A bullet train runs through the Juyongguan Tunnel of the Beijing-Zhangjiakou High-Speed Railway in Beijing on October 6 (XINHUA)
Different from the common practice in Western economies where governments adopt a short-term vision and prediction of future events, China relies on a tradition that started in 1953, when the country began to adopt medium-term plans covering half a decade and touching upon almost every major aspect of the nation's economic and social spheres.
This year marks the end of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) that, presented in 2015, introduced very detailed economic development guidelines and important reforms that have been instrumental in shaping the economy for the next decades to come.
China today is recognized as an undisputed leader in innovation through massive investment that over the last decades has been directed into research and development for the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI), a phenomenon that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has further accelerated, into the larger parts of daily life for many.
In this context, Beijing has been recognized by the central authorities as the ideal lab for the implementation of almost any kind of modern technological innovation such as 5G telecommunication infrastructures, automated driving, unmanned shops and a delivery system powered by AI, showcasing the vision of the Chinese capital and elevating its role as a new Silicon Valley.
One of the most evident examples of Beijing's ambition can be found in fintech, the combination of finance and technology, a modern industry where the city has built an enviable reputation by leveraging factors such as rapid urbanization, a supportive regulatory framework, a booming digital economy, a high mobile penetration and a large amount of capital provided by venture capitalists.
Furthermore, the ongoing development through the pilot testing of a government-backed digital currency in designated cities has been attracting global attention. The potential release of a digital yuan on a large scale would help China reduce the decades-long world dependency on the U.S. dollar, and, additionally, create a more transparent "transactional" ecosystem to support its central bank's job of delivering more targeted monetary and fiscal policies. Furthermore, this digital currency is designed to facilitate the transition to a fully cashless society by replacing physical cash that has been demonstrated to be a potential carrier of transmissible disease.
Technology has also served as a vehicle in delivering China's commitment to reduce pollution. There has been an increase in the adoption of electric public transportation and the fleet of electric taxis roaming the streets is expanding. The government has offered incentives to citizens to replace gas-powered cars with new and much more eco-friendly electric vehicles.
Beijing's air quality has dramatically improved over the last five years thanks to policies setting ambitious targets for the shift to new energy. Together with the increased quota of new alternative forms of energy such as wind and solar, officials have raised the efforts to reduce air pollution in the northern part of China—especially in winter.
The launch of the trash sorting campaign, first in Shanghai and later in Beijing and other places, has become a success and has pushed entire communities to learn how to sort their trash according to the type of material. It represents another long-awaited step toward environmental protection with a government-led crusade for the rapid implementation of practices that are quite common across the West and have been helping China to adapt to global standards.
The Central Government's desire to relocate Beijing's functions non-essential to its role as the national capital to other areas showcases another important move that can be interpreted as part of the effort to address the city's increasingly serious environmental problems.
By moving out not only manufacturing industries but also wholesale markets as well as building a new municipal administration center in the suburban district of Tongzhou in the east, there has been a visible reduction in the volume of traffic during rush hour with a benefit in terms of reduction in commuting time and car emissions.
The decision to remove Beijing's non-essential functions also navigates in the direction of creating a stronger coordination for regional development within the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster, making it able to compete with other similar domestic clusters such as the Yangze River Delta in the east and the Pearl River Delta in the south. And in the future with similar important clusters in the rest of the world.
In order to achieve this goal, the Central Government has invested huge resources in the development of infrastructure to increase the attractiveness of the region for domestic and foreign investors as well as to facilitate cross-city economic integration. This has resulted in the further development of the high-speed railway network, with new routes connecting Beijing to Xiongan New Area, which was established in Hebei in 2017 to take over Beijing's non-essential functions, and Zhangjiakou, the competition venue for some events of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Hebei.
The inauguration of the Beijing Daxing International Airport in September 2019, one of the biggest airports in the world, exemplified the strategic planning of the central authorities to alleviate the congestion in the Beijing Capital International Airport due to a growing demand for international travel. Unlike in cities such as New York, London, Tokyo and Paris, where the second airport is normally a complementary one focusing only on domestic or regional flights, the Daxing airport serves both domestic and international flights.
The stress on the opening-up policy of China in order to embrace the rest of the world is well demonstrated by the launch of the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2016, which now has 103 members. It is another illustration of China's commitment to multilateralism and cooperation. China is willing to contribute to filling in the infrastructure gap in the Asia-Pacific region. The AIIB can serve as a complementary funding source to the Asian Development Bank at a regional level and the World Bank at a global level.
Beijing has received the central authorities' approval to set up a demonstration zone for expanding opening up in the service industry. This zone anticipates the facilitation of trade, investment, cross-border flow of capital, employment, transportation, as well as the safe and orderly flow of data by 2030.
The opening up of the financial industry immediately attracted the attention of well-known U.S. banks and financial institutions committed to China, which now gain the opportunity to be part of China's growth within a surging service sector that represents over 50 percent of the national GDP.
Digital economy and digital trade, both of which during the outbreak of COVID-19 experienced a major boom, now symbolize the most prominent component of the service sector with an almost constant release of innovations that are disrupting entire industries. These innovations are set to be showcased to the rest of the world at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, an event that illustrates a massive accomplishment for Beijing since it will become the first place in history to host both the Olympic Summer and Winter Games.
The imminent 14th Five-Year Plan, which will cover 2021-25, is expected to use previous plans' achievements as a starting point in order to set up even more ambitious goals that will turn Beijing into a place that embodies a well-balanced mix of history and innovation. A city on the road to becoming a guardian of millennial traditions as well as a ferryman that steers a nation toward the future.
The author is a finance professional at the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in Beijing and a member of the China Task Force at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development
(Print Edition Title: Flying Higher)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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