George Vong is a British Chinese author and entrepreneur. He grew up working at his parents’ take away in Hull from a very young age. He later dropped out of university to play poker full time, and went to live in Macau. After 3 years of player poker Vong returned to the UK to attend his brother’s graduation. He met up with a friend who was franchising noodle bars, and opened one up himself the following year, leaving his days as a professional gambler behind.
Historically, of course, Beijing was an eminently practical choice for a capital city. Before being named capital, it was called “Beiping”, which means “Northern peace”. As capital, its name, “Beijing”, means “Northern capital”, in contrast to the “Southern capital” of Nanjing. Originally chosen for a capital over Nanjing during the fourteenth century by the Ming Dynasty’s first and founding Emperor, Beijing was capital for over 1,000 years, withstanding four dynasties; the Jin, Ming, Yuan and Qing dynasties. It was once again made capital, this time of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949. The choice reflected a return to traditional Chinese politics and values, as well as the very real need at the time for vulnerable China to align itself politically with Soviet Russian allies.
Before making the argument that China move its capital, it is worth considering the nature of a capital city in the modern world, and what the practical and social implications are of naming, and moving, the capital. It is easy to forget that not every country does as China has with Beijing, naming a single administrative, political and cultural capital. South Africa has three capital cities; Bloemfontein, its judicial capital, Cape Town, its legislative capital, and its de facto national capital of Pretoria. France names no capital in its constitution, making Paris only its de facto capital, while many modern states have more than one capital city, dividing their cultural capital from their administrative capital.
A prime example is the choice of Washington D.C as administrative capital, while New York is understood internationally to be America’s cultural centre. The choice of Washington D.C. forms an interesting case study on the cultural meaning of a capital; in 1787, upon establishing the constitution of the United States of America the constitution still in force, to a great extent, today- several states and individual cities vied for the honour of the capital city. These included Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, Virginia and New York City, all fine cities whose cultural history made them worthy candidates. This impossible choice, loaded with emotional and social nuances, was settled in a unique way by the establishment of a separate federal district, the District of Columbia- the ‘D.C.’ in ‘Washington D.C.’- which would contain the administrative capital city still recognised today. Australia, Pakistan, Mexico and Brazil would all one day follow the U.S.A’s example, creating dedicated federal districts to contain their capital cities to avoid slighting established cultural centres.
Just as not every modern state has a single, traditional capital city, it is far from unheard of for a modern state to choose to relocate its capital city. Since 1950, Brazil, Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria, Germany and Malaysia are among those countries which have chosen to relocate their capital cities.
This expensive and complex process often meets with resistance, and is seldom undertaken without a host of valid motives, both pragmatic and emotional. Creating more balanced national development, safeguarding the administrative and cultural centres from possible invasions or natural disasters, and simply running out of living space are among the most common pragmatic reasons to move a capital city, all reasons which will be covered in detail with regard to Beijing.
Brazil is a notable example of a nation that relocated its capital for pragmatic reasons. Brasilia, a planned capital city, was built from a sprawling interior desert to replace Rio de Janeiro as the Brazilian capital in April, 1960. Its President at the time, Juscelino Kubitschek, cherry-picked accomplished Brazilian architects, including Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer to design and oversee the building of the city. Everything from its architectural gems and tourist attractions to its layout and infrastructure was planned with the demands of a modern capital city in mind.
More recently, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, chose to remove capital city status from a crowded and resource-poor Lagos to another planned city, Abuja. It has a milder, more tourist-friendly climate, the potential for greater and more sustainable growth, and is regarded as more culturally neutral, an important bonus in a country of great ethnic and religious diversity.
The emotional motives for establishing a new capital city are in their way even more complex, tied as they are to issues of social identity, independence and history. There are, luckily for us, many fine examples of states which have chosen to relocate their capital for reasons of cultural identity. Its capital city is a large part of the cultural identity of a country. When we think of France, for example, most of us instantly imagine the museums, art galleries and picturesque streets of romantic Paris. To most non-Europeans, London is Britain, just as for many Europeans Tokyo is Japan, and Beijing’s crowded and polluted streets are China.
Perhaps the example which springs most readily to the mind of anyone versed in Western European history is Germany, who returned their capital to Berlin following reunification after the Cold War, or Russia, whose capital returned to Moscow following the October Revolution.