China often stimulates growth in its new cities and districts with massive university towns.
So you have this massive new city that you just built. You have the downtown area equipped with buildings for shopping malls, corporate offices, and government buildings; you have a new husk of a high-tech zone; you have a half dozen high-rise apartment complexes. Now how do you get any people to move there?
The first and probably the most pronounced challenge for China’s urbanization movement is the catch-22 of new city building: few people are going to move into a city without a commercial base and facilities, and these entities are slow to develop in a place without people.
There are a few marked demographics in China’s under-populated new cities: there are construction workers, developers, and students.
But China has ways of doing just this. The way China populates their new cities is simple: they make people move into them. If there is one thing China has a large supply of, it’s people, and one of the biggest tools the government has is that it can control the movements of large numbers of them, shifting the population around the country as a military commander maneuvers troops on a battlefield. So when a large scale new city or new urban district
like Pudong, Zhengdong New Area, and Guangzhou’s Zhujiang.
Universities are a major tool in China’s urbanization scheme, and are used to break the inertia of the “chicken or egg” scenario of new town development: Businesses and public institutions and facilities are slow to move into a place if there are no people and few people are going to move to a place where there is nowhere to shop, find entertainment, and buy food.
One of the primary ways that China begins the vitalization process of its its large scale new cities, districts, and towns is to build massive university towns near them and then ship in multiple campuses. The idea is that bringing a large amount of students, faculty, and staff into a developing area will seed an initial population base that can start to get the commercial wheels spinning and help bring the area to life. In this way, China’s students are turned into troops of urbanization, and are mobilized like armies and sent to study in fledgling new towns.
As the universities where students are permitted to study at in China is determined by government educational agencies via the gaokao university entrance exam, it’s rather easy to turn hundreds of thousands of them into residents of new cities that are in need of a population. Sure, you can study in university, just so you do so in a ghost city.
So China’s under-inhabited new cityscapes are often turned into epicenters of youth. Nanhui, a new city 60 kilometers from the core of Shanghai, is a shining example of this. There are eight universities lined up one after the other along the western edge of the city. Three additional universities will soon be added, creating a university town for more than 100,000 students.
The effect of this forced migration was clear when you walked down the streets of Nanhui during its early developmental phases. There was pretty much nobody but students there, riding bicycles around the central lake, walking hand in hand, and gangs of boys in track suits jocularly pushing each other around. Without these young people Nanhui would have been dead.
I caught up with a couple of students in front of a deserted new high-tech park. They were from Shandong province in the northeast, and I asked them if they liked living in Nanhui. They both grimaced at the same time, and one said that he did not like it very much.
“What do you do for fun?” I asked.
Neither had any idea, though they had been living there for three years. “There is a park over there,” the girl finally quipped. Although it was clear from how she said it that she didn’t really go there very often. The guy countered by saying that they study a lot. I couldn’t fault them; what would I do in this remote outpost of progress?
“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 rather poignantly meant, ‘I don’t care, stop asking me these questions.’
I met another student by a bus stop who had come to Nanhui all the way from Gansu province in the far west of the country. Her name was Ju Jing. I saw her university when I rode into town — it was on the far outskirts of a new city that was on the far outskirts of everything. I could only imagine the shock that she must have felt after traveling across the country to go to university in Shanghai, the world’s most populated city, only to end up exiled in a partially built new city with hardly any people, 60 kilometers removed from any place remotely urban.
“Were you surprised when you first arrived in Nanhui?” I asked.
“Yes, I was surprised,” she replied with a shrug, but didn’t seem too emotionally involved in the topic.
“What is life like living here?” I questioned.
“It is very easeful,” she replied.
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 said again and turned the screen towards me to prove it.
Easeful is perhaps the best way to describe life in these new cities. Being flung outside the bounds of the intensely kinetic urban spheres of China means being removed from many of the inherent problems of these cities. There is very little traffic in China’s new urban developments, there are no crowds, no lines, often very little pollution, the public facilities are not overused, everything is new, there is no rush to get anywhere, less pressure to be fashionable, no fighting for taxis, no being crammed into subway cars. Life is slow in China’s ghost cities, people know each other in these places, all is quiet and the days are long — easeful is right.
“Do you like Nanhui?” I asked.
“The air is clean here.”
“I think it is interesting because it’s a new city that was just built.”
“It is not interesting,” she interrupted.
“Are you angry that you were sent to school here in Nanhui rather than being closer to downtown Shanghai?”
“Not really, not angry.”
If I was given a list of universities that I could attend and I chose one in Shanghai and ended up shipped off to a ghost city as some kind of urbanization tool I’d probably feel a little cheated. But while all of the students that I talked to in Nanhui professed some loathing for the location of their school they all seemed comfortably resigned to their fates and didn’t really seem apt to complain — a rather showing cultural trait.
“Do you think there will be more people here in the future?” I asked Ju Jing.
“Yes.” She spoke as though the matter wasn’t debatable.
“Why,” I asked.
“Because the government will make people come here.”
“With universities and companies.”
A fact she knew first hand.
Many other cities across China have stimulated their new districts in a similar fashion as Nanhui. Longzihu College Park sits in the heart of Zhengdong New District in the east of Zhengzhou, which was once infamously known as China’s largest ghost city. Construction began on it in 2003, when the entire 150 square kilometer new district was little other than fresh construction land and agricultural fields. It is now home to 15 university campuses that bring over 240,000 students and staff. Dachang township in northern Shanghai was just farms and villages in the 1990s. When the area began urbanizing the first thing the city did was build a new campus for Shanghai University. For some years it sat as a sterile new development — an ivy outpost sprouting up from farm country — but eventually the streets began filling up with restaurants, bars, karaoke parlors, department stores, and international fast-food and coffee chains. Shanghai also built a 533-hectare university city which now houses new campuses for eight large universities to bolster development in Songjiang, a rapidly developing suburb. Chenggong in Kunming and Longgang in Shenzhen, among others, have also built large university towns to vitalize their new urban districts.
Generally speaking, developing these new university towns isn’t usually something where a struggling new city is like, “Hey, we really need to attract some more people and business, let’s build a university town.” More often these educational districts are part of a master development plan of a new area and are very much hardwired into the design.
That said, university towns and new cities have a symbiotic relationship in China. The country’s university system is expanding incredibly fast, absorbing millions of new students over the past decade, and there is a very real need for new campuses to accommodate these surging masses. At the same time, new university campuses need large amounts of space, which is usually not readily available, and is extremely expensive if it is, in the crowded cores of established cities. So, conveniently, these new campuses are often shipped out to new developments in the outskirts, where there is plenty of space for their development.
Once built, these educational zones will attract, literally, hundreds of thousands of students and staff, who will start stimulating the new city’s fledgling local economy and help break the paradox of development.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 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. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
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