Tuo. And, with a nod in Laoting County’s direction, I’ll continue to use “Happy Island” (because it’s a name that has been doing what it says on the can during the many visits I have made here over the past 18 years).
Laoting County, even though it “reports” directly to Tangshan, is actually two levels beneath it as far as the complicated matter of Chinese population and land administration is concerned. That’s because Laoting is a xian (county), not a shi (county-level city). Tangshan, a diji shi (regional city, or prefecture), controls 5 xian and two shi. China, in case you are wondering, is divided into 283 prefectures, 370 county-level cities, and 1,461 counties.
Tangshan “reports” to the provincial government of Hebei (seated in the provincial capital of Shijiazhuang), which in turn is administered by the central government in Beijing. By virtue of its provincial capital status, Shijiazhuang qualifies, in political terms at least, as a 2nd tier city (one of 27 provincial and autonomous region capitals to do so). The number of 2nd tier cities increases to 32 if you include Dalian, Ningbo, Qingdao, Shenzhen, and Xiamen – which are categorised as sub-provincial cities (fushengji chengshi) by virtue of their direct reporting line to Beijing in respect of all economic and legal matters (the only non provincial-capitals to do so). Then there are of course four 1st tier “super-cities” – Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing – that have the distinction of being municipalities (zhixiashi).
Why is this important? Well, as a rule of thumb, the higher the tier, the more funding is available for development generally and infrastructure development in particular. In the context of Happy Island, the difference between “5th” and “3rd” tier funding is as jaw-dropping as it is eye-watering:
I first visited the island 18 years ago, when it was under the administration of Laoting County. It was low tide as the small, woodworm-riddled boat approached the landing point along a narrow channel that only a seasoned crew could navigate with any confidence. It’s impossible to say whether the crew that day were not as seasoned as they should have been, or whether it was a particularly low tide that scuppered things. One thing is for sure, we couldn’t get within 20 yards of the quay. Keen to get ashore, I decided to jump into the waist-high water to rescue the situation by dragging the boat close enough to the shore to allow a plank to be laid for my fellow passengers to make it to the island. But it wasn’t luxury that awaited us. In those days, the tin-shack accommodation didn’t even have running water, except when it leaked through the roof during heavy downpours. So much for being under the administrative umbrella of Laoting County.
Fast-forward to 2012: A fleet of shiny new tourist boats await to whisk a steady flow of day-trippers from a multi-million RMB quay development to the island’s plush new landing area. These days, there’s a deep channel that’s regularly dredged, ensuring that boats can land whatever the vagaries of the tide.
The island’s development budget has also paid for a plush restaurant with dozens of staff; a grand temple complex (that continues to get ever-grander); miles of roads serviced by chauffeur-driven electric buggies; and even something resembling a golf course. And things are just getting started. There are plans for a 300 million RMB golf and spa centre and, horror of horrors, a ghastly land-reclamation project (to enlarge Happy Island and Moon Island) that will cost a reported 1.368 billion RMB, according to the Tangshan government’s website. The impetus for development is so strong, in fact, that a link to the mainland has been built that looks like a giant’s causeway, facilitating even faster development and higher-spending on infrastructure and reclamation.
Puzzled by the number of large trucks and the size of the earth-moving vehicles, my 8 year-old daughter wanted to know how they managed to get onto the island. I too was puzzled, until I spotted the causeway. After I’d broken the news that the “monsters” had arrived here by road, her puzzlement turned to disappointment: “Dad, does that mean Happy Island isn’t an island?”
My 8 year-old makes an important observation. But please promise not to tell anyone because, from a tourist perspective, Happy Point doesn’t have anywhere the same drawing power of Happy Island. Not to mention that, without an island, there wouldn’t be the need for a car park the size of a football pitch. No need for a fleet of expensive tourist boats. And, of genuine concern, a small-army of people would be looking elsewhere for a job.
From a punter’s perspective, neither would there be the feeling that they’ve journeyed to somewhere exotic. A 30 minute boat trip tends to do more for the soul than a ten-minute bus ride. As heart-warming as the journey undoubtedly is (and there’s also the visit to the “Buddhist culture communication centre” to look forward to), it’s hard to imagine that the overall proposition would appeal to vast numbers of people.
Regardless, the visitors-per-year target for the Tangshan Bay International Travel Islands project [the other two islands are Moon Island and Lucky Cloud Island] has been set at an astonishing 2 million people [The overall investment is budgeted at 22.2 billion RMB]. But this is China, so history would suggest that you shouldn’t bet against it meeting the target. That said, it’s hard for this veteran China-watcher to arrive at any conclusion other than the “Build it and they’ll come” ethos, that has driven economic development during my time here, is being replaced by “Build it whether they come or not” desperation. This is in no small measure due to the increasing dependency on high-spending infrastructure projects to shore up the nation’s key economic indicators. In short, these projects have become the drug that enables GDP to get out of bed in the morning.
As well as testing the laws of economics, the intensity of Happy Island’s development is putting an immense strain on the area’s ecology. The island and its shoreline is an internationally-important staging post for countless numbers of migratory birds on their way to and from their northern breeding grounds (a precious few of that number are Siberian-breeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers, a species on the brink of extinction). Their twice-yearly journeys are about to get even more precarious from next year when construction of more than 100 offshore wind-turbines begins in earnest. This wind farm will be (for a while at least) China’s biggest and most costly (US$910m).
Clearly, the true cost of Happy Island’s infrastructure development, land reclamation, and so-called “green energy” project far exceeds the amount that appears in Tangshan city’s accounts.
The true cost is incalculable.
Shedding tiers indeed.