Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World's Most Populated Country

Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World's Most Populated Country

by Wade Shepard

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783602186
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Series: Zed Books - Asian Arguments Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,277,163
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Wade Shepard is editor-in-chief at the China Chronicle. He lives in Xiamen, Fujian Province, China.

Read an Excerpt

Ghost Cities of China

The Story of Cities Without People in the World's Most Populated Country

By Wade Shepard

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Wade Shepard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78360-219-3


The new map of China

It is projected that by 2030 one in eight people on earth will live in a Chinese city (Miller 2012). Preparation for this deluge is reshaping the country. Hundreds of new districts, cities, towns and neighbourhoods are being constructed as hundreds of millions of Chinese are expected to transition from rural to urban terrains. China has designed a master urbanization plan unlike anything ever seen before in history, but its implementation has produced a peculiar side effect: ghost cities, everywhere.

These empty new cities, dubbed 'ghost towns' by the international media, have became a global phenomenon and a major point of confusion and contention among China watchers, journalists, governmental agencies and investors alike. One common point of view is that these stagnant new cities reveal a crack in the veneer of the rising superpower, that China's staggering GDP and economic ascension really isn't all it's said to be, that decades of irresponsibly rampant development and growth are now taking their toll. These claims posit China's ghost cities as harbingers of a premature collapse of the country, which could produce a ripple that takes the entire global economy down along with it. Headlines like 'China's property slowdown could have a domino effect on global commodities' play on the fear of a Western readership that is already primed to be on edge about China. Whatever the case, the reports of new cities with wide open, empty streets, block upon block of vacant buildings, and entire skyscrapers with nobody in them have caught the imagination of the world. But it quickly becomes apparent that beneath the thin veil of sensationalism very little is actually known about China's ghost cities.

In 2006, I stepped out of a bus station into what I initially took to be the downtown area of Tiantai, a small city in the mountains of Zhejiang province. As I walked in search of a hotel I did not notice at first the ominous fact that every building was completely vacant and that I was the only person on the streets. The realization came as a shock, and I stopped immediately and gazed at the brand new, grey-tiled five-storey buildings that surrounded me. They were identical, like a matching suite of furniture. The shops and hotels and homes were all skeletal frames of what they were intended to become. Outside, they appeared to be crisp and new; inside, they were dark cavities, devoid of inhabitants, users, or even any interior fit-out. The buildings, streets, parks and public squares were all woven together as a part of a singular urban design that was propelled into existence by a singular blast of construction. It was a planned city, a place that was designed on computers, projected onto screens in boardrooms, and made into little plastic scale renders before being replicated in real life upon the loamy river valley soil of Tiantai.

This was long before the first ghost city reports came out, so I had no solid reference for what I was looking at. What was this place? How did this happen? Where did all the people go? Were they ever here at all? It was as though a giant vacuum cleaner had hovered overhead and all signs of life had been sucked up like dust, leaving behind nothing but bare grey infrastructure. It took me over an hour of walking through the barren maze of buildings before I realized that the inhabited part of the city lay a couple of kilometres down the road, that I was in the new part of town that was built but not inhabited.

I was a student at Zhejiang University at the time. When I returned I told my professors about what I had observed, with no small dose of immature excitement. They just looked at me, shrugged uninterestedly, and said, 'Yeah, those places are everywhere.' Chinese academics were apparently aware of my discovery, but they weren't interested.

However, there was something about the phrase 'those places are everywhere' that kept me locked onto the topic. Later that year I stumbled off a highway into a deserted portion of Erenhot on the Mongolian border, a place that would later gain infamy through the ghost city reports that the Western media were soon to publish about it. As I walked through that sand-strewn, completely empty new city that was flung out in the Gobi Desert it became clear that something very big was happening here. What were insignificant small cities like Tiantai and Erenhot doing building entire new districts that essentially doubled their size? Why weren't there any people or businesses in these places? What was all of this for? What would become of this? Only one thing was certain at that point: these places really were everywhere.

The ghost city critique

In 2009, Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan claimed to have stumbled into Ordos Kangbashi by mistake when reporting on another story, and the world was introduced to China's ghost cities. Since then, many international news programmes, such as Dateline Australia and 60 Minutes, have ventured into a well-chosen small sample of China's new cities, declared them ghost towns, and established the dominant angle of the international media: 'If building a road pumped up GDP, then building a whole city would really propel GDP growth to unknown heights' (Chan 2011).

Suddenly, places such as Erenhot, Zhengdong, Chenggong, Dantu, Xinyang and Linyi were put on the map. These reports showed the empty buildings, the deserted streets, the stillborn carcasses of cities that never knew life. These places were decried as failures, evidence that China has been rigging the books on its remarkable GDP growth, and as an ominous sign that the country's rampant pace of development has finally caught up with it. These reports helped plant a seed of suspicion that the rise of China may not be as touted and that the world's fledgling superpower was building cities for nobody. But was this true?

So I again began tracking down new cities – or ghost cities, as they were now called – across China. All I had to do was take a bus to the edge of a city, get off, and look. Invariably, there would be a new town under construction. For the following two years I was out in the streets, or dirt paths as they sometimes were, of half-built new cities, talking to their builders, interviewing their designers, interrogating their investors, and meeting their residents – if there were any. I wanted to know what these new places were being built for, who would come and live in them, what life would be like there, and what their future would be. What I found was a movement that's physically and figuratively reshaping China and, by extension, the world.

Building a new world within the four seas

'Around fourteen years ago I went up into that tower with an urban developer and we looked south', a German contractor in Taizhou, Jiangsu told me. 'We could see all the way to the river then; there was nothing in between. The developer then pointed into the distance and said that he was building a city there. Now there's a city.' This is perhaps the quintessential narrative of early-twenty-first-century China.

When the Communist Party assumed power in 1949 China had 69 cities; today it has 658. This is a country that seems like one colossal, ever-churning construction site. The old is being replaced with the new, and the new is being replaced with the newer, in a cyclical process of creation and destruction. The ensemble of jackhammers, cranes, dump trucks and sledgehammers is the soundtrack of a country reinventing itself. Like an architect sketching on a drawing board, massive swathes of land are being cleared of buildings and inhabitants and entire new cities are going up in their place. Over the next twenty years China will build hundreds of new cities, thousands of new towns and districts, erect over 50,000 new skyscrapers, wipe untold thousands of villages off the map, and relocate hundreds of millions of people in a development boom that's incomparable in scale and scope to anything we've yet seen. No civilization has ever built so much so quickly.

Nearly 600 new cities have already been established across China in roughly sixty-five years, and there is no sign of a slowdown yet. According to a 2013 survey conducted by China's National Development and Reform Commission, it was found that 144 cities in just twelve of China's thirty-two provincial-level areas were in the process of building over 200 new towns. Nationwide, new urban developments are popping up faster than surveys can be conducted to count them. This means that nearly every city in the country is expanding – some are doubling or even tripling their size. It is no wonder that China uses 40 per cent of the world's supply of cement and steel. The amount of cement the country used in the last three years alone tops what the United States used during the entire twentieth century. This is in a country that is already home to a quarter of the world's hundred largest cities and has 171 municipalities with over a million people in each.

These new cities and urban expansions are not just being built at random off the grid. Rather, all of this urbanization is advancing within the tight frame of an expansive new transportation network. Layered grids of new highways and high-speed rail lines are being stretched across the country, new subways are being dug beneath most major cities, and, above it all, the air transport nexus is growing exponentially. By 2020 forty Chinese cities will have subway systems, totalling 7,000 km of track – over five times the total of the USA. In 2005, China had 41,000 km of highway; in just nine years this had multiplied by two and a half times and is now the most extensive network in the world. Prior to 2003 China had no high-speed rail lines in operation; it now has a system that totals 12,000 km, the most extensive in the world, which is expected to grow to 50,000 km by 2020 – enough to stretch around the world one and a quarter times. On top of this, 82 new civil airports are being built and 101 current airports are being expanded. This includes a US$14 billion behemoth in the south of Beijing that will be the size of Bermuda and will require 116,000 people to be relocated. By the end of 2015, 80 per cent of the Chinese population will live within 100 km of an airport. To prevent the new city movement from running away with itself, China is corralling it all in with infrastructure – although, at US$163 million per kilometre of new subway track (Qi 2014), in excess of US$300 billion for the high-speed rail network, US$240 billion for the highway system, and hundreds of billions of dollars for the new airports, this doesn't come cheap.

This urban transition, of course, isn't just a matter of constructing new buildings and infrastructure, as there is also a drastic social upheaval under way. In 1949, just 12 per cent of China's population lived in cities; today that number is up to more than half of the population, totalling 731 million people. Within the past thirty years 400 million Chinese, more than the entire population of the United States, have transitioned from rural to urban areas; throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century the country's urban head count was growing by the population of Australia annually. But China's not done yet. By governmental decree, 300 million more people are expected to become urban by 2030, the much portended year when the country is expected to have 1 billion city dwellers. This means that 1.4 million Chinese, roughly the population of Estonia, will need to urbanize each month for the next sixteen years.

As I take in all of these facts about China's urbanization movement, it seems so incredible as to be abstract and somewhat unreal. The massive numbers blur into meaninglessness, and the sheer scale of what is being built seems to defy comprehension. How large actually is a 500-square-kilometre new district? What does laying 12,000 km of new high-speed rail lines across an entire country really involve? What do these hundreds of new cities look like? The book that follows chronicles two years of travelling around China investigating the country's new city movement. It covers how sites are selected for development and the mass evictions and relocations which ensue; how new cities are built and the strategies that are used to populate them; how the rural poor are flooding into urban areas and how policies have been created to bring cities to the countryside; how China is financing its urbanization movement and the pitfalls within its fiscal system that make excessive overdevelopment an inevitability; how there is a master plan in place that will soon blanket the country in a web of megacity clusters; and why, in the world's most populated country, there are entire cities without people.


Clearing the land

I was walking in the middle of the street near the central core of the world's most populated city, but I had no fear of being run over, honked at or knocked aside. There was no traffic; the only cars were a row of black Lexuses sitting idly on the sidewalk outside a monolithic exhibition centre, their bored chauffeurs smoking cigarettes and playing with their phones. The wind was blowing gently, the sun was shining, and the magpies were squawking. Landmark skyscrapers, colossal bridges and roaring highways formed a ring around me, but where I was standing was all calm and quiet, the raucous soundtrack of the city was dulled to a quiet, static-like hum. I was in the hole of an urban donut, Shanghai's World Expo site: a dead zone close to the centre of the city.

It wasn't always like this. This was once an area of factories, naval bases, ports and neighbourhoods which flanked the banks of the Huangpu River as it snakes through the heart of Shanghai. This place was destined for redevelopment at some point, being just a tick upriver from Pudong's Lujiazui Central Business District; it was the arrival of a temporary exposition that provided the local government with the impetus to pull the trigger.

The 2010 World Expo was Shanghai's response to Beijing's 2008 Olympics, and was supposed to have been the event that catapulted it to the status of 'next great world city'. At a cost of US$58.58billion, roughly the annual GDP of Croatia, the city used the Expo as the justification for a complete makeover. Ten years of planning and preparation went into event, which saw six new subway lines dug, the addition of 4,000 new taxis, a new airport terminal, the second longest steel-arch bridge in the world, and myriad other urban renewal projects. For the Expo site itself, a 5.82 sq km site, the size of a thousand soccer fields, was chosen just to the south of Shanghai's downtown, which spanned both sides of the Huangpu River. To access this swathe of land, 18,452 households and 270 factories had to be cleared away. They were hustled off to the outskirts.

The people who previously lived at the Expo site were forced to relocate, their homes demolished and trucked away. Many claim to have been given minimal compensation; some became homeless. Those who complained too loudly were detained. 'My house was on the main site of the Expo', a Mr Han told a reporter for the Daily Telegraph. 'They waited until we left home one day and then knocked it down. I have not had any payment for my property and, because I complained, my son was refused entrance to university and then to the army. I am unemployed, and so is my wife and my son. We live on the bare minimum, around 500 yuan (£47) a month' (Moore 2010). Protests over these evictions erupted in Shanghai, Taiwan, and at the UN's headquarters in New York. Some 1,000 evicted residents marched in Beijing. Shen Ting of the League of Chinese Victims, a human rights advocacy group, asked rhetorically: 'What has the Shanghai World Expo brought to the residents of Shanghai? We say it is pain, tears, despair and uncertainty.' A total of 38 human rights groups urged the UN to investigate potential human rights abuses, but it didn't heed the call. Instead, the UN built a 32,000-square-foot pavilion to 'present a positive image of the UN family' and the secretary general, Ban Kimoon, lauded the Chinese government and Shanghai.

For the event itself, Shanghai was sure to be on its best form. The city successfully cleared the land, built the new infrastructure as planned, and had things looking very posh for the Expo. In all, 246 countries and 50 organizations participated; 56 country pavilions were on display, where people from around the world dressed in costumes that they don't really wear anymore and did dances they don't really do, as they polished up those antiquated stereotypes of culture that are no longer applicable in the world we live in. The big show was a great success: over the course of the Expo's six-month run time over 70 million visitors showed up, a record turnout.

The theme of the Shanghai World Expo was 'Better city, better life', and was focused on urbanization and environmental issues, introducing numerous new ideas and strategies from around the world. Though what was actually created was anything but.


Excerpted from Ghost Cities of China by Wade Shepard. Copyright © 2015 Wade Shepard. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. The New Map of China
2. Clearing the Land
3. Of New Cities and Ghost Cities
4. When Construction Ends the Building Begins
5. Megacities Inside of Megacities
6. A New City, A New Identity
7. No Going Back
8. Powering the New China
9. Staying Afloat
10. What Ghost Cities Become

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