Beijing and Tianjin are very different cities, in their ethos, functions, and shape. Beijing is clearly centralised around the forbidden city, the empty centre of political power, now ultimate cultural symbol of China’s old and magnificent tradition.
A map of Beijing shows a series of embedded squares, surrounded by concentric ring roads – up to number 6 now – the first one circling the Forbidden city.
Superficially, Tianjin’s map is also made of concentric circles. But the symbolic centre is harder to pinpoint. Is it that bump North of the river, where the Italian concession is? That other bump to the Eastm on the South bank, where financial institutions line up Jiefang Bei Lu? Or is it where commercial Binjiang Jie crosses commercial Jin Jie?
Historically, the centre should be at the old Chinese city, in the North Western corner of the central rectangle.
According to Aaron, who is a Tianjin native and real estate analyst, the centre is at the opposite end of that rectangle, at the XiaoBaiLou crossroads, at the border of the former French, British and German concessions, marked by the European dome of the Music Hall.
But not everyone agrees to that location, again. My house on Jiefang Bei Lu was only ten minutes north of XiaoBaiLou. Yet one of my colleagues disagreed when I said I lived ‘in the centre’. Although she couldn’t identify it clearly, for her, the city centre was more to the south, somewhere between the BaLiTai University district, TV tower, and Olympic city.
Who’s right? It doesn’t really matter, because a new centre is in construction, still further to the South. In the new district of BinHai, 40 km down on the river mouth an entirely new city is developing, which is planned to rival PuDong in Shanghai, and become China’s main financial centre.
A fast train will connect Beijing to the new BinHai district in 45 minutes, via Tianjin, creating a polycentric North Chinese megalopolis – at least, according to plans.
What will be the centre of the new Binhai district? An empty square, like Beijing, to enclose political and symbolic power? A crossroads, like Tianjin, where goods and people can be shifted around? Or something different still – some giant information hub? a field of public touch screens? – or just a grid of office buildings, radical acentrality, taking on the new shape of power in the age of constant networking.