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Fresh chapter for the new era

Xiongan New Area in North China's Hebei province turned one year old on Sunday.

If you ask me if there have been changes in the area, I'd say not many on the surface, but probably quite a few at a deeper level.

It seems nothing much is "new" anymore in Xiongan except for newly built buildings, commercial complexes, newly planted trees and some work on geological and archaeological surveys.

But I'd like to add that the biggest change can be seen in the views of both local residents and outsiders who swarm Xiongan either for job opportunities or for business. When I first visited the area in April last year, the locals were both excited and a little restless.

Excited because they were becoming citizens of a big city and might get rich quickly; restless because they didn't know what role they need to play in building the new area. Some even worried about losing their jobs.

But now, they have calmed down and are thinking carefully about their future. Some of them have even started up. Li Huqun, a 49-year-old villager at Dawang town in Anxin county, told me he wanted to start a new business. "Our aspirations to live a better life will be satisfied soon with the development of Xiongan, compared with our past status as villagers." Li's family-run workshop makes embroidery products, which used to earn an annual income of 200,000 yuan ($32,000). The business has been affected because his cloth supplier in the area had to shut down due to pollution concerns.

"I'm thinking of doing some other business related to the construction of Xiongan, maybe in the services sector, like restaurants with local special food," Li said.

Just like Li, residents of Xiongan are reconciling to the fact that the creation of Xiongan New Area is changing their lives and they must change in response as well. Outgrowing initial excitement and restlessness, they are now prepared to embark on a new life.

The new area, about 100 kilometers southwest of downtown Beijing, mainly covers three counties of Xiongxian, Rongcheng and Anxin in Hebei's Baoding. That is, three less-developed small cities and 557 villages. The central government authorities said the new area will be built into a high-quality modern socialist city. Its mission, they said, is to help phase out ordinary functions and businesses that don't befit Beijing, the national capital, and restructure the urban layout in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.

How long will it take to build the brand new city from scratch?

Anybody's guess as of now. Safe to say it'd likely be a marathon, not a sprint, not a middle-distance race.

"Setting up Xiongan New Area is a strategy crucial for a millennium to come, we should have loads of patience and build it steadily," said Chen Gang, Party chief of Xiongan.

During the past year, the planning and building of Xiongan has progressed steadily, said He Lifeng, minister of the National Development and Reform Commission, in March.

According to He, planning for building the new area was almost complete. It abides by "world vision, international standards, Chinese characteristics and high goals".

And some major infrastructure projects had begun in the new area, including the construction of an intercity railway link with Beijing, which will cut the travel time between the two areas to 30 minutes from the current 80 minutes.

According to Chen Gang, 260,000 trees were planted last year. Afforestation of the area will continue, and is one of the goals of Xiongan: to become a region with scenic, ecologically balanced environment, with blue skies, fresh air and clean water.

Another visible change is the Citizen Service Center, a newly built complex for government departments and company offices as well as a venue for events like exhibitions and conventions.

When I visited Xiongan last month, it still had the unmistakable appearance of counties and villages.

But with everything steadily pushed ahead, the area is ushering in a new chapter as it takes discernible shape.