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Beyond Beijing Winter Olympics: the making-of Chinese Smart Cities and Regional Urban Integration

Shanghai © Excellentcc/ Public domain/ Pixabay

In the build-up to the Beijing Winter Olympics, China faced similar challenges to their predecessor, Tokyo and the preparation for the Tokyo Summer Olympics just six months before. A case in point was the spread of the Omicron variant across several Chinese cities, which eventually led the Organising Committee to announce limitations on ticket sales just days prior to the Opening Ceremony (Reuters, 2022). They faced these challenges head on and rather than focus on proving itself to the world stage, China was ready to promote its vision of a more prosperous and advanced nation, committed to “building a community with a shared future for mankind” – in President Xi Jinping’s own words (Lee Myers et al, 2022).

Despite lower attendance, Beijing 2022 has already displayed some of the most cutting-edge technical solutions in the sectors of consumer finance, entertainment, shopping, and mobility, to its global audience (Ma, 2021). These examples of technology application have won the Chinese capital the title of “the most high-tech Winter Games” (Global Times, 2022). However, Beijing was already a smart city, so this came as no surprise to those who have been following the development of urban planning in China. For example, , the guidelines for city management and urban high-tech integration adopted in the 13th and 14th Five-Year Plans.

This article provides an overview of China’s smart city conceptualisation and execution, following in the footsteps of Beijing -Tianjin-Hebei integrated region, all the way to the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Smart Cities in China

In recent decades, China has been deeply invested in the virtual transformation of its cities. The Chinese government’s peculiar adoption of a top-down approach to city development and management, has enabled the country to rally its industries and assets to guide the evolution of smart city projects nationwide. By making the most out of public-private partnerships (Adams et al, 2006) and technological innovation, China has matured several smart city networks, further contributing to the growth of related industries. Innovations in blockchain technology, machine learning, 5G, and new energy vehicles have all contributed to remodelling many elements of Chinese cities into so-called “smart” ones. The vibrant urban fabric of Shanghai, Hangzhou, Shenzhen – and obviously the capital – Beijing, represent the earliest examples of this process, while their progress serves as a blueprint for China’s lower-tiered cities to join a similar innovation path.

In contrast to Western- smart cities, which usually adopt a more bottom-up approach in their development and implementation phases (Ratti, 2014), Chinese smart cities are predominantly centrally planned, with the central government playing the most important role within the scope of the projects. Meanwhile, China’s domestic tech giants are key players in the push to modernise urban infrastructures, and firms such as Alibaba, Tencent, Didi Chuxing, Baidu, and Huawei have already begun implementing their technologies aimed at contributing to the national goal of smart cities development (Bacchi, 2020).

Arguably, the very idea of Chinese smart cities could be traced back to Zhou Enlai’s “Four Modernizations”: a pivotal policy step within which the former president had outlined four fundamental areas that, ideally, China had to “modernise” by the tip of the century: agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defence. These are also the mainstays of China’s overall process of economic growth and have remained at the forefront of Chinese domestic policy throughout the resulting forty-five years. Undoubtedly, the Reform and Opening-Up policy launched by Deng Xiaoping, had also a decisive impact in establishing science and technology as the main channel to provide innovation and thus, economic growth (Coplin et al, 2020). As a result, China has been steadily investing in innovation-related activities. Now, policy plans such as Made in China 2025 (Cyrill, 2018) aim to utilise the economic policies seen in other countries in the West to modernise the Chinese economy and prepare it for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (La Bruyere et al, 2020).

Then, what exactly are China’s smart cities? In 2011, China’s 12th Five-Year Plan announced the development of “digital cities” as a national priority (Ren, 2020). In particular, the blueprint called for the creation of new-generation IT infrastructure; mobile communication and digital broadcasting networks; satellite communication facilities; and the creation of a national transmission network provided with high speed and large capacity. The idea was to extend broadband connectivity throughout urban and rural areas.

This collective infrastructure forms the backbone of China’s smart cities. Indeed, Chinese smart cities can be defined as “urban areas that collect large amounts of information and use it to enhance city operations” (Rosas, 2021). Developers create technical applications based on a city's critical communications infrastructure, which transform knowledge into insights, and insights into tools. These applications work in a public-private partnership model, providing opportunities for the government, businesses, and the public. In the case of public transportation, for example, bus commuters might utilise a period traffic observing app to choose the best time to travel with the least amount of traffic while lessening the pressure on the system.

Beijing: an integrated smart region

Beijing has been reasonably focused on urban growth throughout the past Five-Year Plans. Policymakers have committed significant resources to advancing technological innovation and public-private partnerships in support of smart cities, including the deployment of 5G, AI, new energy vehicles, cloud computing, blockchain technology, and the internet of things. Being the national capital, the city plays a vital and central role in many facets of modern China. However, Tianjin and Hebei province, which make up the region around Beijing and are somewhat overshadowed by the capital, are less well-known. With the inclusion of Tianjin and Hebei province in a big scheme aimed at creating a world-class city cluster centred on Beijing, this is about to change. The "Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Integration Plan," also known as "Jing-Jin-Ji" and the "capital economy circle," is a project that aims to integrate Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei.

With a GDP of RMB 2.8 trillion (US$443.6 billion) in 2017 and a population of more than 21 million people, Beijing is one of China's economic powerhouses (Textor, 2021). However, when compared to the whole metropolitan region, this feels like a drop in the ocean. Jing-Jin-Ji’s combined GDP is currently around 10% of China's total GDP, with a population of over 100 million people – 8% of China's entire population and three times that of Tokyo. Hebei province includes 11 cities in addition to Beijing and Tianjin, with a total area of over 200,000 km2 - about twice the size of South Korea. This massive project has the Chinese government's full support and is one of several that will pave the way for China's next phase of economic development.

Overall, the Beijing Winter Olympics has further accentuated the element of regional integration in the Jing-Ji-Ji area, which is also pivotal to China’s new era of economic growth as a whole. Indeed, the Winter Games have contributed to highlight the rapid development of infrastructure, sports culture, tourism, and leisure businesses in the region. For example, the fastest running time by train between Beijing and Zhangjiakou, two of the Olympic host cities, was cut from 3 hours and 7 minutes to 47 minutes (Xinhua, 2022), benefiting local inhabitants long after the Games will be over. The Green Olympics exemplify the region's sustainable development, with energy consumption per unit of GDP in Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei falling by more than 25% in 2020 compared to 2014 (ibid.).

Officials monitor a variety of indicators to gauge coordinated development, including regional relative GDP growth, the green development index, the innovation development index, and the shared development index. The innovation index (WIPO, 2021), for example, indicates the added value of high-tech businesses and strategic emerging industries in general, and uses indicators such as new energy vehicle output, industrial robots, and solar cells, as well as the number of patents per 10,000 permanent inhabitants. Investment levels and technology contracts, among other things, are used to gauge cross-regional industrial cooperation. In terms of basic public services, Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei have lowered their relative ratios of education, social security, employment, and medical and health expenses per capita. All of this was made possible under the Five Major Concepts of Development (Qiushi, 2021), proposed by President Xi Jinpingm, which also represents the ultimate guideline for China's future economic and social development. According to this model, the nation's development will be driven by "innovation, coordination, ecology, openness, and sharing." Naturally, the Beijing smart city project very much embodies this philosophy, while the realisation of the Winter Olympics cemented it once and for all.


There are many challenges to the full-scale realisation of China's smart city ambitions. Data use and national security, among others, remain the primary concerns for realising this ambition. Given Beijing’s impressive use of the Games to showcase what the integrated region has been able to achieve in terms of digitalisation and modernisation, it remains to be seen whether the momentum will become a catalyst for further advancement in the area.

Giulia Interesse is currently pursuing a PhD at Peking University, focusing on public management and innovation policy research. Her goal is to identify effective and impactful solutions to social issues surrounding international technology transfer and innovation efforts for development. Aside from her interest in Chinese politics and policy-making, she is keen on learning about different cultures and exploring opportunities for global cooperation. You can find her on LinkedIn and Instagram.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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