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How did China build a children’s hospital six times cheaper than Ireland in just three years?

Baoding’s hospital and the vast Xiong’an model city 50km away show the virtues of design, planning and state ownership of land

Tian Jian was standing in front of a building site describing the facilities at a new children’s hospital in Baoding, a city in Hebei province about 160km southwest of Beijing. The 1,200-bed hospital, a branch of Beijing Children’s Hospital, will sit within a cluster of high-end specialised hospitals now under construction.

“This project was approved in 2022 and construction started in April 2023. We expect it to be completed by the end of this year and put into operation in 2025,” he said.

Parents usually stay with their children in Chinese hospitals but the accommodation for families in Baoding will be better than in the top hospitals in Beijing. And although China’s population is declining, Tian – head of Beijing Children’s Hospital Baoding Branch – said the demand for children’s medical services is growing because there is a greater focus on their physical and mental health.

The total cost of the project will be RMB2.63 billion (€340 million), about one-sixth of the cost of the new children’s hospital in Dublin. I told Tian that we had been building that hospital for eight years and it was not yet finished and asked him how they got the job done so quickly.

“This is the standard amount of time it takes to build a hospital in China. It will be completed in about three years, because we started planning and designing it well, and the construction process was also better controlled. Basically, a hospital can be built in China in about three years,” he said.

The Chinese state has a number of advantages when it comes to getting big projects built fast, including the fact that it owns all the land in the country. And the authorities are happy to demolish entire villages to clear the way for major developments, rehousing the residents elsewhere.

This is what has been happening in Xiong’an, where a “modern socialist city” is being built on a low-lying plain about 50km east of Baoding. State-owned companies and public institutions are being encouraged to move to the new city, which was announced in 2017 as part of a plan to ease pressure on Beijing.

A pet project of Xi Jinping, Xiong’an is designed as a model city with basic services within a 15-minute walk of every resident, strict height limits on buildings and a focus on sustainability. Utilities like electrical cables are in large underground tunnels and car parking is almost entirely below ground.

A giant supercomputer uses artificial intelligence to monitor and control traffic and to gather all kinds of data about what is happening in the city. More than 200 design teams from all over the world have been involved in the project but every detail has been planned out in advance.

“A city usually grows from a small village into a small town and then into a large city. Xiong’an breaks that pattern of urban construction,” said Ren Dazhi, director of the foreign affairs office of Xiong’an.

“We are building a city on a large scale all at once. So first we plan Xiong’an, and then we start construction. We have to plan every inch of land before starting construction. Then after we build this city, we have to think clearly about what it is like for our people to live here.”

Some 120,000 people were moved out of their villages to make way for the construction and rehoused in new apartment buildings in Xiong’an. Villagers received little direct, financial compensation but were given 200sq m apartments in the new city, which Ren says are usually bigger and better appointed than their original homes.

The authorities say that 1.3 million people are already living in Xiong’an but few of them were in evidence on Thursday, when the city looked mostly deserted. The city is less than an hour from Beijing by high-speed train but the enormous new railway station was almost empty and there were few cars on the roads.

The city hopes to have 5.3 million residents by 2035 and Ren is confident that when people in Beijing get to know Xiong’an, they will view it as an attractive alternative.

“We must now build our city better, and persuade people from Beijing to come here to study, work and live. Why would they want to come here? Because we can provide better public services here, such as education and medical care,” he said.

“We say that public services in the new city must not be inferior to those of Beijing. Not inferior means that they may be equal to or higher than those of Beijing.”

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