Book review – Ghost Cities of China by Wade Shepard

Ghost Cities of China by Wade Shepard, Zed Books, London, 2015

By Michael Rank

China’s so-called “ghost cities” seem to defy economic gravity, vast conurbations consisting of block after block of empty buildings and not a soul to be seen anywhere.

That at least is how many foreign – and some Chinese – journalists have portrayed these cities, viewing them as little more than grotesque scams whereby billions of yuan pour into the pockets of shifty developers and local government officials but which do nothing to alleviate the country’s housing shortage or to provide goods and services to ordinary people.

These cities are, according to this view, harbingers of China’s premature collapse which could bring the entire global economy down in its wake. But Wade Shepard, author of this engrossing and snappily written book, challenges this apocalyptic interpretation and, having visited a large number of supposed ghost cities, claims that many at least are bustling with people, if you know where to look, and are set to thrive.

ghostThe author notes that over the next 20 years China plans to build hundreds of new cities, erecting 50,000 skyscrapers and relocating hundreds of millions of people “in a development boom that’s incomparable in scale and scope to anything we’ve seen yet. No civilization has ever built so much so quickly.”

It is undoubtedly the case that many of the towns built so far are greatly under-populated, but Shepard also presents the case of new cities such as Wujin, a district of Changzhou in Jiangsu province, that are far from ghost cities, despite claims that they are dead before they are born.

Although a Chinese newspaper portrayed Wujin as devoid of people, when the author visited it he found it full of cars, the sidewalks dotted with pedestrians and the cafes packed with customers late into the night. “The ghost city claims were made on the basis that there are a lot of empty apartments here,” Shepard writes. But “just because an apartment complex appears empty isn’t necessarily an indication that the development is faltering…There is an extended interim period between when the exteriors of residential buildings are built and the moment when residents are able to occupy them…Going round counting dark windows at night or apartments without air-conditioning units is not in itself an adequate criterion for declaring a place a ghost city.”

But although these cities are more or less bustling with people, Shepard readily admits that they are unattractive places to live – they “are like new refrigerators which are designed to break down after a few years of use so you have to go out and buy a new one – built-in obsolescence in urban planning.”

And although China’s new cities are ugly and lack amenities, millions of people buy up apartments in them purely as an investment as property is almost the only profitable way of parking one’s spare cash, driving up prices to levels well above what people on modest incomes can pay for their first home (the parallel with Britain is all too obvious).

“The property speculation market is essentially fuelling ghost cities, as investors are lured in and prospective residents kept out,” the author comments. “At present there is no yearly tax on property in China,” he adds. “So owning vacant homes is not a financial drain. This means people can easily buy homes and forget about them, leaving them vacant for a rainy day, for when property values increase enough to warrant a sale, or for when they get round to moving in.” A crucial factor behind the building of all these new cities is that it is highly profitable for local governments, and the book quotes Ministry of Finance statistics which show that profits from land sales totalled $438 billion for these bodies in 2012 alone.

The reason is that collectively owned rural land cannot be sold directly to developers, so it is much less valuable than urban construction land. “This gap in the real-estate value scale presents a prime money-making opportunity for local governments, which just happen to be the only ones with the power to change the designation of land from rural to urban. So local governments buy low at rural prices, re-zone the land as urban, then sell high to developers, pocketing the difference.” A remarkably neat trick.

Perhaps the strangest of China’s ghost cities are a cluster of pseudo-Western developments around Shanghai, including a fake Dutch town with a giant wooden windmill, a German town near a Volkswagen plant with statues of Goethe and Schiller, and Thames Town which boasts faux-Tudor shops, a statue of Winston Churchill and a Gothic-style church whose only function seems to be to act as a backdrop for wedding photographs. Shepard found Anting German Town to be devoid of life with a bridge that had collapsed into a pond and Thames Town no livelier, with nothing to do there except photobomb wedding pictures. “There was no history, no story, no soul here, and this inertia seemed to prevent anything else from being created,” he mournfully recounts.

Some of China’s new cities have been marketed as ecocities, islands of green with clean, breathable air among all the smoke-belching factories and pollution-emitting traffic of the country’s older cities. Almost 300 such cities are being built or are in the planning stage across China, the book reports, but it quotes Li Xun, secretary of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies, as saying that only one in five of these cities “actually match low-carbon or ecological ideals.” Shepard also notes that China’s ecocities are being built where there has never been urbanization before, and that “There is nothing more ‘ecological’ than the countryside these ecocities destroy.” “However,” he adds, “there is also truth in the common rebuttal that says if China is going to build a new city anyway, it may as well be an ecocity.”

Shepard may be too cautious when it comes to judging China’s ecocities. He fails to mention the disastrous case of Dongtan ecocity near Shanghai which was billed to be the world’s first of its kind, with plans for it to be completely carbon neutral and use 100% renewable energy. It was scheduled to open in time for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo but it came to grief amidst a dispute over funding and a political scandal in which Shanghai Communist Party chief Chen Liangyu was jailed for corruption. Arup, the British engineering consultancy firm which was contracted to design the city, pulled out of the project amidst charges of “greenwashing.”

Chinese cities tend to cover vast areas, on paper at least as they often include large tracts of countryside, and I was intrigued to read that the city of Hulunbuir in Inner Mongolia ranks as the world’s largest municipality at 263,953 sq km, an area larger than New Zealand. Also in Inner Mongolia is Ordos Kangbashi, which is the first so-called ghost city that foreigners became aware of, through Al Jazeerah television in 2009. Shepard disputes whether Kangbashi in particular really is a ghost city as he came across an area “packed with hundreds if not thousands of people.”  But it does sound weird, with a museum shaped like a giant golden jelly bean, a library built to look like a gigantic row of books and 50-foot-tall bucking horses in Genghis Khan Square. “These entities have become the ominous pre-emptive icons of the sinking of an Atlantean nation that brashly built too much too quick,” the author ominously adds.

Shepard is an engaging writer and the fact that he hails from the Great Lakes region of the US – the “Rust Belt” – clearly helps. He spent his 20s breaking into decommissioned mills on Buffalo’s waterfront and abandoned factories in Rochester, and found that just like in the old cities of the Great Lakes, in China’s brand new ghost cities too you didn’t know what lies round the corner. His book is occasionally repetitive, and it includes a somewhat peripheral chapter on China’s energy problems, but Ghost Cities of China is a splendid read about an extraordinary phenomenon and the author marshals facts and statistics expertly, with pithy asides in which he makes clear his own views. It won’t be the last word on ghost cities which are growing at a remarkable rate but it’s likely to be the best book on the subject for a few more years to come.

• Wade Shepard has an interesting blog here.