"Enough empty floor space to cover Madrid": so why are China's ghost cities still unoccupied?

Ghengis Khan Plaza in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, in 2011. The near-empty city is designed for 1.5m people. Image: Getty.

Over the past 15 years China has built hundreds of new cities, expanded thousands of urban areas, wiped over a million villages off the map, and urbanised hundreds of millions of people. It’s a development boom that’s incomparable to anything that any other country has ever attempted.

Led by its national urbanisation plan, China has transitioned from a mostly rural country of peasant farmers to one that is defined by its cities. But this urbanisation drive has produced a peculiar side effect: newly built urban areas, even completely new cities, that entirely lack people.

Enough floorspace to cover Hong Kong twice over is being constructed in China’s cities each year. Yet despite the fact that 250m more people are expected to move into cities by 2030, and even though the demand for modern housing is huge, an incredible amount of apartments are currently vacant. At a rough estimate, there are around 600m m2 of floor space still unoccupied – enough to completely cover Madrid.

So – if so many people need homes in China’s cities, then why are there so many of them left empty?

An empty street corner in Nanhui, near Shanghai. Image: Wade Shepard.

1. They’re not actually finished yet

Xinyang, Yujiapu, Erenhot, and many other new developments across China were still very much construction sites when the international media labelled them as “ghost cities”.

Construction on Ordos Kangbashi, in Inner Mongolia, began a mere five years before Al Jazeera arrived and derided the place as a being a ghost town that nobody lived in. The network later claimed the city was little more than a plot by local officials “hell-bent on boosting their regional GDP – often a criteria for their promotion”.

A year later Business Insider would publish a collection of satellite images of what they dubbed China’s ghost cities, but from even a lay analysis it was clear that most of them were still construction sites. Obviously, not many people are going to live in a place that isn’t built yet. 

2. They were built too early

Almost by definition, new cities tend to be built in areas beyond the fringes of existing urbanisation. Without this broader support infrastructure it is a major political, economic, and social project to break the inertia and make them come to life.

While China has means of doing this — such as by moving universities, government offices, and state owned enterprises into new areas — it is still a long term process. China’s new cities are not being built for today or even tomorrow, but decades from now.

Generally speaking, most new large scale urbanisation initiatives are run on 20 year time scales. That’s the time between when construction begins and when it is projected that they will be fully populated. Hardly a single new city in the country has yet eclipsed its developmental deadline.

A new building in Ordos city centre in 2011. Image: AFP/Getty.

3. They were built to encourage land sales

China’s urbanisation program is pushed into motion by a fiscal policy that all but requires local municipalities to expand in order to remain economically solvent. According to the World Bank, China’s cities must fend for 80 percent of their expenses, while only receiving 40 percent of the country’s tax revenue.

Many municipalities use land sales to make up the difference. They buy land on the outskirts of cities at the low rural rate; rezone them as urban; then sell it on to developers at the high urban construction land rate.

The profits are huge. The Ministry of Finance claimed that land sales raised $438bn for China’s local governments in 2012 alone. Corruption and errant spending aside, this money is often essential for sustaining urban infrastructure, funding public institutions and facilities, and various other social programs.

So when cities expand beyond their current needs, it’s all too often an inevitability of China’s fiscal framework.


4. Developers must build immediately 

There’s another twist in China’s urbanisation process that’s driving the creation of urban infrastructure in areas still ill-prepared to support it.

The prevailing notion among developers is that they need to get in early to make a profit. This means buying new urban construction land directly from local governments as soon as it’s made available.

All too often this is land is located in new development areas that lack any semblance of urbanisation – sometimes, areas that don’t even have a population. But developers in China are not permitted to just sit on plots of land and wait for the area around it grow. No, if they wish to purchase this land and “get in early”, they must build something on it almost immediately.

In the initial development stages this often translates to cities being built in the proverbial middle of nowhere. But as developers of residential property take out 72 year leases on the land, and new buildings in China often only have a lifeline of 30 to 35 years, this means that they should have at least two shots at building something to recoup their investment.

In other words, all too often, what we see in the new urban China are essentially rough drafts of what will these places will eventually become.

5. The chicken-or-egg scenario

Nobody is going to move into an area that lacks civic essentials: health care, schools, functioning shopping centres, places to work, and public transportation. And yet, local governments and businesses are hesitant to produce these things in areas where there are no people.

So while the Chinese will buy property in new development areas where there isn’t yet an economic or social pulse, few will actually move in until it starts to show some convincing vital signs.

An empty mall in Zhengdong Zhengzhou. Image: Wade Shepard.

6. The housing that’s bought by people with no intention of living in it

The first wave of residential properties that are often built in China’s new urban developments are what are called “commodity homes”. These is privately-owned homes, at the mercy of the market, and prices can fluctuate based on supply and consumer demand. With the craze of home buying that has swept the country in recent years the price of this type of real estate has soared, often well beyond the means of most Chinese.

Up until very recently, China’s housing market was loaded with speculators, people looking to store their excess savings in real estate, individuals aiming to launder illicitly received funds, and other parties who were buying property they had no intention of living in. This feeding frenzy of economic activity often pushed the prices of real estate so high that the pool of potential residents was severely reduced.

This has lead to many cities and districts across China standing largely empty, even when all the houses have sold. As a result, they look like ghost towns.

Having masses of readily available home buyers has kept development profitable and the wheels of China’s new city building movement spinning. But it’s also derailed efforts to build population bases in many new urban areas, and it’s subsequently come to be seen as a social, political, and economic problem.

The various levels of government in China have moved to correct this: initiating policy aimed at limiting speculation, inhibiting the ownership of multiple properties, curbing the buying of property with the spoils of corruption, and creating alternative investment options, so the general population no longer feels as compelled to keep their wealth in real estate.

The result of all this has been that property values in some areas have fallen, or at least levelled off. That’s made housing more accessible to a wider swath of the population in new urban areas.

But the impact of the free-for-all era still lingers in the empty streets of many new cities and towns across the country.

7. The housing that’s bought for the future

In a similar phenomenon to the above, many Chinese buy new properties for future use: homes for their children to live in when they get married, or as a retirement home for themselves or their parents. There are 13m weddings per year in China, and newlyweds make up one third of all new home purchases. Many of these homes are purchased far in advance of their actual need.

New homes in new development areas are often purchased with the understanding that the neighbourhood – or even the entire city – is a work in progress that won’t really be ready for habitation for a long time. New home buyers rarely plan to move in hastily – something that’s exacerbated by the fact that a huge portion of new apartments that go on the market are just concrete shells, which the buyer needs to fit out.

So even when new owners do want to move into a new home as soon as possible, the minimum amount of time needed to do so is often measured in years.

A lone pedestrian walks past the statue of Ghenkis Khan in Ordos's central square. Image: AFP/Getty.

8. There’s a shortage of “Economically Affordable Homes”

The other type of residential property in China is called “economically affordable homes” (baozhang xingzhu fang): housing that is subsidised by the government and has strict controls on the initial sale, and subsequent resale, price. These houses are meant for low or middle income people who actually intend to live in them, not wealthy investors looking to spin a profit.

But because new economically affordable housing can only be sold for 3-5 percent over the cost of construction, local governments and developers are often not too keen on building much of it. As of today, this type of housing only comprises only about 3 percent of the new housing being built in China – although according to China’s new urbanisation plan, this figure is set to rise to 23 percent.

Economically affordable housing is often one of the last elements to be added to large scale new city projects – yet another reason these places often have a deficient population for extended periods of time.

9. Local government just isn’t ready to support a mature population

Building new urban areas is a major financial boon for local governments. Land sales bring in massive profits and the puppet companies they set up to obtain loans bring in huge piles of cash.

But when people begin moving into these new urban areas they start costing local governments money. All of a sudden there needs to be things like hospitals, schools, and public transportation, and services like health care and welfare.

So there is often an extended delay between when a new development appears to be a city, and when it actually has the infrastructure to support a population. As a result, these places linger in what could only be called the ghost city phase.

A lone cyclist in Xinyang. Image: Wade Shepard.

Conclusion: the ghosts of cities yet to come

Not every mining city can successfully be transformed into the next boomtown. Not every blank canvas of countryside can be painted with an urban landscape. But, given enough time, most of China’s new cities and towns will develop sufficiently to become real urban entities.

Zhengdong New District was one of the places featured in 60 Minutes’ 2013 report on the Chinese real estate bubble. But between 2012 and 2014, according to Standard Chartered Bank, the city’s occupancy rate doubled. Meanwhile the populations of other oft-mentioned “ghost cities” like Zhenjiang’s Dantu and Changzhou’s Wujin grew by two to four fold.

You can see similar developments with Guangzhou’s Zhujiang, Shanghai’s Pudong central business district – China’s original ghost city – as well as hundreds of other smaller, more inconspicuous new towns and urban expansion projects across the country.

There are a number of explanations regularly offered for China’s scantly inhabited new urban areas: excessive government spending, bankruptcy, over-supply, waning consumer demand, nefarious plots to boost GDP. While these elements are certainly all parts of the equation, they’re not the whole reason why, in the world’s most populated country, there are cities devoid of people.

Look out across the vast expanses of China’s new cities and towns, and you can see an urbanisation initiative like the world has never seen before, something which is unique in and of itself – and which is vastly more complex than any story a snapshot of vacant high-rise apartments can tell.

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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