Haunting photos of China’s latest ghost city

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By Leith van Onselen

China’s ghost cities, the most famous of which is Ordos in inner Mongolia, have regularly been cited as a prime example of China’s unsustainable construction-led economy.

In 2009, AlJazeera posted an explosive video showcasing Ordos’ ghost apartments and frenetic pace of construction, which exemplified the “build it and they will come” approach that has underpinned the Chinese economy. AlJazeera provided a follow-up in 2011, which was equally revealing.

Then Business Insider posted a slideshow of China’s empty cities, headlined by Ordos.

And in late 2011, a video from NTD Television showed how Ordos’ home prices were crashing, having fallen by almost one-third. Meanwhile, construction had finally ground to a halt, leaving many construction workers unemployed.

Then last year, a video from the Atlantic  followed a group of skaters through Ordos, showing a city that appeared almost completely empty three years after Aljazeera’s first ground-breaking report.

And who can forget 60 Minutes’ explosive video earlier this year showcasing China’s ghost cities.

These kind of malinvestments – projects that cost billions of dollars but provide but little economic return – have the potential to become a millstone for China’s banks and economy going forward, subtracting from its growth potential.

With the real estate market accounting for around 10% of China’s GDP growth, and affecting many related industries, there also remains the concern that construction and sales could ultimately grind to a halt, crimping local government land sale receipts and dragging China into a sharp recession.

Over the weekend, Foreign Policy published eerie photos from the district of Chenggong, which is a new 41 square mile city packed with everything except people:

Building it doesn’t always mean they will come. In 2003, officials in Kunming, the capital of southern China’s Yunnan province, decided they needed more space to expand. So they started work on the district of Chenggong, a roughly 41 square-mile plot of land 11 miles south of the city. Chenggong, which means to “submit tribute,” features a Central Business District dotted with dozens of office towers, a massive government compound, and 15 university campuses. Ten-lane highways crisscross the city, rolling over previously tilled fields, while farmers living in surrounding areas face eviction. Perhaps the only thing Chenggong lacks, as I saw on a trip to the city in February, is people… Chenggong, in short, is a ghost city.

Below are some photos from Chenggong taken in February by Matthew Niederhauser, an American photojournalist and filmmaker based in Beijing. The full 30-slide show can be viewed here.

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Whilst viewing the slide show, imagine the millions of tonnes of Australian iron ore used in the construction.

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  1. Look at that aquatic centre, perfect for Aussie retirees to do their water aerobics, all the place needs is a few cafes, restraunts, bars with “Packed to the Rafters”, “House Husbands”, “Downton Abbey” or anything with Michael Caton in it on 24Hr loop, it could be a low cost retirement mecca for Aussie BB’s.

  2. reusachtigeMEMBER

    I do wonder sometimes if this is all a plot of the chinese command economy with the end result being a communist style mass-move of rural poor into an instant urban lifestyle at the expense of “greedy” investors. Everyone is assigned a role in the new instant city, including executioners to take care of whinging capitalist investors that don’t play along. Once upon a time, such a strategy would have been a given so I can’t see why it couldn’t happen nowadays.

    • Cunning!

      The answer is because the power structure in China is closely linked to the building sector, developers, local and regional councils and the banking sector – not the rural poor.

      The ruling elite is heavily invested in the current situation and is concentrating upon using all possible levers to maintain the current economic settings while controlling the discontented underclass. Not the other way around.

      In fact what they would most fear is a “new revolution” – where the rural poor obtain the assets of the elite.

      • reusachtigeMEMBER

        OK then, ready made cities for the supporters and followers of the new red Red Army, so it can all start again!

      • The Chinese must move millions of people from rural communities to the cities to rotate away from an investment driven economy to a consumption driven economy.

        It will happen, and it will hurt many within the power structure (the less powerful that have “had it coming for a while” will be the first to fall).

        After all, what’s the point of being powerful if you can’t use your power to wipeout other powerful people.

      • Arrow2 I thought you were describing Australia for a bit there….

        But then I remembered we believe in a Fair Go here!

  3. Jake GittesMEMBER

    If someone took photos of Canberra at lunchtime on a Wednesday it would look the same in respect of ‘ghostliness’.

  4. My missus is Chinese. We spend a fair bit of time in China. Her family is quite wealthy. They and their friends own many of these homes and use them for many things.

    – Some are holiday homes.
    – Some are rental properties
    – Some are used to lease to people who ‘need an address to do business’ (I assume this is either some naughty naughty with the neighbor’s wife or some business arrangement I can’t comprehend)
    – Others are just purchased just because they can be … with the added benefit or more ‘face’.

    They are all equity purchased. We go to ‘rural villages’ (pop 1m or so) and see sights like this. Many of the homes are holiday homes.

    I’m sure that there is also dodgy REITs in China that are fueling this along with some overly keen investors swimming in debt to make their mark. However, what I see most of is very wealthy people living lives beyond what most Aussies couldn’t comprehend.

  5. I’m starting to think that this has something to do with the fact that Chinese seem to gain status by exhibiting (material) wealth. Show you live in wealth and you get more respect. See stuff like handing out ivory gifts etc. to business partners.

    I reckon quite a few people are up to their eyeballs in debt to be able to show off their “investment” properties… oh wait, where have I seen that before?

  6. Nice weather in Kunming. Altitude is around 6500 feet, so the air is cleaner too. I was thinking this new development would be a great place to hold a Formula 1 event. Look at those straights, those turns. Apartments could be leased out for the week, you could watch the race from most of them.

    Just a thought, if any cadres read this site. 🙂

  7. Lodge all the putas of the “Party & business” leaders, reserve some space to store their (secretly taped) porno videos