How Tianjin won tough fight to be an eco-city
By Tracy Quek, China Correspondent
TIANJIN - FLAT, marshy tracts of undeveloped land, dotted with salt pans - this desolate north-eastern corner of Tianjin municipality may not look like much today, but over the next two decades, it will undergo a dramatic transformation.
This is what could emerge: a 30sqkm township, not unlike a large housing estate in Singapore such as Pasir Ris, but built using the latest 'green' technologies and designed with the best environmentally-friendly concepts in mind, such as state-of-the-art water recycling and waste treatment systems.
A thriving community of some 300,000 residents will live and work in energy-efficient buildings in this area, located within the Han Gu and Tang Gu districts of Tianjin's Binhai New Area.
This is the vision for the eco-city that Singapore and China this week have committed to build when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the city state.
When completed, it will not only be a showcase for sustainable development, but also a template for Chinese cities struggling to balance rapid economic growth with environmental protection.
Given the political prestige and economic potential involved, it was no surprise that dozens of Chinese cities lobbied intensely to host this new flagship project the minute word got out in April.
That was when Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong raised the idea of an eco-city for the very first time during a meeting with Mr Wen in Beijing.
Chinese cities hoping to be picked for the new project deluged government departments in Beijing and their Singapore contacts with calls.
At the Construction Ministry, the lead Chinese government agency overseeing the project, phones had to be taken off the hook.
Mainland-based observers said the project is immensely attractive for two main reasons: the Singapore brand name, and its perfect timing.
Top Chinese leaders have made it a priority for the country to shift its inefficient and polluting mode of growth towards a more balanced form of development - meaning the eco-city project will get Beijing's full backing.
The project also comes as Singapore's strengths in environmental services and technology, in areas such as water treatment and sanitation, for example, are maturing.
Despite the lobbying, Beijing narrowed down the choice to four cities: Tianjin; Caofeidian Industrial Park in northern Hebei province's Tangshan city; Baotou city, an industrial base in Inner Mongolia; and Urumqi, capital city of western Xinjiang province.
The list was based on two conditions - that the project should not occupy agricultural land, and must be in an area where water is scarce. But it was apparent early on that Tianjin and Caofeidian were the only genuine options.
'Some said Baotou and Urumqi were red herrings,' said a person close to discussions, noting that Tianjin and Caofeidian are not only superior in terms of economic potential, but also most likely to meet Singapore's conditions.
SM Goh had said that for the eco-city to succeed, it should be commercially viable, as well as replicable elsewhere in China. This meant that sites with extreme or unusual geographical conditions were less attractive.
The ensuing competition between the two cities was fierce. Local officials conducted flawless presentations complete with glossy brochures.
In September, Tangshan party chief Zhao Yong and Mr Gou Lijun, director of Binhai New Area's administrative committee, flew separately to Singapore to personally drum up support for their bids.
Differing views over the choice of cities also surfaced during the discussions of the Singapore team of officials and experts from the Ministry of National Development and Keppel Corporation, which is leading a consortium of Singapore companies in the project.
Keppel experts included veterans who had worked on the Suzhou Industrial Park, today considered a 'model' for other parks in China.
Tianjin is attractive because of the high-level government support for the development of Binhai, which has been designated as a new growth engine for northern China. Its proximity to the political nerve centre of Beijing is also considered a major plus.
But Caofeidian is no slouch either, and is fast on its way to becoming China's biggest steel, energy and petrochemical hub. If built here, the eco-city would benefit from the local government's undivided attention. There are already plans to relocate its administrative functions, university and central business district to Caofeidian.
To ensure an objective evaluation, Singapore gave both cities a questionnaire of more than 20 questions - such as how accessible the site would be and how it would figure in future development plans - and tabulated scores based on their replies.
'This was deliberately done as this was not a beauty contest where you made a choice based on your personal preferences,' said the source.
Though the two cities were neck-and-neck for much of the seven-month-long negotiations, it emerged in the past month that Tianjin was edging ahead. It eventually won out in the overall assessment by less than 10 per cent.
Still, deliberations went on with just days to go before Premier Wen was to sign the agreement with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Both sides locked down their final preference only last Wednesday afternoon as they settled on the final wording of the agreements. Underscoring the project's high priority, the draft agreements were cleared by China's Cabinet in record time so that they could be signed in Singapore on Sunday.
Picking the right site is crucial for a higher chance of success, said another person involved in the negotiations.
But there is much work to be done ahead, he said.
'There's no turning back, we have to make this a success.'