The first thing that many visitors to Shanghai will see is a ghost city. If you look down out of the window when flying into Shanghai’s Pudong airport from the south, right at the point where Hangzhou Bay and makes landfall, you will see a nose-like protrusion of land sticking out into the water. On the tip of this nose is a strange assemblage of concentric circles radiating out from a perfectly circular lake. If you hear your fellow air passenger’s exclaiming, “What is that place!?!” their reaction is appropriate: no other city in the world looks like Nanhui. As you curiously peer down you will not see many people, cars, or signs of life. This is not because the people are hiding, it’s because they’re not there yet. Nanhui is another of China’s full scale new cities that are being built from scratch, ever expanding the frontiers of urbanization.
Watch the video to get a better look at this place
This circular city, which formally went by the names Luchao Harbor City and Lingang, is a $5.6 billion satellite development 60 km from the core of Shanghai in the far southeastern corner of Pudong. It was built for one reason: to serve as an urban center to support the nearby Yangshan Free Trade Zone, which includes the Yangshan Deep Water Port and the Lingang Industrial Zone. The economic sparks caused by these catalysts are expected to eventually bring 800,000 people into Nanhui by 2020, turning it into a commercial and tourism epicenter on an otherwise uneventful coastline.
I boarded a bus at the Longyang metro stop in Pudong bound for Nanhui. I got on a bus that was crammed with students and rode past farms, magnificent three to five story rural villas, construction sites, patches of trees, stagnant canals, quaint Europe-esque town centers, and a shear overabundance of completely deserted new housing complexes and empty strip malls. The place is out there. Halfway through the ride it became apparent that Nanhui is in no way connected to Shanghai other than administratively. It is a new city in it’s own right in a place that has always been a backwater — or, more accurately, underwater.
A decade ago, beneath the coaxial circles of Nanhui was nothing but ocean. Since Shanghai began refacing itself a couple of decades ago, over two million residents have had their homes demolished and were relocated. 70,000 farmers had already been chased out of their homes to build the nearby Lingang Industrial and Logistics Zone. Relocations are always a costly maneuver, financially as well as socially, but fresh development land is incredibly valuable. So Shanghai decided to just make more land. In 1997, a dam was built off the coast which acted as a trap for soil deposits coming out of Hangzhou Bay, and the area in between silted up on its own. It only took five or six years for enough land to be reclaimed to build the new city on. “Farm land is extremely precious,” the director of architecture firm that designed Nanhui told me, “especially along the coast where the cities are growing. So it seemed to make sense to build into the sea.” 45% of Nanhui’s 133 sq km is on reclaimed land.
I stepped off the bus onto this man-made land outside of Shanghai Maritime University, which sits just beyond Nanhui’s outer ring road. The emptiness out there was more jarring than the cold December sea breezes which slashed unimpeded across miles of golden fields. In the distance there was a small white city hovering saucer-like between blue sky and brown wetlands. Ivory colored mid-rise towers and apartment blocks bulked up its central area but quickly tapered out at both sides into green construction sites, then nothing. There was nothing between me and the city besides grasses, sedges, and reeds.
Construction on Nanhui began in 2003 and is set to continue until 2020, and even from my vantage point far outside of the downtown area, it was clear that I was gazing out upon an unfinished product. Most of this city had not yet sprouted above the surface. As with most of China’s new cities, what you look upon today is hardly a rough sketch of what these places will be in the near future. They are works in progress, places becoming places.
“The inspiration was the image of a drop falling into the water and these circles create the structure of the city,” a project manager from GMP told me. Three concentric ring roads encircle a 2.5 km wide man-made lake with radial streets and canals connecting them all together. Throughout the rings, seashell-white buildings vacillate with verdant green parks, while waterways cut their paths out from the central lake, making the place looks like a fancy compass rose if viewed from above. Capacity for 800,000 residents is being constructed.
In every way this place is not only meant to be an urban center but a monument. These places are built up from nothing on a singular plan, often with the intention of creating a quasi-utopia that is virtually the opposite of the old cities they are designed to replace. If any country has enough data on how cities shouldn’t be, it’s China, and their new cities are often reactions against the engineering mishaps of past eras of development. Nanhui is a planned city in every sense, it is like someone drew an urban plan on a giant piece transfer paper and pressed it down upon the land. The result is in an urban landscape that is unlike anything humans have ever built before, and is as much a work of art as it is a city — and it shows the power of a country that can do things like this. The question is whether anybody wants to live in such a place.
I walked for ten minutes along the outer ring road to a radial that cut into the central city. A small strip mall at the edge of town had a KFC, a department store, and a few restaurants. There were trucks parked on the sides of the streets that were full of oranges. Students were picking through them. People were walking out of the supermarket with bags of groceries. The KFC was packed like always. The housing complexes around this part of town had a pulse, there were people in the streets and the apartments had clothes drying on the balconies and air conditioners hanging outside the windows.
There are currently 50,000 people living here now, though roughly 80% of the new properties in this city are currently owned by speculators — investors who buy houses they have no intention of living in. Once you walk farther into town you can see the entire blocks of deserted housing. Some have already begun the descent into ruins. “As it is with these uninhabited cities that you have all over China at the moment,” I was told, “it’s really shocking how fast buildings are in really bad shape. If they are empty they fall apart quickly.”
Larger than life
There was a blip of action, then nothing. In five minutes I had walked through what I later realized was the most vibrant part of town. The KFC was the center of activity here. Beyond that, Nanhui is desolate, empty — a still-life of a city. Its highways are wide enough to land an airplane on and the blocks so large that entire neighborhoods are contained within them. On some streets I doubt that an NFL quarterback could throw a ball from one side to the other. We’re talking 150+ meters from building face to building face here. It took me over twenty minutes to walk from one radial road to another. This city is simply not built on a human scale, to navigate it on foot is a ridiculous endeavor. This is a vehicle city, a place for cars, mopeds, bicycles — some form of transport is needed just to go to the next street corner. Moving through this circular city feels like playing that children’s game where you need to roll a little ball through a maze that’s enclosed in a plastic disk. You’re the ball.
Building cities on larger than life scales is a hallmark of China’s new city movement, and it is only recently, when people actually began living in these places in larger numbers, that the detrimental effects of this design are coming to light. Street life is non-existent in these places — even the ones with people — and everybody drives. Superblock cities fulfill their own prophecy: build large roads to accommodate traffic and more people will drive cars. It’s an unconquerable Catch-22. Superblocks are an element of the urban design of past, the West soured on them 20 years ago, not the future. Permanently baking in poor design elements is one of the obvious fundamental drawbacks of planed cities, and China’s first round of new city building has produced more than a few duds. After talking with Nanhui’s designers it is clear that they are aware of this problem, but there is little that anybody can do about it now.
A planned city can only be as good as the plan. Unfortunately, many of the intentional urban centers that are being built in China are not just being designed by architects and professional urban planners but government officials, who many not know much of anything about how a city should be built. Nanhui fell victim to this. The architecture firm submitted their concept and the Shanghai planning commission set to work dismantling it. In the original design, the central lake was supposed to be significantly smaller, but, in an attempt to usurp bragging rights, the local government wanted it to be larger than Hangzhou’s famous West Lake. So the size was increased, spreading out the entire grid of Nanhui, making it a place better suited for Titans than mere humans. China’s national design conventions are also responsible for the incredibly wide streets. Apparently, it’s felt that almost all new roads laid in the country should be as wide as they are in Beijing — wide enough to drive a squadron of tanks down. The result are cities devoid of street life, where everybody must drive to get anywhere. The result are cities that are better viewed from above, when government officials take their cronies up for helicopter flyovers to bask in the glory of their creations.
As I walked around the middle ring road of Nanhui I could hear myself breathing, my boots hitting the concrete, the wind blowing, and little more. It’s the silence that makes China’s ghost cities chilling. It’s not just the deficit of people, but the fact that sound waves become lost in the gregarious amounts of space between buildings, across streets, and through parks. You can watch people bicycling or driving cars but essentially hear nothing. It’s like the sound suddenly being cut in the middle of a movie. Auditory vertigo.
This feeling is doubly manifested by the fact that everything in these places appears so familiar. These new cities are like 1:1 scale models of themselves. The are perfectly planned, perfectly placed, perfectly built, like the little renders on display in architecture firms. Though they look like normal cities, but something about them just doesn’t feel right. Like processed cheese, everyone says it’s real but somewhere down deep you know it’s not.
I now stood in the city center before its largest buildings and biggest landmarks, but all was dead still and quiet. In the most built up part of town I was the only person on the streets. It was as though a giant vacuum was hovered overhead and sucked everything up like dust, leaving only the infrastructure behind. I walked down the city’s main radial road past massive shopping malls, corporate towers, office blocks, hotels, and government offices. Props all. Many of these large buildings had signs with company names on their roofs, mannequins and generic posters of fashion models displayed in their windows, but it was all a hoax: the malls had no stores, the corporate towers had no offices, and the shops were 99% devoid of tenants. Potemkin, but for real.
Like stories of the facades of faux buildings that were built to impress a Russian empress, China’s new cities initially play a similar role. A massive, complex downtown district is often rushed into production and built within a matter of a couple years. This central core is then used by local officials to awe their superiors and woo investors and increase the confidence of lenders. These areas are often not meant to be inhabited at first — they are virtually uninhabitable — and they are basically showcases of what the place will become once the rest of the city is built and ready to go. This is the Potemkin phase of China’s new city building. It is temporary.
Students: Troops of Urbanization
A decent portion of Nanhui has been constructed, investors have bought up everything, and real estate consultants are scouring the barren fields for the next big score. Now the city is trying to build enough inertia to attract a population and business base.
“It seems difficult for companies to commit to move out there,” one of the city’s architects told me, “because it’s so far away, not well connected, and you can’t get many highly educated staff to work there. It’s just been 10 years now that this city is being developed. It’s the hen and egg problem: how do you get people to move there if there are too few facilities, shopping districts, and so on, but how do you move shops there when there are no people?”
She then answered her own questions: “In China, they have the means to force these things.”
The way they do this is simple: when the government wants to populate a place, they forced people to move there. This means shipping in SOEs, government offices, and, especially, universities.
Universities are a major tool in China’s urbanization scheme, and are used to traverse the Catch-22 of China’s new city movement: nobody is going to move into an empty city and empty cities will stay that way until people move in. The game here is to break this cycle of redundancy and plant catalysts upon which a viable commercial base can be built to attract more residents which will attract commercial enterprises which will attract more residents . . . as the city comes to life. If there is anything that China has a large supply of it’s people, and one of the biggest assets that the Chinese government has is that they can control the movements of large numbers of them — moving citizens around the country like a military commander does troops. So millions of university students and government employees are being mobilized and deployed into new cities around the country. Doing so is simple, they just move the places they study and work into the places they want them to go. So new university campuses, government offices, and centers for government owned businesses will often be built in new developments as part of the initial vitalization plan.
Students are essentially used as urbanization tools, and China’s virtually uninhabited new cityscapes are often turned into epicenters of youth. In Nanhui, there are eight universities lined up one after the other along the western edge of the city. Another three additional universities are currently being sent there which will be combined together into a single 100,000 student behemoth. When all is said and done, Shanghai will create a base of residents in Nanhui made up of hundreds of thousands of students alone.
I met a couple of students outside of what will someday become Nanhui’s hi-tech park. They were from Shandong province, and I asked them if they liked living here. They both grimaced. “What do you do for fun?” I asked. They had no idea. They had been living here for three years and has still have not found anything to do. “There is a park over there,” one of them finally quipped. The other said they study a lot.
“Where are all the people?” I asked, wondering what they would say.
“It’s a new district, it’s still under construction,” the girl spoke, “the people will come later.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug that more accurately meant ‘I don’t care.’
I met another student on a bus who had come to Nanhui from Gansu province in the far west of the country. I thought of the shock these students must of had after traveling across the country to go to university in Shanghai, the world’s most populated city, only to end up in a partially built new development with hardly any people.
“Were you surprised when you first arrived in Nanhui?”
“Yes, I was surprised,” she replied with a passionless shrug.
“Are you angry that you were sent to school here in Nanhui rather than being closer to downtown Shanghai?”
“Not really, not angry.” She shrugged.
If I was shipped off to a ghost city to be used as some kind of urbanization tool I imagine that I’d probably feel a little cheated.
“What is life like living here?”
“It is very easeful,” she replied, trying out her new English.
I must have shown surprise at her word choice, so she punched it into the translator app on her phone to double check. “Easeful,” she then said again, and turned the screen towards me to prove that it really said that.
As it turns out, easeful is perhaps the best way to describe life in these new cities. Being flung outside the bounds of the overly kinetic urban spheres of China means being removed from many of the inherent problems of such. There is very little traffic in China’s new cities, there are no crowds, no lines, often very little pollution, the public facilities are not overused and old, there is no rush to get anywhere, less pressure to be fashionable, no fighting for taxis, no being crammed into subway cars, you know your neighbors and recognize people walking down the street. Life is slow in ghost cities everywhere, daily activities are ground down to the essentials, as there really isn’t much else to do. They truly are easeful.
“Do you think there will be more people here in the future?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied positively, as though the matter was uncontested.
“Why,” I asked.
“Because the government will make people come here.”
“With universities and companies.”
This she knew.
China’s system for populating their new cities is a totalitarian endeavor, but it works. Dachang Township in another part of Shanghai went from being a quasi-rural backwater to a new suburb in a matter of years after Shanghai University put a large campus there. Zhengdong new district, in Zhengzhou, is a place infamously labeled “China’s largest ghost city,” but there are now more than 15 universities there that bring in more than 240,000 students and staff. In Chenggong, Kunming’s new city, there are many key universities, including Yunnan University and Yunnan Normal University. Though university students are not generally known for having an extreme amount of disposable income, having a hundred thousand of them in a new town buying day to day necessities, basic entertainment, and eating in restaurants is enough to give birth to a local economy and start the ball rolling.
The Financial Frontier
Marco sat shotgun next to the taxi driver and obviously headed the team. I was in the backseat. I was standing on the side of the road, out in the barren, yet to be developed fields that surround Nanhui, trying to hitch a ride back to town, and he picked me up. He was precisely the guy I was looking for. I would speak of coincidence here, but there are really only three types of people in China’s new cities: 1) students, 2) construction workers, and 3) developers. Marco was the third type.
He was born in China but educated in England, which was clearly expressed by a perfect London accent. He was around 32 years old, wore stylish sunglasses, had a neatly cropped mustache and beard, and dressed sharp. He admitted, or perhaps boasted, that he was an east/ west cultural hybrid. He was the character that’s made for these new cities — which like him are a mix of east and west.
“What do you think of this place?” I asked him.
“It has potential,” he spoke as he looked out over miles and miles of virgin urban construction land.
Potential is exactly what is being bought and sold here. Potential is the crack shaft which drives China’s new city movement.
“Why would someone want to invest here?” I questioned.
“You have to get in early,” he replied, and then paused for effect as he looked out across the vacant lots, dreaming of what he was going to put out there. “Nobody knows what is going to happen here,” he added rather mystically.
He was scouting out a potential site for a hotel on an artificial island floating in the central lake.
I scoffed. “Who do you think will come to this hotel? There really isn’t much going on here.”
“Don’t worry, man, all that will change,” he replied with a chuckle. “It is just a matter of time,” he said.
We were now in the downtown district. “They will all be filled,” he said as we rolled through an entire city of empty buildings. “It’s just a matter of when the government is willing to give the right price. I give it five or six years, then this place will be filled.” He paused for a moment before concluding, “The only question here is when.”
His sentiment seemed to have been common among developers here. The day before two plots of development land sold for record prices. Zhou said they went for three times the price he predicted they would go for. A 4,537.8 square meter lot was auctioned off for $24 million, a 445.45% premium over the initial offering. While a nearby plot sold for $37.8 million, a 427.4% premium. These sales sent ripples through the Shanghai real estate market, prompting Xue Jianxiong, the director of CRIC, a Chinese property sale analysis firm, to state that “laymen” had contributed to the “irrational” prosperity of the Shanghai property market. But rationale is not a highly prized quality in a feeding frenzy.
I asked Zhou why he thought they sold for such high prices. “Bubble,” he responded, and then paused for a moment before continuing. “It’s all one massive bubble, and it will explode.” I asked him what he thought would happen if his prediction did come to pass. “Don’t worry, man,” he replied with a flippant laugh, “the government will take care of it. The government will lose a lot of money but we will be fine.”