They came from just about every other corner of China to start new lives in a remote outpost in Inner Mongolia. Ordos Kangbashi was meant to be one of China’s new urban utopias though it hasn’t yet worked out that way.
Ordos Kangbashi is a city that shocked the world. It shocked the world not because of something it had, but because of what it didn’t: people. This is a place that has become known for its windswept, empty streets, abandoned high-rises, elaborate public buildings built for nobody, multiple stadiums without crowds, and roads to nowhere. Kangbashi is a boom town that died before it was even born.
That’s the story anyway.
In 2009, Al Jeezera put Ordos Kangbashi and China’s ghost cities in front of the world for the first time. Their correspondent, Melissa Chan — who later gained infamy for being the first journalist in 15 years to get kicked out of China — claimed to have found the city by mistake while reporting on another story in the area. In her 2009 and 2011 reports, Chan claimed that “nobody” lived in Kangbashi, that the place was completely abandoned, and accused the local government of building the city solely to inflate their GDP: “. . . local officials in the provinces were hell-bent on boosting their regional GDP – often a criteria for their promotion. If building a road pumped up GDP, then building a whole city would really propel GDP growth to unknown heights.” Her stories set the tone for hundreds of others that would follow in media platforms around the world, making China’s “ghost cities” a global phenomenon.
Ordos is often described as China’s Texas. Around a decade ago one of the country’s largest deposits of coal was found there, and, combined with an abundance of other natural resources, like rare earth and natural gas, the city became the quintessential boom town. Ordos soon began topping China’s per capita GDP charts, often outranking some Western European countries — such as Spain. Becoming rich, the city set out to do what just about every other Chinese city with the financial means started doing at the time: build a new city.
So in 2003 construction began on a $161 billion, 355 sq km new district that was intended to eventually house one million people. Unlike many new districts in China that are positioned adjacent to or near an existing urban core, Kangbashi was built way out in the desert — 23 km from Ordos’ Dongsheng district, which is generally referred to as the old city. The initial plan was for the residents of the older, drought prone Dongsheng to migrate en masse to the new city, which sat wedged between two massive reservoirs and had more than enough water.
Though the master plan for Kangbashi has yet to come to fruition. Construction simmered down part way through, and nearly a decade since construction began only 35 sq km and accommodation for 300,000 residents was actually built. The mass migration from Dongsheng to Kangbashi also has yet to transpire, and just 70,000 people moved in. The project soon found itself spiraling into a chasm of debt, falling property value, and bankruptcy.
What started out as a new city filled with the Ordos’s prime real estate soon felt the forces of the market economy. Property prices plunged from over $3,000 per sq meter to just $470 by 2011, and many developers went bankrupt. At night, many of the houses are dark, and the city’s reputation as one of China’s largest ghost cities grew. “This severe drop, amid declining prices around China, has convinced both the people and developers that Kangbashi is a lost cause,” Business Insider claimed in 2011. But the people who live there haven’t given up yet.
I entered the city and saw the infamous icons of Kangbashi. I looked upon the museum that looks like a giant golden jelly bean, the elaborate opera house, the library that was built to look like a gigantic row of books, and the immense stone statues of Mongol warriors as well as the 50 ft tall bucking horses in Genghis Khan square. These entities have become the ominous preemptive icons of the sinking of an Atlantean nation that brashly built too much too quick.
My first impression of this place was how huge it was, it simply wasn’t built to human scale. The avenues could serve as runways for 747s, the shear distances between buildings inhibited the deflection of sound waves, as an eerily silence pervaded everything. One of the largest public squares on the planet runs through the center of Kangbashi, and to walk through it truly feels like being in a ghost city. People get diluted in this spatial excess. When questioned about this obvious fact by the China Daily, Chai Jiliang, the city’s chief publicity officer, replied poignantly, “. . . why do local residents who mostly own private cars and have convenient public transportation have to walk on the streets if there are no major public events?” He had a point: you don’t walk in Kangbashi; it’s a car city, a place designed for people who intend to drive from one place to another. It’s far too gargantuan to navigate any other way.
China’s new cities are monuments. They are trophies to commemorate the rise of the municipalities that build them, and there is an overt tendency to overdo it. Rather than building comfortable new districts on simple, human-centric plans, they make these awe-provoking creations to impress the masses and demonstrate the power of the creators.
It takes some time to find the people in Kangbashi. If you walk through the center of town and hang out around the public buildings you’re liable to see or meet very few people. A chain of cars will continuously pass by you, but that will be it. Though if you turn off on a side street and head a block or so east, you will come to the city’s main public complexes and fully inhabited streets. At the center of this area is a massive dining complex that’s full of restaurants and 400 food stalls, which is anchored by a McDonald’s.
It was lunchtime when I arrived and the place was packed with hundreds, if not thousands of people. This is where the residents of Kangbashi meet each day — it’s pretty much the only place in town to go. The food court was built with a $16 million investment from the local government, and the commercial spaces are provided to the restaurateurs free of charge. Not even McDonald’s pays rent, I was told.
I met a 45 or 50 year old business man standing in line at a Mongolian sandwich stall. He told me that he moved to Kangbashi last year from Henan province. I asked him why.
“For business,” he replied simply.
“Did most of the people here come from other parts of China?” I asked.
“Yes, except for them,” he replied as he pointed to the young ladies who were assembling our mutton sandwiches. “They were here before.”
Kangbashi sits on the ruins of two old ethnic Mongolian villages. When the city was created they were cleared away, their residents moved into apartments. Many of them now run little restaurants in the food court.
I sat down at a table with a couple of young guys — one was from Shanxi Province, and the other from relatively nearby Baotou. Both had arrived in Kangbashi the year before, they came for work. “Last year, nobody was here,” one of them told me. “This year, they come.”
I moved around the dining area, talking with the people who moved out to this far outpost of progress looking for opportunity and fortune. Ye Qiu was originally from Guangzhou. After doing a summer of work in the USA she became tired of the big city life, the pollution, and the crowds of the Pearl River Delta. She told me that she came out to Kangbashi for the adventure, the cleaner air, and the better quality of life. She too arrived here the year before. A pattern was emerging: almost everybody I met in Kangbashi had move there within the past year. Perhaps it is no coincidence that when real estate prices began decreasing the people began coming.
Ye Qiu told me that she had a job teaching at a school when she first arrived but eventually started up her own after school cram program. “In Guangzhou, you can get a job,” she explained, “but there are a lot of other people behind you waiting for that job.” By going way out to a new city in Inner Mongolia she essentially transformed herself from being a dime a dozen into a linchpin. There simply are not a lot of school teachers poking around the urban frontiers of China. She offered to show me around the city, and we soon left the dining complex.
We walked across a crowded parking lot and got into her car. “Every family in Kangbashi has a car,” she said with a laugh. “Some families have two!” She took me to the Ordos Museum, the golden jelly-bean looking structure that’s the city’s main attraction that had just recently opened. Entrance was free, the exhibits were exquisite. Museums in China tend to be top notch, as they are among the favorite locations for government officials to make public appearances while showing around a group of visiting colleagues or business associates.
Ye Qiu drove me through town, pointing out the landmarks. At the southern edge of the city there was an ominous horizon of half built high-rises. “That is where the government workers from Dongsheng are being moved to,” she said. “The government is giving them discounts on the houses there.” As part of the new city’s vitalization effort, the government seat of Ordos has been moved to Kangbashi, and government employees are being lured into the new district with special deals on housing. The municipality also relocated a hospital and the city’s top high school. To further stimulate the local economy Ordos provided more than 200 commercial enterprises with $3.7 million in subsidies to help them keep afloat in Kangbashi (though the success of which was mitigated by the fact that the well publicized handout created a knee-jerk reaction which caused landlords to raise the rent, and many businesses were ironically forced to close because of it). The city also offers free bus transportation and subsidies on gas and other utilities to anybody who moves in.
“At night, a lot of the houses are dark,” Ye Qiu then admitted. “We need more jobs and industry.”
Kangbashi is still a work in progress, though just about everyone I met there seemed strangely positive about the place. As I’ve found with many other underpopulated new cities throughout China, the residents claim they like things the way they are — the lack of crowds is seen as a perk. They like the fact that they can drive around without being stuck in traffic, that they don’t need to wait in long lines at the bank, that they know their neighbors and recognize the people they see about town.
“It is very small, the people know each other,” Ye Qiu said. “In Guangzhou, lots of people are around but you don’t feel anyone. It’s a fast food city. It is very busy. Here it is very comfortable. There are no long lines, and the people are not strangers.” She paused for a moment, then added, “I love the phrase ‘not so many people.’”
Since my visit to Ordos the ghost city reports have continued being published, being intensified as the years go on. While the district is running at severe under-capacity, it is in no way abandoned. It’s population density is actually on par with the USA or Canada.
Though there is a paradox in Kangbashi. If viewed from one angle the place appears to be on the verge of complete and total collapse. Ordos has racked up a 300 billion yuan of debt (though nearly two thirds of this was done by its other two districts, not Kangbashi new city) and entire chains of developers and other companies have been falling into default. The city has even been reported to have borrowed money from companies to pay municipal employees, and delayed payments to builders have become regular occurrences. The place has become the prime example of China’s “city supply” problem, where the excessive drive for local governments to generate revenue from lands sales and new infrastructure projects has led to the construction of urban areas that extend beyond the bounds of immediate demand.
Though in the face of this bankruptcy, debt, and plummeting real estate prices, there is still a massive amount of money being made in Ordos, which remains an incredibly wealthy city. Even with the recent drop in coal prices, its GDP is remains high, topping 365.7 billion yuan in 2012, which is $29,500 per capita — higher than South Korea. In the five years leading up to this, Ordos showed a revenue growth of 32.5%, with an annual GDP growth rate as high as 18.5%.
Municipal bankruptcy means something very different in China than in most other countries. There is an inherently imbalanced fiscal system here which requires cities to pay for a disproportional amount of their expenses in relation to the amount of money they’re required to fork over to Beijing, and even many thriving cities — like Wuhan — technically end up running up massive losses. Though this cannot literally be called bankruptcy, as no city in China is permitted this recourse. Instead, they’re bailed out by the Communist Party, who owns the banks (the wealthiest in the world), and is essentially just lending money to itself and covering the deficit in repayment.
There is an excess of empty buildings in Kangbashi, there is an over-abundance of empty space, but for the 70,000 people who live there the ghost city label is incomprehensible. When Al Jeezera’s Chan first visited Kangbashi it was a mere five years after construction began. She essentially walked into a place that was still being built and called it a ghost town. 10 years have now past since Kangbashi began rising out of the Gobi, and the place is still going through the vitalization process. Though this shouldn’t be taken as a cause of alarm. As put by Chai Jiliang, the district’s chief publicity officer: “When the construction of Kangbashi began in 2006, we planned to have a town with 300,000 residents by the end of 2020, but it seems that the media doesn’t have that much patience.” For scale, it takes 15 years on average to build a single shopping mall in the UK. There is still time for Kangbashi.
China’s new cities are being built for the future, and most of them tend to fill up with time. Constructing cities here is the easy part, actually making them come to life is a long term challenge. Ordos’ Kangbashi district has vacillated between periods of growth, stagnation, and retrogression, but life goes on here. The place is in no way a lost cause — yet.
*This article is an updated version of one that originally appeared on Vagabond Journey in the spring of 2013.