China's Building Cities So Fast, People Don't Have Time To Move In

China's Building Cities So Fast, People Don't Have Time to Move In

With an estimated 700 million of its billion or so residents now residing in urban areas, China has reached an important tipping point in its evolution from an agrarian to industrial economy. But this mass population migration, combined with China's insistence on central planning and general disdain for Keynesian theory, has resulted in an odd form of growing pain: massive, pre-fab cities built for a populace that doesn't even exist yet.

China has built more than 500 of these empty cities since the cultural revolution in 1978, with hundreds more set to come online by the end of the decade. The theory behind it is solid; by 2020 one in eight humans will live in a Chinese city, totaling more than one billion people. China's existing urban infrastructure simply cannot support that kind of population boom.

But China's response takes the form of a very significant gamble. Instead of slowly expanding (or densifying) urban areas in direct response to demand, the country's political leadership instead build entire towns all in one go. While it holds the distinct advantage of centralized planning, allowing government officials to lay out a comprehensive urban design — from public works, infrastructure, schools and government buildings to stores, shopping centres and even universities — this method is also seriously risky. Should the any part of the town fail to take hold — business, industry or residential — the entire project could be in danger of failure. These are a few such McCities that have yet to register a pulse.

New South China Mall

The poster child of failed central planning, the New South China Mall is everything you'd expect a mega-mall built in the middle of a corn field to be: 99 per cent uninhabited nearly a decade after its grand opening. Built in 2005, its cavernous 892,000 square metre footprint houses barely two dozen retailers these days, most of which are fast food shops clustered around the main entrance. [The China Chronicle]


The new city of Tianducheng in Hangzhou is perhaps the most easily recognisable of the country's ghost cities, what with the 91m tall, 1:3 scale replica of the Eiffel Tower dominating the skyline and all. In fact, most of the this upscale luxury real estate development mimics the design of Paris — just with a fraction of the population. [Business Insider]

Kangbashi New Area

China's Building Cities So Fast, People Don't Have Time to Move In

Dubbed the "Dubai of Northern China", the new city of Kangbashi rose from the outskirts of Ordos in central Mongolia in 2003. The region had been undergoing a massive boom in the early naughts, riding high on the area's wealth of valuable mineral deposits, and Kangbashi was meant to provide modern 49ers with all the luxuries of a modern city.

But nothing kills a boom like a housing market bubble. Before anybody had moved in to the city — before they even finished building roads — investors and real estate speculators descended on the town, buying up entire housing complexes in hopes of garnering high rents once residents arrived. But the high rents — exceeding fair market valuations by as much as 30 per cent — were exactly what kept residents from coming. A city originally designed for one million was drastically descaled to support 300,000 — today, barely 30,000 people currently call Kangbashi home. [I09]

Zhengdong New Area

China's Building Cities So Fast, People Don't Have Time to Move In

Built in the shadow of Zhengzhou, the capital (and largest) city of China's northern Henan province, the Zhengdong New Area has grown from wheat fields to a metropolis twice the size of San Francisco — in barely over a decade. Unfortunately, rampant real estate speculation akin to that seen in Kangbashi has stunted population growth.

That's not to say that Zhengdong is completely empty, no more than one could rightly call Detroit a ghost town. Between 2000 and 2010, the entire city's population (both existing Zhengzhou and the new district) boomed by some 30 per cent to a total of nearly nine million. But that increase is barely visible within the new district. A combination of unrelenting residential construction and inflated housing prices — the average price per square meter of home is $US1660, while the average monthly income for a resident of Zhengzhou is roughly $US483 — has essentially priced out the very people the city was built for. [CNN]

Picture: Lennlin

Wonderland Amusement Park

Much like the NSCM, Wonderland was a project ahead of its time. Located in Chenzhuang Village just 45 minutes outside of Beijing and seated on more than 120 acres of land, it was originally billed as the "largest amusement park in Asia". However, disputes over land values between the park's developers and the local government abruptly halted construction in 1998. Attempts to revive the project in 2008 also failed, amid fears of a regional housing bubble. The park was dealt a death blow earlier this year when crews leveled all uncompleted structures, leaving just the skeletal remains of the knock-off Cinderella's Castle behind. [I09 - Reuters]

Chenggong New Area

Built to house the overflowing populace of Kunming, the largest city in China's Southwest Yunnan province, Chenggong is by all accounts a fully functioning city — save, of course, for the near complete lack of people.

The expansion district features fully-formed infrastructure, including government offices and two universities. A light rail line from the existing city is under construction. Yet despite Kunming's overcrowded conditions — more than 6.5 million people live there — more than 100,000 apartments stand vacant 10 years after being completed. Oddly, rents in Chenggong have not fallen victim to speculative price hikes and remain relatively affordable. People simply don't want to move in. [Wiki - World Bank]

These cities, though slowly coming to life, face an uncertain future. China's economy continues to grow and prosper, sure, but they aren't building these districts on Fields of Dreams. Just because you build it, doesn't mean anyone will actually come.


    Perhaps a more appropriate idiom is 'strike while the iron is hot'. Building infrastructure ahead of need while the country is able to do so is much smarter than leaving it until it's overdue or the country's fortunes have turned and they're not able to build it any more.

      Problem is, the people don't want to be uprooted and moved into an empty city. Not to mention their Govt is running out of money. I can see these going to ruin before they are filled up....

        Given the option of living in a refrigerator box on the street because there is no housing left in the overcrowded cities, versus living in a brand new city 50km away, I think you underestimate how many people would be willing to move. Despite China's policies on offspring, their population is still growing by 7 million people annually, and thanks to some de-fanging of the Hukou system in the 70s, most existing cities are close to or at the limits of how many people they can sustain. There's no option but to expand.

          That may be the case, but they need to ship a lot of people to a lot of cities, the logistics of which would be daunting by any standards. Ad to that they are tightening there fiscal policies and you have a lot of empty cities for quite awhile yet. Also, there are probably not enough un-housed people to actually fill these cities, not to mention you need experienced people to make the things work, which means pulling happily housed and jobbed people away from a place they most likely don't want to leave...!

          Last edited 18/10/13 4:52 pm

            They're certainly planning ahead as far as capacity goes, but I think China has been good about handling that to date. Getting the building done now while they can is smart, because once it's built it takes a lot less money to maintain it. Worst case, some buildings or suburbs decay to uselessness, but I think the risk of that happening is worth the expense of getting things done now.

            This is a trend we're seeing in a number of countries, particularly oil-rich countries in the Middle East. They're aware that the bulk of their trade income relies on exhaustible exports that are estimated to have a very short lifespan left, less than 50 years. They're investing in infrastructure like crazy, which is a good investment because property devalues far less than currency when your exports drop to zero. Keeping the money for later would mean keeping what will quickly become worthless paper.

            That's exactly why the European colonies failed. Everyone was comfortable where they were and didn't think they could do any better.

        "their Govt is running out of money" not compared to another government that comes to mind

          No one's comparing anything... the fact is they are pulling back from the massive infrastructure policies they been using to save money. read above...!

    Despite the title of the article....not so much about the construction speed but rather about investors / developers over estimating the current market demand / affordability.

    Eerie places no doubt..!

    It's interesting that a country which is very obviously eschewing a free market approach to urban development should chose an urban planning style that is so car dependent (which is the most individualistic and capitalist mode of transport).

    Having the advantage of a clean slate, they could've properly designed public transport infrastructure, and public spaces (including roads) around people actually using them as pedestrians. Instead they've chosen the towers and highways approach - famously championed by Le Corbusier as a horrifying model for Paris - which means that everybody lives in their own little bubble. The only people you ever see are your family, the occasional person in the hallway of your apartment block, in the lift or at work.

    You can't walk down the street, meet other people, enjoy some food from a street vendor and all those other things that make a space vibrant. The Chinese are demolishing old areas built on that model and putting up more tower blocks surrounded by 8 lane highways. I suspect a very good reason why people aren't moving to these cities is because they can see it would be a dreadful place to live.

      Just because they're nominatively the communist party doesn't mean that they're a bunch of smug hippies.

    At last... someone has come up with a solution for all the illegal immigrants

    Sort of like the NBN that Labor proposed for Australia!

      lol. If it were the CCP who were building Australia's NBN, it would have probably been done by 2010. None of the political bullshit and negotiating that had to happen with Telstra would have happened.

      Shhhhhhh, it's different because shut up.

      Last edited 18/10/13 7:15 pm

    A cynic might suggest that many of these projects are also about funnelling money out of state coffers and into the hands of private company owners, and then offshore.

    TO get a better understanding of the situation check out the VICE Doco or SBS Dateline. If China's construction bubble bursts we could all be in serious trouble.

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