I sound off about ghost cities and the disparity between what the international media reports and what is evident on the ground.
This is the English version of an interview that originally appeared in Chinese on the popular Chinese site, Blog Weekly.
How many Chinese ghost cities have you been so far? How did you find them?
Before I can state how many ghost cities I’ve been to in China we first need to define what, in the Chinese context, a ghost city really is. Every city in China currently has sprawling new towns, sub-cities, and districts that are often scantly populated or have gone through prolonged periods of being under-populated. If we say that these are all ghost cities then I’ve been to hundreds. But if we count only the places that the international media has formally dubbed as ghost cities, then maybe three dozen or so.
I spent two and a half years visiting these new and underpopulated places around China, and there are so many that they’ve really created a “new normal” for urban conditions in the country. So it’s not really accurate to treat them like they are anything special — they’re just everywhere, and people have become so accustom to them that they often don’t even really seem to think they are anything unusual. So many times during the course of these travels I would go into places that have been called ghost cities by the international media and I would mention this to the people who live there and ask them what they think about their city receiving this label. Very often they would respond with surprise — they had no idea they were living in a “ghost town.”
How do you find ghost cities in China? You just get on a bus, ride it to the outskirts of a big city, get off, and look — almost invariably there will be a new urban development that was just built or is under construction.
How have ghost cities changed since you first spotted them?
Throughout the course of doing research for this book I’ve seen many ghost cities, or new cities as they should be called, go from being places that really didn’t have much of anything but empty buildings and unused roads to places that have attracted relatively substantial population and business bases. Needless to say, it takes a significant amount of time for something as large as a completely new city to be developed, and these places are often not inhabitable for years after their downtown sections are built. If you come into these places during this stage it is easy to call them ghost cities, but it must be taken into account that they are still in the process of being developed and most of the larger scale ones will continue evolving and growing. Places like Dantu (Zhenjiang), Zhengdong (Zhenzhou), and Wujin (Changzhou) have had their occupancy rates more than double since I began researching them.
You raised a series of provocative points in your book. For example, you think housing vacancy rates are not an adequate criterion for declaring a place a ghost city, which may surprise many readers. Do you have research data to support your opinion?
When we have an urban area of hundreds of 30+ story high-rises, even if they are half empty we still have a large amount of people living there. When we are talking about urban areas that are designed for high population densities, the amount of empty apartments is almost irrelevant when determining if a place is a ghost city or not. Better questions to ask are:
How many people are living there per square kilometer?
How much GDP is the area generating?
Are the shops making money?
What is the business turnover rate?
How many empty shops are there?
Is the place economically self-sufficient or do residents need to travel somewhere else to shop?
Does the place have what people need — schools, hospitals, etc — to actually live there yet?
How many people are in the streets, driving cars, shopping? How active is the social life?
What is the broader development plan? Is this town going to be interconnected with others in the future? (This question is especially important).
To talk about research data, Peking University recently did a big study on China’s “ghost cities” using Baidu’s user data. According to them a ghost city is a place that has fewer than 5,000 residents per square kilometer (half of the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development’s recommended standard for population density). By this definition nearly every city in the West would be a ghost town. A case in point: London has a population density of 4,542 people per square kilometer.
China has created a new urban condition where entire swaths of cities that are neither completely empty nor completely full, places where people live but still have a massive amount of vacancy. But does this mean that they should automatically qualify as ghost cities? No way. According to a police investigation in 2012, it was found that nearly 29% of the homes in Beijing didn’t have people living in them. Does this mean Beijing is a ghost city? No, it just means that there are a lot of empty apartments, which isn’t necessarily the same thing.
The economic role that real estate plays in China also cannot be underestimated. 39% of personal wealth in the country is kept in housing and 21% of urban families own more than one home. So a huge portion of those empty apartments that we see are actually vital economic entities for the people who own them — just because a house in China is empty doesn’t mean that it’s not being used.
A better definition of a ghost city is a defunct urban area that is no longer being developed, where there are not the facilities that a sizable population needs to live there, where people cannot buy what they need to survive, places that have failed, have been forgotten, and are falling to ruins — not places that are still in the process of development.
What are other popular but false images of ghost cities you find?
Part of the misunderstanding about China’s new cities often arises from the fact that China can build what appears to be cities remarkably quickly — often within the span of five years or so — but developing them into places that can actually sustain a population takes significantly more time. When China first builds a full scale new city a magnificent, downtown core is often built first. This is done to nail in the piton that the rest of the project hangs off of — it tells developers, investors, potential property buyers, and other governmental entities that this place is for real, it is actually being built, and is not just a concept. But these places are often not immediately ready for people to move in, as they often lack vital essentials like schools, hospitals, and public transportation. For the most part they are 1:1, real to life scale renders of what the place will be like once fully developed. People will buy property in places like this, but few are actually going to move in. So they sit empty for a period of time that could be called the ghost city phase.
The ghost city phase can last anywhere from 5 to 15 years, depending on economic, infrastructural, and government factors, but eventually essential institutions and services are usually added, residents begin trickling in, and everyone forgets that the place was once a ghost town.
To put it bluntly, ghost cities are news, ex-ghost cities are not.
This brings me to my next point: Part of the problem with the ghost city narrative is that some international reporters went into a few of China’s new cities during the early phases of their development and declared them ghost towns. When the first ghost city reports came out about Ordos Kanghbashi, construction had only begun a mere five years before. Of course there wasn’t going to be many people living there then, at that time the place wasn’t really ready to be inhabited yet. No country in the world, not even China, can build and populate an entire city in such a short amount of time. Beyond this, some new cities in China — such as the new district of Xinyang — were construction sites at the time some western media sources began making a big deal that they looked empty in satellite images. At the time I was on the ground in Xinyang people were not even being allowed to move in yet. Needless to say, city building is a long term process, a fact that some international reporters who are determined to create the hype which generates page views refuse to understand.
Another big misconceptions about many of China’s new cities is that empty houses don’t have owners and are unwanted infrastructure ripe for the taking. Especially in tier 1 and 2 cities, most of those empty apartments are owned by people who paid a massive amount of money for them and value them highly.
Why does China have such a distinctive urbanization process? What are the advantages and disadvantages compared to western countries?
In short, because it’s China, and everything about China is distinctive. This is a country that does things its own way and trying to frame it within the Western model is like putting a round peg in a square hole — it just doesn’t fit.
A top-down government that can conceive and carry out incredibly large development projects is one of the main factors that has really shaped China’s urbanization process, as has the fact that the country was and is economically able to pursue very, very expensive initiatives that other countries couldn’t even consider. To put it simply, western countries can’t kick millions of people out of their homes and demolish thousands of towns and villages to build new cities. They just don’t have the political might, the legal systems, the funding, or even the will to make this happen.
So it is difficult to compare the urbanization process of China with that of other countries because the scale and context are completely different. China intentionally set out to completely rebuild itself. The government drew up a master plan that consisted of building hundreds of new cities and an extensive transportation network within a few decades. While in the west it takes cities decades just to build a mere mono-rail.
A developer in Nanhui once asked me how new cities are built in American, and it made me burst out laughing — the very idea that a full scale new city would be built in America at this point is inconceivable. We’re just not doing this.
Zhengdong New Distric has a population of more than 1 million in 2015. Does this mean it is a success now? When to know if a “ghost city” is successful or not?
I suppose whether a new district is successful or not depends on its goals. The initial goals of many of China’s large scale new developments were not simply to create a new urban area that will someday have people living in it but to create a new city that will have limitless potential and be a global epicenter of culture and commerce. The goals of many of China’s new cities are in no way realistic, so when these places fall short it shouldn’t be taken as evidence of them being abject failures. To put it bluntly, 800,000 people are not going to be living in Nanhui by 2020, a million people are not going to inhabit Ordos Kangbashi in five more years, Yujiapu isn’t going to be a world class financial district by the time the developers and government claimed that it would but this doesn’t necessarily mean that these places are failures but that the bar for success was set far too high and the scale of the projects too lofty to begin with.
Although part of the reason why many new urban development projects flaunt such incredible ambitions is simply to increase their marketing potential. If you’re the head of a company looking to relocate its base of operations, where are you going to go? To a new city that is saying that it is going to be world class, have millions of people, and be the center of regional growth? Or to a city that says that it is going to evolve slowly and sustainably and only build infrastructure that it really needs when it really needs it? The bigger a new city’s claims of what it will someday become the more attention it is going to receive from investors, the media, and other sectors of the government. It’s simple marketing, and it sometimes actually works.
In your observation, how do farmers fit into city life since they turn rural lands into urban in such a short time?
Well, considering that over 400 million people have urbanized since the start of China’s economic boom period in 1978, most of the people we see in the country’s cities today either migrated from rural areas themselves or have parents who did so. Clearly, people make this rural to urban transition relatively quickly.
Although part of how successful and painless this transition is often has to do with the economic opportunities that are available to newly urbanized farmers in the cities they move to. Sometimes they find themselves with opportunities that they could never have in the countryside and rapidly obtain a far higher standard of living, and sometimes they find themselves unemployed and without livelihoods in new development areas that really don’t much of anything at all. With policies like chengzhenhua, the face of urbanization has really changed in China. Rather than peasants urbanizing by moving to big cities, once rural towns and villages are being converted into “cities,” and oftentimes these places don’t have many opportunities for people who move into them.
Although whatever the case may be, the rural to urban transition is usually temporary phase. The children of urbanized peasants tend to grow up completely urban, with urban habits and an urban mentality.
In your book, you showed optimism on Chinese ghost cities by calling them “booming cities”. Now with China’s economic slowdown, do you still think the ghost cities tend to have a bright future?
I said that some of them have become booming cities, but this certainly doesn’t mean that all of them have boomed. Not every patch of countryside is going to support a city just because it’s built there. Many new cities and districts will descend into ruins and many will not become nearly as economically viable as it was imagined they would be. But what we need to remember is that it is the same process that created economically stagnant places Lvliang as boomtowns like Chengdu and Wuhan. To get an accurate view of China’s urbanization movement you need to balance the ghost cities and boomtowns against each other, and when you do this you clearly see that the future of China is not going to be told through obscure mining towns in the north that failed to vitalize their meager new district but by the places that have grown into some of the biggest and most important cities in the world. According to projections by the McKinsey Institute, 29 of the 75 most economically dynamic cities in the world by 2025 will be in China. What is interesting is that most of these places were insignificant and economically stagnant backwaters hardly a decade or two ago.
We also should not overestimate the impact of China’s economic slow down. What we are seeing with the country’s economy now is mostly the knee jerk reaction to direct policy initiated by the central government, not market forces taking vengeance for three decades of unchecked growth. The government has intentionally took actions which sacrifice short term economic growth for long term economic, social, and environmental stability.
To put it simply, the speed at which China has grown over the past thirty years isn’t sustainable and everybody knows it. This new city building boom wasn’t something that was supposed to last forever, but rather something to lay an initial framework of urbanization across the country which will give many new regions the potential to grow and evolve as China tries to sap its full potential. This movement has recently been slowed down — what levels of government that can build new cities and towns has been restricted, central government oversight has been enhanced, public funding for urbanization has been decreased, housing purchasing restrictions have cooled off the real estate market, and the crackdown on corruption has limited many of the illegitimately derived incentives for urbanizing new areas.
Wade Shepard is the author of Ghost Cities of China. Get it now from Amazon.