The Eerie Uncertainty of China’s Ghost Cities

Lauren Reiff
Jun 23 · 9 min read

When one thinks of ghostowns, one thinks of abandonment and deserted properties, maybe once vibrant but now noticeably vacant. Traditionally, residual signs of life crop up in used storefronts, or in crumbling homes, in human litter, perhaps. It is as if a wind blew through and took the people with it and left only the vestiges of civilization. But Chinese ghost towns are another breed entirely. In fact, the word ‘town’ is so comically quaint in this case, and thus, altogether inaccurate.

The Chinese landscape in the past decade in particular has become progressively scattered with sprawling metropolises that have sprouted up in great gusts of industrial vigor. The cities are colossal feats of architectural excellence and urban planning with a distinctly cutting-edge, futuristic feel.

China’s empty cities are a startling reversal of the customary ghost town dynamic. Instead of being left in the dust in a surge of mass abandonment, these newly constructed cities instead rise out of the fog as untouched, unlived, hulking structures of the future. There is no sign of decay, only the placid building faces of unwritten history. Indeed, Chinese ghost cities are an echo of the future, and not the classic ghostown’s echo of the past.

It is typical for cities to be a continual project — to start minimally and to be incrementally added to once a population begins to flock in in greater numbers. Such is the usual style of urban construction. The Chinese model, again, succeeds in turning this notion on its head.

Subverting the modestly-paced developmental pattern of yore, the Chinese build full-grown, mature cities from the ground up. Only then do they let in the people — if they ever show up, that is. This means vast shopping centers, stacks upon stacks of apartments, and all manner of public plazas emerge one-by-one out of vats of poured concrete. Never mind the fact that the people to fill these cities are hardly clamoring at its gates, in most cases, and in still others, not even in sight.

Photographs of these ready-made cities exhibit a surreal, otherworldly aura. Artificially sculpted out of the land with great effort and planning, their subsequent dormancy feels peculiar. Cities designed with hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of residents in mind are filled with only a fraction of this number. Sparsely populated sidewalks edge quiet, fresh-faced storefronts. The heavy structures feel bogged down by the sleepiness of the city but at the same time, the eeriness is derived not from a bygone past but from the murky potentialities of the future.

The Chinese have crowned themselves masters of urbanization. City planning efforts and migration schemes are twin fortes of theirs and number among their best modern accomplishments. Few people remember just how many people China holds. The U.S.’s 327 million pales in comparison to China’s mammoth 1.4 billion figure. That’s over 4 times the number of American inhabitants! And yet, in terms of land mass, the two are surprisingly comparable. With that in mind, China’s preoccupations with accommodating its massive population are warranted.

Keep in mind that for millennia, China was stubbornly wed to an agricultural economy and the majority of its citizens were flung across rural stretches. It was only in the relatively recent 1980s when the manufacturing prowess of China began to seriously pick up speed. What ensued over the following decades was a breathtaking spectacle of mass population shift and a complete makeover of the Chinese economy.

China, then, is no stranger to rapid growth. So familiar is swift change to the Chinese that they have honed an instinct for preparedness and a visionary impulse to boot.

Economic opportunity kicked into action the original flight to metropolises. It was foreseen that the traditional urban hubs Beijing and Shanghai would be groaning under the cumulative weight of migrant influxes if nothing was done and so began the new era of urban development.

It was a mighty feat to undertake — the relocation of staggeringly large numbers of people and the remaking of the economy and all. China’s identity morphed into that of an industrial powerhouse. Urbanization became its specialty. What China experienced in the past few decades was nothing short of their own Industrial Revolution.

With a habit of looking far into the future, China became the virtuoso of master plans. No other nation in the world quite matched up to China’s remarkable visionary status and shrewd knack for details when it came to future planning.

The flurry of urban-planning itself was partly in response to the practical need to absorb new migrants but it was also partly a function of lingering central-planning instinct. While the U.S. is hardly a pure free market, China is even less so. The idea of central planning is far more present in the blood of the Chinese than of, say, the Americans.

Perhaps this is why the Chinese do not wait for a market of people to explicitly signal for more cities. They just go ahead and make them. It’s framed as a logical maneuver. “They will come” Chinese technocrats calmly insist. Indeed, many of them have come. Musings on the state of China’s ghost cities have been circulating for a number of years now. But some cities have indeed started to fill, surprisingly fulfilling the Chinese prophecy and proving some naysayers wrong. It’s perhaps a bit more difficult a process than initially imagined, but churn to life many of them have.

That said, their escape from receding mutely into the skyline is largely dependent on their ability to provide jobs, incubate innovation, and attract talent. If companies do not move in and take up residence and industry doesn’t take off, the prospects for some of these enormously expensive, titanic projects does look gloomy. Retaining people and grooming sufficient economic gain is no easy task.

As an aside, the faith in preemptive, centrally-planned cities can turn out to be a bit misguided. It’s precisely this hubris that can lead to excess. Not all infrastructure will be utilized. Not all costly projects are needed. Not all apartments will be filled and to add to this, not all cities themselves will eventually be migrated to! Entire urban ventures carved out of the earth may never become much more than hollowed-out spectacles — let alone reach their full potential — a full potential that, keeping with the Chinese building tradition, is a lofty futuristic ideal.

On one hand, China’s habit of premature urban development carries with it the whiff of commendable preparedness, but so too does it include its own bundle of risks and uncertainty. The market indicator of demand is somewhat trampled over in this whole process. One could perhaps say it is a classic flaw of a country that is relatively new to the timetable of free market signals. In reality, however, eschewing listening to “demand” and instead, attempting to guide it and shape its flux is a deliberate Chinese decision.

The question should be asked — where is the push for urban development even coming from? The race to build new cities is heavily supported by Chinese oligarchs and local governments both. It is, after all, the private-sector elite that collect enormous profits from the scores of infrastructure projects dotting the mainland. Industrial materials have obviously been in high demand since the first wave of building began and thus, so long as it continues, the earnings will continue to flow.

The incentives for these powerful companies to goad the building are strong. After all, it is the industrial economic sector that fuels the “giant growth engine” that is modern China. It is an engine continually in motion that crucially, must not stall, otherwise the Chinese economy itself will stall, and who knows the disastrous consequences of that? (It goes without mentioning that no one wants to find out.) Naturally, this is a fearful thought and local governments are all too aware of the danger in halting the city-production machine.

They too, (local governments), in their compulsive pursuit of growth have latched onto an addictive pattern of indebtedness. Solvency is an afterthought of pesky, technical proportions.

‘Growth’ and the open-ended, heady, optimistic promises of the all-powerful ‘future’ are the Chinese obsessions. To government, China’s newly-minted cities are unequivocally filed under the label ‘progress’. But there is arguably scant analysis occurring of whether this label is warranted in the first place.

At first glance, the cities seem a bit like governmental show-ponies. This is what naturally happens when economic pursuits get co-opted by blind political ambition. The cities are extolled as wonderful accomplishments but will they ever yield a return on investment? That remains to be seen.

Real estate and urban development, after all, are hailed as the premier, choice investments in the Chinese economy. A widespread belief in the property market as forever-lucrative props up the incessant infrastructure undertakings. It’s an uncanny reminder that the U.S. once experienced a similar sanguine belief in the inevitably of real estate gains and we all know, of course, how catastrophically that turned out for everyone.

The truth is, mounds of debt hide behind the facade of freshly-constructed, hyper-modernized Chinese cities. This debt is largely incurred by regional governments who have been especially eager to cash in on the urbanization hysteria. Bad loans litter China’s financial sphere. Of course, the massive borrowing is justified on the grounds of the un-materialized (but “surely”, eventual) gains of urban growth and returns.

It’s unclear whether the mass migration counted on to fund this litany of ventures will be sufficient to finance the debt. But it’s ultimately unlikely. After all, there are literally dozens of Chinese ghost cities counting on a set number of people flocking to their gates. Who’s to say they will not go somewhere else? There may very well be an oversupply of cities sufficient to cause a heated competition for the inhabitants and businesses necessary to solve the looming debt-question.

That China so critically depends on these infrastructure undertakings not abating to stay financially afloat should be a wakeup call. Present-day China is unfortunately, a classic case of debt-fueled growth. How much is ‘growth’ actually ‘progress’ if it first depends on the accumulation of debt?

There’s also evidence to suggest that construction efforts ramped up in response to the 2008 global financial crisis as a stimulus tactic. (Stimulus often goes down in history as debt-fueled growth). And, in any case, it appears that that stimulus has never been removed. In addition, the effect of downsizing the droves of urban-development-related jobs created in the wake of this construction splurge would be economically painful.

Circa post-2008, in hopes of reinvigorating a slumped economy, Chinese officials promoted urban projects and in doing so, succeeded in giving the property markets a pretty hefty shot of stimulus. Today, widespread whisperings about the Chinese real estate market being squarely positioned in bubble territory have been circulating for quite some time. And of these speculations? They are likely correct.

All this to say, local government debt hangs like a heavy shroud over the Chinese economy. The urbanization projects themselves do not come cheap and present tax revenues are thin and insufficient, posing challenges to China’s regional governments. Perhaps the debt’s effects haven’t fully kicked in, but its presence is a threat that might one day more dangerously rear its head. The elites helming industry also put continual pressure on China to continue its mass construction spree.

That the fate of China’s ghost cities depends delicately on a number of interlocking factors is often not admitted. Voluntary migration obviously needs to occur in large-enough numbers to ease the debt burdens of these brand-new cities. Crucially, this can only be induced via businesses wanting to initially relocate, for jobs are the principal magnets of migrants. The danger of many of these ghost cities remaining as such and subsequently fading into their surroundings, silent and un-utilized is logically, a very real possibility.

The Chinese miracle of rapid change finds itself encapsulated in the premature growths of these new, often lonely cities dotting the horizon. What will become of all of them? Will they fulfill the daring hopes of the hordes of urban planners that delivered them or will they stand as stark reminders of some kind of unwise excess? As always, it is only time — the great arbiter itself — that will be able to tell.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Lauren Reiff

Written by

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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