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Do China’s Ghost Cities Offer a Solution for Syrian Refugees?

Can the masses of Syrian refugees in need of places to live be moved into China’s millions of empty apartments?

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Nearly 150,000 Syrian refugees have already declared asylum in Europe and tens of thousands more are flooding the borders in search of places to live, meanwhile in China there are millions of new apartments sitting completely empty and entire sections of freshly constructed cities that are virtually uninhabited. This disparity between unmet housing need and oversupply has not been lost on many around the world, and after writing a book about China’s ghost cities I’ve recently found my email inbox getting flooded with suggestions such as this:

Do you think the Ghost Cities could be used, even as a temporary situation, to accommodate those displaced from Syria? It seems that many of the cities are just waiting for a community and here is a community that needs a city.

This sentiment is widespread across popular social media platforms, and on Twitter alone roughly 7 out of 10 results for searches pertaining to China’s ghost cities reveal tweets recommending the mass movement of Syrian refugees to these underpopulated urban terrains.

Realistically speaking, this suggestion isn’t worth analyzing with much depth. The political quagmire of relocating mass amounts of people across the planet — not to mention the fact that refugees need more than just housing — means that this is a far greater ordeal than simply assuaging demand with supply. Although this does shed light on the gulf that exists between the predominant international opinion on China’s so-called ghost cities and their present reality.

Even though there are between 20 and 45 million unoccupied homes across China, which account for roughly 600 million square meters of uninhabited floor space – enough to completely cover Madrid, these places are not the urban wastelands they are often posited to be. While many of China’s new cities and urban districts are deficient in people they are not deficient in owners. Nearly every apartment that goes on the market in China is quickly purchased, often at exorbitant prices that commonly range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Far from being unwanted infrastructure that could seamlessly be doled out to refugees, those arrays of vacant high-rises are actually the proud possessions of people who paid a lot of money for them.

So why would anyone spend incredible amounts of cash on houses they do not intent to use?

All over the world, the value of property extends beyond the utilitarian function of being a place to live. Real estate is also a vital economic entity which presents an avenue for investment as well as a way of storing wealth — a use of property that is taken to the extreme in China. “Many Chinese investors are buying property based on expectations of appreciation, and that it is a solid, safe investment that they can easily understand,” said Mark Tanner, the founding director of China Skinny, a Shanghai based marketing research firm.

A full 39 percent of individual wealth in China is kept in housing, and, according to Nomura, 21 percent of China’s urban households possess more than one home. The reasons for this desire to invest in housing often results from a lack of better options. China’s banks pay negative interest and are becoming even more unattractive with the recent wave of currency devaluation, wealth management products are not fully developed and are highly regulated by the government, and the stock market is viewed to be about as secure as a casino, which has again been validated by the current round of volatility.

A huge portion of the homes that are purchased in China function very much like stocks or a trade-able commodity. As an incredible amount of new apartments are sold as unfinished concrete cavities without any interior fit out or even windows, they are in no way immediately livable. Although they are very actively bought and sold in this bare-bones form, which is often preferred by investors. In many ways they are purely economic entities, quantifiable placeholders of value that are traded on the open market akin to precious metals. Just as one doesn’t need to mold a piece of gold into something usable like a piece of jewelry for it to have value and an economic function, an apartment in China doesn’t need to have people living in it for it to be economically viable.

“Empty units leave flexibility for quick sales in a changing market or need to cash in quickly,” said Barry Wilson, the founding director of Barry Wilson Project Initiatives, a Hong Kong based urban design firm.

Another reason for the sheer amount of unused apartments in China is the fact that there is often little financial incentive for owners to do anything with them after purchase. There is no yearly property tax in China, so vacant properties are not a financial drain on their owners. While the potential returns that could be had from renting them out (1% or so) is often not worth the hassle — especially because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to construct the interiors of new apartments in preparation for tenants. This is combined with the fact that Chinese homeowners, especially investors who have multiple properties, are remarkably un-leveraged. According to Mark Tanner, over 80% of homes in China are owned outright. This means that most homeowners, especially the big investors with multiple properties, generally don’t have any mortgages to pay off or any other leans, so there isn’t as much financial pressure to make a profit from these homes in the short term.

Even though a huge amount of empty apartments in China were purchased for economic reasons, many of them actually have owners who intend to occupy them at some point. A massive glut of China’s new apartments are located in large scale new development areas which are, by definition, new. The thinking is if you buy property in these emerging new areas early you can get a better price, so it is common for people to purchase homes in places that are not yet ready to support a large population with the understanding that they won’t be able to inhabit them for many years. Although as these new urban developments grow and evolve, more and more people eventually move into their homes. According to a report by Standard Chartered, between 2012 and 2014 the occupancy rate of Zhengzhou’s Zhengdong New District, which was prominently featured in 60 Minutes’ ghost cities report, doubled, while the population in Zhenjiang’s Dantu district quadrupled, and occupancy in Changzhou’s new Wujin district grew by 30 percentage points. As new areas develop the facilities, institutions, infrastructure, and businesses they need to be attractive to residents, vacant homes begin filling up as ghost cities come alive.

So while China may have tens of millions of empty apartments it doesn’t mean that they don’t serve an economic function, it doesn’t mean that they are unwanted, and it definitely doesn’t mean that they are just laying out in some urban no-mans-lands ripe for the taking.

This article was originally published on Reuters at Do China’s Ghost Cities Provide a Solution to Europe’s Refugee Crisis?


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Filed under: Articles, China, China’s Ghost Cities, New Cities, Refugees, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

8 comments… add one

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  • Mark Clulow December 23, 2015, 10:09 am

    In a word: NO. anyone suggesting otherwise doesn’t have the first clue about China hahaha

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    • Wade Shepard December 23, 2015, 11:31 am

      Definitely. I originally published this article with Reuters just to have the opportunity to talk about some peculiar aspects of China’s urban development strategy and housing market, but the reaction it got was incredible: people took the suggestion seriously. Incredible.

      Although I didn’t mention this in the story, for kicks I asked many Chinese people with unoccupied homes if they would lend out their places to refugees and almost invariably they all said yes. Interesting.

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      • Adam Nowek December 25, 2015, 11:00 am

        Considering the way the country is treating Muslims in Xinjiang, Syrian refugees would be smart to avoid China like the plague.

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        • nepali hercules December 30, 2015, 8:25 am

          yea china doesn’t treat terrorists very well.

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      • Nick January 7, 2016, 2:31 pm

        “I asked many Chinese people with unoccupied homes if they would lend out their places to refugees and almost invariably they all said yes. Interesting”

        You probably already know this but because of “mian zi”, people in China will always give an answer (especially to white foreigners) that puts them in the best light. In reality, what they say and how they feel often has no connection whatsoever. I lived in China for a long time, my aunts/uncles, grandparents and extended family all live in China. I know very well that the majority of property owners in China would never lend out their places to Syrian refugees (not without a huge fee at least).

        If Chinese homeowners are perfectly willing to let migrant workers live in rat tribes, it is obvious they wouldn’t treat an “outsider” (especially one that is perceived to be of lower class) any better.

        Nevertheless, those same Chinese homeowners, if they got interviewed by a foreigner or someone they wanted to impress (who gave a sympathetic tone to the refugees – even subconsciously), I would also be very surprised if they gave an honest answer and said “No, screw the Syrians”.

        Remember, China is the land of half truths. You never take words at face value.

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      • sunil February 13, 2016, 3:48 am

        They were just being polite.

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  • WINTHROP allen December 22, 2016, 11:52 pm

    The Chinese residential hi-rises may become the prototype for low-cost housing, worldwide. The Syrians could be relegated to such a building anyplace in the world.
    Methinks they would hate it, hate being so far from “the street.”

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    • Wade Shepard February 5, 2017, 3:28 am

      “The street” in these places are not where the cars drive, but on the inside, where they can be pretty lively.

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