Featuring everything from sports stadiums to shopping malls, hundreds of new urban areas in China stand empty, with hundreds more set to be completed by 2030. Between now and then, the country’s urban population will leap to over one billion, as the central government kicks its urbanization initiative into overdrive. In the process, traditional social structures are being torn apart, and a rootless, semi-displaced, consumption oriented culture is rapidly taking their place. Ghost Cities of China is an enthralling dialogue-driven, on-location search for an understanding of China’s new cities and the reasons why many have not yet attracted sizable populations.
“A well-reported and fascinating primer on China’s ghost cities. Wade Shepard cuts through the sensational coverage of China’s infrastructure boom to deliver an eye-opening piece of reportage on the topic. A refreshing primer on China’s complex and often misunderstood property market.” -Rob Schmitz, Marketplace’s Shanghai Bureau Chief
“Shepard exposes both the myths and realities of China’s ghost cities; haunted spaces, which are not dead and abandoned, but rather have yet to come to life.” -Anna Greenspan, author of Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade
“Wade Shepard provides an intriguing overview to a phenomenon that combines two of this century’s biggest narratives: global urbanization and the unprecedented growth of China.” -Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding
Ordos Kangbashi, China’s most infamous ghost city.
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From the author
Ghost Cities of China was my first book, and covers the two and a half years that I spent in China’s sparsely populated new cities. During the course of this project I traveled from the 80-million-person+ Yangtze River Delta mega-region, down to the giant empty malls of Guangdong; from Shanghai’s ring of faux European copycat towns to the new cities popping up on the Russian border; from the eco-cities of Chengdu to colossal new cities rising up out of the desert of Inner Mongolia. In all, I hunted for ghost cities in 27 of China’s provinces and unraveled the mystery of why they exist and what their function is, and along the way learned a lot about the true nature of modern journalism as well as the art of travel in the 21st century. From the preface:
As I walked I could hear myself breathing, I could hear my boots hitting concrete, the wind blowing, and little else. It’s the silence that makes China’s ghost cities so startling. It’s not just the deficit of people, but the fact that sound waves just become lost in the extensive empty space between buildings, across streets, and over barren construction lots. You can watch the scant few people there are cycling or driving cars but essentially hear nothing. This feeling of vertigo is compounded by the fact that everything in these places appears so familiar, yet seems so unreal. There are skyscrapers, high-rises, shopping malls, boulevards and parks, but the absence of masses of humanity pouring through them makes it all seem like a life-sized version of the little plastic scale models of cities that are proudly displayed in the offices of architecture firms. There is something about these places that your senses detect as being false, like a basket of plastic fruit sitting before the easel of an art student painting a still life, but your rationale tells you that it is all very much for real.
There is a thrill to travelling to China’s new cities. As in an abandoned Rust Belt factory, you don’t know what you’re going to find in them. You never know what is going to be around the next corner, down the dusty halls of the next deserted shopping mall, or up the next half-built skyscraper. Many of these places are not even on the map yet; the most recent satellite imagery is already outdated, still showing them to be villages or empty construction lots. When you go to one of China’s big new urban developments you know that there is a chance that you may be in one of the world’s next landmark cities, staring upon what will soon become a hub of commerce and trade, though you also know that you may be in the pre-emptive ruins of the next white elephant. Either prospect is exhilarating, and to see these places now is to take away a mnemonic snapshot from the summit of a social, political and economic upheaval like the world has never known before. What side of the slope China’s new cities will roll down will define the country’s future and impact the world. Right now only one thing is certain: something big is happening here.
But this book doesn’t just tell the story of China’s unique and often misunderstood urban development strategies, but also the story of how a once impoverished country transformed itself into a modern powerhouse by all out fiat. What I saw over those years on the fringes of the New China was history in the making, and understanding processes by which China operates is now more important than ever, as the country branches out across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe via the Belt and Road.
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What other’s are saying
“. . . offers an interesting glimpse of the strange path China is taking on its march to modernization.” -Chatham House
“In this succinct study of a country bulldozed to make way for generic conurbations, China Chronicle editor Wade Shepard dispenses the facts with chilling clarity. As he examines mountains literally moved, relocations on a gargantuan scale and the duplication of Hallstatt, Austria, in Guangdong province, a stunned awe sets in.” -Nature
“For anyone who has visited China beyond the usual tourist destinations and wonders why a large railway station has been built in the middle of a desert, or where the roads with no cars go to, or whether anyone will ever live in the multiplying tower blocks, Wade Shepard’s book provides some answers.” -The Socialist Review
“Ghost Cities of China is an accessible look at one aspect of urban development in China that may help to illuminate others, by an author who holds strong opinions about the state of architecture and planning in China.” -Environment and Urbanization
“There is much to enjoy in this energetic if chaotic account: the landscape Shepard travels is so strange and monumental that it is hard to avoid being fascinated.” -The New Statesman
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