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Reports of the world’s most populated country having tens of millions of empty apartments and dozens of cities without people sounds like a sick twist of irony. But images of empty streets, barren skyscrapers, and thickets of brand new high-rise apartments housing nobody have been compulsively aired to a global audience that seems to have an insatiable appetite for Crazy China Stories. The dominant angle is that four decades of overzealous growth is starting to catch up with China and that the country’s irresponsible development may become the harbinger of the next global economic meltdown. The so-called ghost cities are shown as irrefutable evidence of this.
But when a Chinese “ghost city” does fill up with people and businesses it inconspicuously falls off the radar of the dominant international media. It becomes a regular city, mashed into China’s broader urban matrix — a success story that few seem interested in hearing about. We are amused by empty streets, vacant shopping malls, and barren financial districts in China, not budding new cities steadily coming to life. Ex-ghost cities are rarely news.
Though many places in China that have previously been heralded as ghost cities have by now been developed and populated. Though most are still works in progress, there is no way that they could rightfully be called ghost towns. Below are five new cities in China that have advanced through the ghost city phase and have come to life.
I am not going to claim that Dantu is a kicking kind of place, but it isn’t stiff with rigor mortus. People live there, the shops are all full, the apartment complexes that have been finished and opened to the public are largely house residents. From ground level, the place looks like any other new Chinese suburb: ridiculously wide streets, cookie-cutter apartment blocks, a school, an athletics field, kids playing in the parks, people doing exercises, noodle restaurants, cafes, and vegetable stales. Old folks are strolling the streets, the young work in the main part of Zhenjiang on the other side of the mountain. Everybody seems to be waiting around for the encroaching Shanghai – Nanjing megacity to encapsulate their town — and from the looks of the cranes, scaffolding, and the half built highway on the horizon, they probably don’t have much longer to wait. As of now, Dantu is a quiet, easy going kind of satellite city, not a ghost town.
Dantu: then and now. Satellite image that was used as evidence that Dantu was a ghost city in 2010 overlaid with photos of how it was in 2012.
This was a startling fact to discover, as prior to visiting Dantu all that I’ve ever heard of the place was that it was a deserted, failed development — one of China’s oldest White Elephants. “The ghost city of Dantu has been mostly empty for over a decade,” Business Insider reported. “In most neighborhoods of Dantu, there are no cars, no signs of life,” reported the Daily Mail. Both of these claims were made from looking at dated satellite images that showed the new district while it was still a construction site, not from reporters who actually went there. To put it bluntly, it’s no wonder the place looks empty: the images were taken before the place was built yet. As soon as the district was adequately constructed and pumped with the services that a population needs to live there, people moved in.
It’s actually extremely difficult to cross the street in Wujin, which doesn’t bode well for the argument that it’s a ghost town. I visited Changzhou, a city with 4.5 million people between Shanghai and Nanjing, on a few occasions through 2012 and 2013, and got to know its Wujin new district pretty well. This is the part of the city that has been paraded in both the domestic Chinese and international media as a deserted new development representative of a construction boom that is on the verge of collapse. That’s the narrative, but that’s not what the place looks like from the streets.
Wujin district is full of cars, the sidewalks are dotted with pedestrians, the streets lined with shops, the malls are full of shoppers, the cafes are packed with customers until late into the night. There are major retail chains here, like Decathlon, Tesco, Starbucks, and Golden Eagle. The place is alive by any standards.
The ghost city claims were made on the basis that there are a lot of empty apartments here. As I discovered early on in my ghost city project, just because an apartment complex appears empty isn’t necessarily an indication that the development is faltering, as there is an extended interim period between when the exteriors of residential buildings are built and the time when residents are able to occupy them. Wujin district is still very much a construction site. Massive amounts of new buildings are still going up and many new residential towers are not even inhabitable yet. Going around counting dark windows at night or apartments without air conditioning units is not an adequate criteria for declaring a place a ghost city.
A much better way to gauge the vitality of a new district is to count the population density by land area, survey the number of people in the streets, the cars on the roads, the occupancy rate of store fronts, the success rate of businesses, the number of employees working in the area, and, in general, look at how lively the place really is. In a new city in China that is truly in the ghost city phase the only thing you hear as you walk the streets are your footsteps and the wind, not honking horns and women screeching at you to buy their fried tofu. The ghost city label is, of course, very relative to perception, but when you walk out of a brightly lit shopping mall in a crowd of people who are running a gauntlet through traffic, it’s difficult to understand how anyone could call such a place deserted.
…when I mentioned that both the Chinese and the international media has been calling this place a ghost city he recoiled in disbelief.
“That’s not true,” he exclaimed, “you can come here and see that it’s not a ghost city,” he then pointed to the bright lights of the shopping mall that was visible outside the window of the cafe. “Wuyi Road is a main road of Changzhou!” he proclaimed with an exasperated laugh, seemingly unable to understand how anyone could see this place otherwise. “Just look out there, does that look like a ghost city to you?”
The Wujin district of Changzhou is in its “golden era” of development. This is a tenuous interim period between the time when a new area is stocked with everything the people need and want to live there and when the crowds roll in. There is a pattern that most of China’s new cities and districts tend to follow. For the first few years after a central core and some housing is build, new developments stand as virtual ghost cities that are more or less unlivable. Then the places begin to develop economically, infrastructurally, and culturally, and residents begin to trickle in. For a couple of years the small communities that develop seem to live happily in their freshly minted city, and many enjoy the “small town” feel. Eventually, this trickle of residents becomes a flood, and a former outpost of progress, a trendy new district, is swallowed up into the belly of the plain-old-city which it soon becomes. Changzhou’s Wujin district is in no way out of the ordinary, especially among the booming cities of the Yangtze River Delta.
The Wujin district of Changzhou has so many high-population-density style housing blocks that if they were all filled to capacity the place would more than likely be so jam packed with cars and people as to be virtually unlivable. High-population-density neighborhoods can economically function at a respectable capacity while significantly vacant. Wujin district is a forest of 30+ story apartment towers. There are literally hundreds of them crammed into an area spanning around a dozen blocks. Cut down these towers by two thirds and you have a city of ten story buildings virtually filled to capacity in a thriving new area. A city district of partially occupied high-rise towers still often has a lot of people per sq kilometer. Housing vacancy rates alone are a faulty criteria to qualify districts as ghost towns. In point, a lot of room is built into China’s new cities for speculation.
Has Wujin district been over-developed? Probably. Are there multitudes of empty apartments? Definitely. Will they ever all be filled? Probably not. Is it a ghost town? No way.
Zhengdong New District should be seen one of the biggest success stories of modern China. It was inspired by Shanghai’s Pudong district, and was likewise built to become the financial capital of central China. The shear proportions of this new district are almost incomprehensible: it started as a 150 sq kilometer new development zone but was eventually expanded to encompass 500 sq kilometers — which is more than three times the size of San Francisco. What’s incredible is that Zhengdong is not even a city in its own right, it’s just one district of Zhengzhou, the 9 million person capital of Henan Province.
Though this was the place that 60 Minutes focused on in their 2013 ghost city report:
“We discovered that the most populated country on earth is building houses, districts, and cities with no one in them.”
“We found what they call a ghost city of new towers with no residents, desolate condos, and vacant subdivisions uninhabited for miles, and miles, and miles.”
“They’re building cities, giant cities are being built with people not coming to live here.”
I was in Zhengdong at the time the report aired. I found something very different:
The area that 60 Minutes shot in surely looked “ghost-like” on film, but when I arrived there I found an entirely different scene. I found a sparkling new financial district that was full of sparkling new cars, well-dressed pedestrians, corporate offices of major businesses, skyscrapers full of occupied offices, expensive coffee houses, laundry hanging in the windows of luxury condos, there were cars parked in nearly every available parking space, and signs of life everywhere. There was nothing desolate about the Zhengdong CBD, it appeared to be functioning as planned.
But 60 Minutes simplified the situation by simply calling the entirety of Zhengdong barren and deserted — they went for hype and got it, but rendered their report a work of fiction in the process. They went into skyscrapers full of businesses and then called them abandoned; they showed occupied high-rises and claimed nobody lives in them; they filmed in an abandoned mall but ignored the thriving one nearby; they filmed areas that are not even built yet and used it as an example of how people are not moving into the district. 60 Minutes did not find a ghost city in Zhengzhou, they created one.
By the time 60 Minutes arrived, Zhengdong’s GDP was rising by 13.2% per year and had generated $1.22 billion in tax revenue the year before. 15 major banks, including HSBC, had their regional headquarters there, which were processing over 70% of deposits and 60% of all loans in Henan Province. On top of this, Zhengdong was home to 15 universities, which brought in 240,000 students and staff, as well as Foxconn’s notorious 300,000 worker “Apple City.” The place that 60 Minutes claimed to be uninhabited “for miles and miles and miles” actually had 2.5 million residents.
Though 60 Minutes wasn’t alone in their critique of Zhengdong. Dateline Australia did two reports on the place (one actually coming after the erroneous 60 Minutes segment), last year CNN said the new area had, “. . . rows and rows of luxury apartments and office buildings sat empty on vast, deserted boulevards,” and most every other major international news outlet followed suite with a similar narrative.
Since 60 Minutes and these other networks aired their ghost city report, Zhengdong continued gaining momentum. Zhengzhou’s first metro line went into operation, and was extended out to its CBD in December 2013. This metro line firmly tied the new district together with the old city, which is one of the prime criteria that needs to be satisfied before residents will flood into a fledgling new area. Over 5 million people are expected to live in Zhengdong by 2020. Eventually, Zhengzhou will be connected with neighboring Kaifeng via Zhengdong, creating a 20 million person megacity that will become the economic heartland of central China. This isn’t really the picture that 60 Minutes had painted.
Zhujiang is now the financial heart of Guangzhou. Sometimes the people who live there will call it their city’s center. Though it must be remembered that this new financial district wasn’t always so vibrant.
Construction on Zhujiang began in the early 90s as Guangzhou tried to match Shanghai punch for punch by adding what was then a novel concept: a financial district. While Shanghai’s Lujiazui flourished relatively quickly, Zhujiang floundered for over a decade. The project went through successive starts and stops, but eventually the area began sprouting skyscrapers, malls, vast boulevards, verdant parks, and world class landmarks, including Zaha Hadid’s opera house and the Canton Tower. The area was built for monumentality.
For an extended amount of time these grandiose structures appeared to have been built on false pretenses. They stood virtually empty, as local businesses and institutions were hesitant to move in. As Paul Wells blogged in February of 2012: “The only thing missing was people. . . It’s a fake opera house across the park from a fake shopping mall next to a fake hotel in a fake neighbourhood designed to snow gullible foreigners, not 100 km from villages whose residents live in grinding poverty.”
It is now mid-July, 2014. I have visited the Zhujiang CBD three times in the past three weeks. There was nothing about it that seemed out of the ordinary in terms of population, business density, and vibrancy. While parts of it are still under construction, what’s there is being utilized. I read Paul Wells’ report and what he described is incomprehensible from a viewpoint of how Zhujiang is now. What was just a couple of years ago a Potempkin monument to excess is now the central axis of China’s fourth most populated city.
These things can happen so quickly because they are the direct result of changes in government policy, not the humdrum of a gradual urban evolution under an overbearing, unchanging framework. When local governments in China build large scale new districts there is often a period that ensues where the local governments face off against the businesses and institutions that the new real estate was created for. As a developer told me in Nanhui, a massive and nearly uninhabited new city on the coast of Shanghai: “It’s just a matter of when the government is willing to give the right price. The only question here is when.”
It is also not uncommon for businesses and residents to hesitate before relocating into a new town. They are often extremely aggressive about buying up available office space and residential units, but extremely reluctant to move into it. This is with good reason: new districts and cities in China tend built out in the middle of nowhere, initially lacking good public transportation links and public facilities. Few people in China want to live far out of the city center in a new development that has, literally, almost nothing. But when these places are slated to become the new city centers — which is fairly common — everybody knows that they will eventually fully develop into very kinetic places. So they buy property and wait . . . This is the chicken or egg phase of new city building: few people want to move into a new city that doesn’t have a commercial presence and good public facilities and these things are slow to be developed in a place without people. In the words of the Nanhui developer, it’s just a matter of when.
In big cities like Guangzhou, the policies of local governments can act as triggers to make “when” come a little sooner. Zhujiang was vitalized similarly to how almost every other big new city in China is: the Guangzhou government resorted to outright fiat. They moved in SOEs they could control, government banks, some large government departments, and a 3 hectare lot was given to the U.S. Consulate. Local governments in China don’t build it and wait for them to come, they build it and make them come. The idea is to plant a catalyst of commerce and activity from which a viable economic and social base can organically grow out of. By the time this happens the metro lines are often dug, the highways are built, and a new center of a city has enough inertia for market forces to take over. This process takes time — vastly longer than the initial construction phase — which often leads to foreign visitors thinking these places are failed developments or ghost cities.
Zhujiang now sits at the crossroads of three major subway lines, it is the new center of the city.
You now look at the Pudong financial district – the place in Shanghai with all the skyscrapers that you see when you look across the Huangpu River from the Bund — and it’s easy to assume that it’s always been there. It is now one of the most iconic sights of China, and its towers form one of the most well known skylines in the world. But if you looked at the same scene 20 years ago you would only see the Oriental Pearl Tower, some warehouses, ramshackle fishing villages, and little else.
Within the lifetime of a university sophomore, Shanghai built one the most vibrant economic zones in the world from scratch. Though the entire process was mocked each step of the way by foreign analysts, economists, and journalists, who snickered at the city as though it were a kid wearing a suite two sizes too large. Most infamously, in 2001, Milton Friedman, called Pudong a “Potemkin village” and said that the Lujiazui financial district was, “Not a manifestation of the market economy but a statist monument for a dead pharaoh on the level of the pyramids.” A Time magazine editor called it “what-is-wrong-with-this-picture economics.” Pudong was China’s first ghost city.
Though Pudong did run at severe under-capacity for many years. In 1998, at the height of the Asian financial crisis, vacancy in Pudong was an incredible 70%, and many major international companies were pulling out or halting construction in the financial district. But by 2005 the fledgling new district was bouncing back. The Shanghai government made government own banks and businesses across the Huangpu and into the towers that were built for them in Lujiazui, as well as required foreign financial institutions to have a Pudong address as an exchange for accessing certain essential economic perks. To put it bluntly, they got the wheels spinning by brute force, and now Pudong’s annual GDP tops $400 billion and it’s financial district’s occupancy rate is higher than that of mid-town Manhattan. Nobody is calling Pudong a ghost town anymore.
If I’ve learned anything in the two and a half years that I’ve spent visiting and researching China’s so-called ghost cities and new urban areas, it’s that these places are long term projects that take many years beyond the initial construction phase to fully develop. Generally, timelines of 15 to 20 years are laid out to build and populate new cities and districts throughout China, and any critiques of failure before these timelines expire are fired prematurely. If given the proper amount of time, China’s larger scale new urban developments do fill up. Against all prevailing logic and in the face of international criticism, China’s new city movement is working. This is something that is perhaps more fascinating than cities without people.Published first on July 10, 2014