Each five-year plan formulated during the past 50 years was a landmark in one way or another - but what the State's top planners have in mind now would leave an indelible mark on the landscape of China, both literally and metaphorically.
The nation's 11th Five-Year Programme (2006-2010), to be discussed at the ongoing plenary session of the National People's Congress, highlights a drive to foster new city clusters as part of endeavours to address imbalances in regional economic development. Should that proceed as intended, analysts say, there will emerge new clusters of cities like the ones that are built around Shanghai and Beijing.
By optimizing allocation of resources and dismantling cross-region barriers, they will not just literally revise the landscape of China, but greatly enhance the competitiveness of its booming economy.
"International competition is now increasingly based on cities, in clusters instead of individually," says Cui Gonghao, a professor at Nanjing University.
"Even Shanghai will not be able to compete internationally without the Yangtze River Delta that is its hinterland," adds Cui, who is also on the expert panel for city and suburban planning under the Ministry of Construction.
So what is the advantage? The total is greater than the sum of the parts. By leveraging each other's strengths and sharing expensive infrastructure such as airports and harbours, cities in a cluster carry more weight than if they were competing individually.
Key resources such as land, water and energy can also be allocated more efficiently. For example, the city of Jiangyin in East China's Jiangsu Province is channeling projects to Jingjiang, its neighbour on the other side of the Yangtze River, to reduce pressure on land use.
Rational planning would also help harness a widespread propensity for repetitive construction driven by city leaders who see big projects as tickets to a better career.
While density of airports in the region already stands at a high 0.8 per 10,000 square kilometers, as compared to 0.6 in the United States, the number of airports in the 16-city Yangtze River Delta cluster is estimated to reach a staggering 48 by 2020 if there is no further co-ordination among cities.
While rolling out a vista for the cities, planners are also paying close attention to rural development, stressing the need to build smaller cities rather than trying to drive rural residents into big cities.
"This will help accelerate the concerted development of cities and rural areas," says Cui, referring to the State's new emphasis on promoting rural development.
"The focus was on limiting the expansion of big cities in the past, but it is now on both big, medium and small-sized cities," he says.
"There have been a few watershed events in urbanization in China, and this is one."
As the Chinese economy grows and residents move more freely across regions, the natural process of clustering cities has been accelerating in recent years. "The concentration of population and industry in the east has reached a considerable magnitude," notes Lu Bin, a professor at College of Environmental Sciences under Peking University.
The three most developed city clusters in China - the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta and the Bohai Bay Area - are all located in the coastal east.
Co-ordination of Interests
But making cities work more closely together will require co-ordination that goes beyond breaking long-standing administrative barriers. Breaking free from bureaucratic mindsets, is the biggest challenge facing the process of city clustering, analysts say.
"Planning is easy, but implementation is difficult, because the interests (of different cities) will have to be co-ordinated," says Cui.
The cost of administrative barriers will need to be minimized, says Lu, referring to widespread practices such as charging higher expressway tolls on cars from other cities.
Some measures for cluster building are simply out of the reach of many cities. Among others, a report by Central China's Henan Province on promoting a city cluster that centres around its provincial capital Zhengzhou, which was recently adopted as part of the province's 11th Five-Year Programme, proposes unifying fiscal departments of the 18 cities in the cluster, and takes away economic-planning rights from counties and cities.
"Further study is needed to see whether such arrangements are practicable," says Li Pumin, deputy director of the Policy Research Office under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).