Only six years after opening what was the largest airport terminal in the world, Beijing this week gave the final green light for a new airport just as big, to open in 2020.
With construction due to start early next year, and costing $13.1 billion, the new airport complex is designed to relieve growing pressure on Beijing’s Capital airport, which is already operating beyond its designed capacity.
Authorities, however, are keeping much about the planned airport under wraps – from its exact location to its design and the type of flights and airlines it will accommodate.
For the farmers here in Daxing district, 30 miles south of Beijing where the airport will be built, that means their future is shrouded in mystery.
“I saw a notice outside the town hall two months ago saying our village would be knocked down by next August, but there are no details,” says Xin Shiwu, the head of Xinjia-an village. “We do not know where we will be sent to live.”
Xinjia-an is one of 20 villages lying within what are apparently the rough borders of the airport site or below the flight paths that are scheduled for demolition. The thousands of farmers and their families who live in these nondescript collections of small courtyard homes, dotting a wintry landscape of flat, barren cornfields, have been told little of the government’s plans for them.
Liu Zhiyu, an official in the nearby village of Damafang, says he was told privately by higher level officials from a nearby town that he and his neighbors would have to leave their homes by next June.
“But the relocation houses won’t be ready by then,” he adds. “They said there will be some temporary arrangement, but we don’t know what it will be.”
Eventually, Mr. Liu said, all the villagers evicted to make way for the airport will be rehoused in apartment blocks, but they will no longer have any land to farm.
“The old people will be retired, and the government will help younger ones find a job,” perhaps constructing and then operating the airport, says Mr. Xin. So far, he adds, the government has not said how it will compensate the farmers for their lost homes and land, “but I expect we will get enough money to buy one of the relocation apartments.”
Villagers say they have not been consulted about the airport project, and have mixed feelings about leaving the places they were born. “I’m worried,” acknowledges Xin Dehua, who has lived in Xinjia-an all his life as a farmer growing wheat, corn, melons, and vegetables.
“There are definitely going to be changes, and I can’t imagine what they will be,” he says. “But maybe I can find some work before I get too old, and perhaps life will be better than farming.”
“We are poor farmers,” the village chief points out. “This airport is a once in a lifetime project. We hope it will improve our lives.”
“The old people don’t want to go because they are attached to their homes,” says Liu. “But younger people prefer living in apartments – they are warmer.”
Revealing details would be 'inappropriate'
The government secrecy that lends such uncertainty to the farmers’ lives extends to almost every aspect of the planned airport. Neither pictures nor artist’s impressions have been published, the Beijing New Airport Construction Preparatory Work Leading Group, which is responsible for building the airport, refused to speak to this reporter, and the Daxing district government referred all questions to the National Development and Reform Commission, the top national planning agency.
An NDRC spokesman, asked about plans for the airport, replied only that “it is inappropriate to disclose relevant information.”
What is clear is that Beijing needs a new airport. Capital airport was designed to handle 83 million passengers a year; last year it exceeded that number by a million, and passenger numbers are expected to grow by 5 percent a year, according to Li Xiaojin, who teaches at the Civil Aviation University of China in Tianjin.
The airport can accommodate 1,200 flights a day, but domestic and international airlines would operate more than 2,000 flights a day in and out of Beijing if they could, says Prof. Li. “This is a demand that cannot be satisfied,” he says. “The need for Daxing airport is very urgent.”
Beijing airport is notorious for flight delays, though this problem is common to many Chinese airports. Over the last 30-day period, Capital airport topped the list of departure delays at Asian airports, according to FlightStats.com, which monitors airline and airport performance. Eight of the 10 worst performing airports in Asia were in China, the website found.
This is partly because the Chinese military, which controls all the nation’s airspace, allocates only 34 percent of the space to civilian users, according to an official China News Service report citing 2013 government figures.
The new airport at Daxing, with four runways, will be handling 72 million passengers a year by 2025, the NDRC statement said. It will be connected to Beijing’s city center by a new highway and a high-speed rail link.
The planning agency said the giant new airport should be “a symbolic project, representing the new level of a new century” in China. It also pledged that special attention would be paid to “protecting the legal rights and interests of the people” affected by the construction.
In the villages due to be demolished, residents still do not know, a few months before their eviction, if the government’s arrangements for them will keep that promise.
It is hard for them to imagine 72 million people a year pouring in and out to catch the 620,000 flights due to be taking off five years hence from the bleak, silent December fields around their simple homes.
As he contemplates that prospect, with six more months left to him in his ancestral village, Liu is nostalgic. “It will be odd living in a tower block,” he says. “Farming is hard work … but I can grow what I like, I’m free and I’m comfortable. It’s a little hard to say goodbye to this kind of life.”