China's Manhattan Knock-Off

On a peninsula southeast of Beijing, developer Vincent Lee wants to copy New York City—literally

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A wheelbarrow rests in the shadow of cranes in one of Yujiapu's construction sites / Colleen Kinder

Large-scale knock-offs have become a Chinese specialty. There's the amusement park in Shenzhen where you can take your photo beside a fake Taj Mahal. There's a touristy town that will so closely copy the alpine village of Hallstat, the Austrian mayor has complained to the UN. And on a peninsula southeast of Beijing, the most ambitious knock-off of all is in the works: a financial center in the likeness and scale of Manhattan.

Two years into its ten-year construction plan, Yujiapu is still a field of cranes, fenced along the perimeter and hazy behind the smog. The only thing that resembles New York City is a diorama in the lobby of Binhai New Area CBD Office, where bureaucrats like Vincent Lee of the Business Bureau, are working to deliver on their ambitious promise of making this 3.86 sq km area the "largest single financial center on the world."

Lee flicks on the Yujiapu diorama, making the skyscrapers glow, while subway and bullet train lines blink like an arcade game. The miniature city is a near facsimile of New York--down to the river wrapping around the peninsula's southern tip--and Vince doesn't shy away from direct comparisons. Taking out a laser light, he points out what will be the "flagship building" of Yujiapu, modeled after the Rockefeller Center, then scribbles his laser beam against an identical pair of skyscrapers further downtown: Tishman Twin Towers.

Lee plays a short film above the diorama, in which Yujiapu looks sleek, set against a backdrop of pure blue sky--the likes of which you never see in urban China. Twice, the film's voiceover claims that Yujiapu will attract world attention, as we pan over high-rise buildings which will eventually encompass 9.5 million square meters of office space. In Lee's video, the clear sky darkens into a moody purple, and fireworks detonate over China's Manhattan.

A few of Yujiapu's features are originals: an urban park on a whale-shaped island; an underground strip of high-end stores; and China's first three-tier, underground train station, where bullet trains will shoot commuters off to Beijing as well as Tianjin, a nearby boom town of almost eleven million people. It's these links to both China's capital city and one of China's fastest growing cities--not to mention the proximity to China's major port of the north, the Tianjin Port in Bohai Bay--that underpin the local government's confidence in Yuijipu, where 7.6 billion RMB have already been invested.

Right next door, the city of Tianjin is growing at a pace that's staggering even by modern Chinese standards. Tianjin's huge skyscrapers are interspersed with titans still wrapped in green tarps, one of them on its way to becoming the tallest building in China. Down at street level, the city center feels like a construction set: dusty, obstructed, and deafeningly loud. While China has for decades sustained average annual growth rates of ten percent, the province of Tianjin last year reported a growth rate of 17.4 percent. Many predict that Tianjin will spread right into Beijing.

That might explain why a project on the scale of Yujiapu has raised few eyebrows thus far. It falls into the shadow of a city that falls into the shadow of the capital, in a region where seemingly limitless sums of money are pumping.

But much of that funding is borrowed, and recent reports of debt overload is raising red flags over China's most grandiose construction projects, many of which are financed by state-owned banks. Last year, Tianjin topped the national lending charts.

You won't hear about the risks from Vincent Lee, though--only the promises. He expects Yujiapu to quickly follow in the footsteps of Pudong, a former fishing village in Shanghai that exploded with growth in the nineties. When it comes to building cities, Lee argues, the Chinese have a key advantage over the West. In places like London and New York, government planners have to contend with structures of the past. "They are not removing," he says. Here, by contrast, "it's like white paper."

Erased paper is a more accurate metaphor for this peninsula, where hundreds of thousands of native inhabitants were relocated to high-rise apartment buildings that loom beyond the construction zones. Whether these displaced crab fisherman and steel workers will have prime views of China's uber-modern, Manhattan-esque, financial center, or a ghost city whose empty offices tell a sobering tale of overreach, is yet to be seen.