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Chinese Ghost Cities Coming to Life

Brand new skyscrapers and shopping malls, but silent streets and empty apartments. China’s so-called ‘ghost cities’ are a hot topic in the media nowadays, with Ordos in Inner Mongolia being of the most famous. Are China’s Ghost Cities really dead?

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Brand new skyscrapers and shopping malls, but silent streets and empty apartments. China’s so-called ‘ghost cities’ are a hot topic in the media nowadays. The city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia, is one of the most famous. This year, author Wade Shepard published a book about China’s ghost cities (Ghost Cities of China, 2015). Filmmakers Adam J. Smith and Song Ting made a documentary on the issue (The Land of Many Palaces, 2015). Are China’s ghost cities really dead? 

Tens of millions of empty apartments in brand new cities all over China, deserted cinemas and quiet parks. It is an image that has captured the public imagination: ‘ghost cities’ have become a popular China topic in international media.

American author Wade Shepard spent the past few years touring these new territories for his book Ghost Cities of China (2015). Earlier this year, he came to Beijing’s Bookworm Literary Festival to speak about his project with New York Times reporter Dan Levin. Tickets to attend the event were sold out soon; everybody seems curious to know more about the modern phenomenon of ‘ghost cities’.

“The term ‘ghost cities’ is actually not appropriate,” Shepard tells Levin: “Ghost cities are places that once lived and then died. What I write about is new places that are underpopulated, and where houses are dark at night.” Shepard explains that most of China’s ‘ghost cities’ actually do have people living in them. The ones that don’t, are still under construction: “These new underpopulated cities are built by world luxury developers who are working on constructing new urban utopias all over China. The people living in these cities come from various places. Some are trendy people who are looking to live in a new city. Others have been relocated from their original villages. There are many from the countryside.”

 

“Never in my life had I seen anything like that: a brand new neighbourhood without any people in it.”

 

By 2020, China hopes to move 100 million people from the country’s farming regions into cities. China’s government-driven push for urbanization is part of changing the economy, going from export to domestic demand. New towns, with hospitals, roads and sport centers, are mushrooming all over China.

Wade Shepard’s fascination with China’s new towns started about ten years ago: “I saw a ‘ghost city’ for the first time in 2006, when I was a student near Hangzhou,” he says: “It happened in the small town of Tiantai. I took a wrong turn after getting off the bus, and I ended up in this new part of town with nobody there. Never in my life had I seen anything like it: a brand new neighbourhood with nobody there. I was so excited about it. My professors later told me those places were everywhere, they were not impressed. But it stuck with me. Just take any bus, and there is going to be a new city or neighbourhood under construction. I enjoyed walking around these areas. I went to Mongolia and forgot about them for a while, until I returned in 2012. I travelled around and tried to figure out what these places really were. They are the new landscape of China.”

article-2610353-1D42376600000578-582_964x599Ghost city in Beihai (Daily Mail).

Shepard went out into China’s new areas by bicycle: “My objective was to go there and try to make friends. A foreigner showing up there is not a common thing, so many people want to know what you are doing there. It isn’t too difficult to talk to people.”

 

“People go from a traditional village structure to an elevator culture.”

 

There is an upside and a downside to the emergence of China’s new cities, Shepard explains: “There are people who are very happy to move there. Because they get a urban hukou, they feel like they’re moving up.”

A hukou is an urban residency permit. In China’s new towns, residents will get a different permit than their countryside one. It enables them to legally work within the cities and enjoy certain benefits. Health care, for example, is better than in the countryside. For some elderly people from rural areas, moving to the city could literally save their life.

10196_2010040211330813q09Quiet streets in Ordos (source).

But there is also a big downside to China’s urban migration, Shepard says: “Many people are moving from a traditional village structure, where people make daily social connections, and ask each other what they are doing today and what’s for dinner tonight. With these high apartment buildings, this structure changes; they don’t do that anymore. It’s an elevator culture. People also come from so many different places that they don’t really connect.”

Some people who move to the city feel like they have lost their livelihood: “There are those who have been out in the hills for thousands of years. Once they’re in the towns, they suddenly have to pay for water and electricity. They have to go to the store to buy things.”

 

“Good behaviour is the answer to Ordeos becoming a civilized city.”

 

The issues that come with China’s new towns are also visible in The Land of Many Palaces, a documentary by Adam James Smith and Song Ting. Filmmaker Smith came to Amsterdam’s ‘Pakhuis de Zwijger’ on November 12th 2015 to screen the film and talk about it, an initiative by the Centre for Urban Studies (University of Amsterdam).

The Land of Many Palaces focuses on Ordos (鄂尔多斯), a 21st century city in the deserts of Inner Mongolia. The city holds an estimated one-sixth of the country’s coal reserves. After the coal was discovered, the region went from becoming one of the poorest to one of richest in China. Coal exploitation has created many millionaires investing in infrastructure and real estate. New city district Kangbashi sprung from the desert sands, and is the result of such an investment. Ordos Kangbashi was built between 2005 and 2010. It has sky scrapers, stadiums, a grand theater, museum and thousands of apartments. It is ready to house one million future residents.

The documentary starts with a scene that shows how Mrs. Yuan, the community manager, guides people through their new homes. Some don’t know how to use modern toilets, stoves or heaters. Mrs. Yuan teaches them, and also shows them how the television works (“There are over 100 channels!“) These new surroundings are in stark contrast with those of a nearby village, where one farmer is working on the land. The houses are abandoned. “They all moved to the new city,” he says: “In the countryside, you can live for months without spending money”.

 

 

The Land of Many Palaces shows that moving to one of China’s ‘ghost cities’ is not just about moving houses, it is about changing lifestyles. Farmers have to get used to living in the city and cope with all the things that come with it. Community staff members go to public places to teach them “how to become a civilized person”; telling people that good behaviour is the answer to Ordeos becoming a civilized city.

 

“If the developers of the new city need your land, they will take it anyway.”

 

Employment is a major problem in China’s new cities. Many farmers have ample experience in raising pigs and working on the land, but their experience is of no use in the urban environment where there is more need for hair stylists and shop attendants. The lack of jobs is one important reason why farmers don’t want to migrate from the countryside to the city.

gettyimages-125673327Center of Ordos. 

One film scene shows a village where only two farmers are left. The rest of the villagers have already moved to the city. Ordos’s community manager visits the farmers to convince them to trade their clay houses for an apartment flat. When they decline, she says: ““If the developers of the new city need your land, they will take it anyway.”

 

“When we first visited Ordos in 2011, we expected to find a ghost city. Instead, we found a place that is becoming a city.”

 

After the end of the film’s screening, Adam Smith takes questions from the audience. About the start of the project, he says: “When we first visited Ordos in 2011, we expected to find a ghost city. Instead, we found a place that is becoming a city.”

Many of China’s so-called ghost cities look like ambitious dreams that turned into nightmares. “When we first started the project, we were somewhat indoctrinated by the general media reports in Europe and North America on how this top-down style of urbanization and city-building is wrong. But the more time we spent there, the more we started to think like the people there,” Smith says: “Nobody felt like what was going on was wrong. They were uplifted by the plan.”

Smith explains how many people, ironically, were pushed out of the cities to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. In many of these areas it was hard to farm, and people struggled to survive. In some way, being taken to the city is like being saved for many: “We met very few people, if any, who were opposed.”

 

“Ghost cities are a hot topic, but ex-ghost cities are not.”

 

Although ghost cities are a hot topic, ex-ghost cities are not. “When a ‘ghost city’ comes to life we barely hear about it anymore”, Shepard writes. Although many of China’s new cities are still virtually empty, there are also those that have now become busier. Shepard names a few example in his article such as Dantu (Zhejiang), Wujin (Changzhou), and perhaps the most famous one, Shanghai’s Pudong.

“For the past few years I’ve been chasing reports of ghost cities around China, but I rarely ever find one that qualifies for this title. Though the international media claims that China is building cities for nobody, I often find something very different upon arrival”, Shepard writes.

Earlier this year, Global Times and China Daily issued a statement from the mayor of Ordos on Sina Weibo, saying: “We are not a ghost city“. Over the past year 10,000 houses were sold, it says. That still leaves 34,000 houses empty.

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“They buy it to sell it, but none of those rich people actually live there,” one netizen responds: “The mayor just doesn’t wanna lose face.”

Other netizens say they like the city of Ordos: “The town is quite pretty, and the air is good,” user ‘392‘ writes. “I’ve just been to Ordos, and it’s really not as bad as the media says,” another netizen says: “The city is well-built, the air is good and it is safe.”

One other Weibo user also seems to like Ordos: “Finally a place in China that is not crowded yet.”

Maybe China’s ‘ghost cities’ are not that bad after all. They just might need another decade to really come to life.

By Manya Koetse

Thanks to The Bookworm & Pakhuis de Zwijger, Wade Shepard and Adam James Smith.

Interested in Wade Shepard’s work? For more information about his book click here, and you can find his blog here.

To know more about The Land of Many Palaces, check out the documentary website here.

featured image by Manya Koetse

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Insight

The Day After the “3•21” Devastating Yancheng Explosion: 47 Dead, 640 Injured

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The enormous explosion at a chemical plant in Jiangsu’s Yancheng on March 21st has sent shockwaves through the country. While state media are focusing on the efforts of rescue workers, Chinese social media users are mourning the lives lost and are searching for those still missing.

One day after a devastating explosion occurred at a chemical plant in Yancheng city in Jiangsu, at the Xiangshui Eco-chemical Industrial Zone, the number of confirmed casualties and injured has now gone up to 47 dead, 90 critically injured, with around 640 requiring hospital treatment (issued Friday 19.00 local time).

The explosion happened on Thursday around 14.48 local time at the Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical Plant (天嘉宜化工厂). Images and videos of the explosion and its aftermath quickly spread on Weibo and other social media, showing the huge impact of the blast.

Site of the explosion.

Footage showed shattered windows from buildings in the area and injured persons lying on the streets. Other videos showed children crying and blood on the pavements. There are residential areas and at least seven schools located in the vicinity of the chemical plant, leading to injuries among residents and students due to glass that was allegedly “flying around.”

According to official sources on Weibo, a total of 930 firefighters worked side by side to control the fire.

Trending photo on Friday: exhausted firefighters.

The hashtag “Lining Up to Donate Blood in Xiangshui” (#响水市民自发排队献血#) also attracted some attention on Weibo, with state media reporting that dozens of local residents have donated blood to help the injured. On Thursday night, there were long lines at a local mobile blood donation bus.

What is quite clear from the Chinese media reports on the incident and the social media posts coming from official (authorities) accounts, is that there is an emphasis on the number of people who are helping out, rather than a focus on the number of people that were killed: there are at least 930 firefighters, 192 fire trucks, 9 heavy construction machinery, 200 police officers, 88 people rescued, 3500 medical staff, 200 people donating blood, etc. – the number of people joining forces to provide assistance in the area is overwhelming.

Meanwhile, there are desperate family members who are turning to social media in search of loved ones, posting their photos and asking people if they know anything about their whereabouts since the explosion.

While dozens of Weibo users are airing their grievances on what happened, there are also more personal stories coming out. The wife of the local factory worker Jiang is devastated; her husband of four years, father of one son, celebrated his 30th birthday on Thursday. She received a message from her husband twenty minutes before the explosion occurred. He was one of the many people who lost their lives.

On Thursday, Chinese netizens complained that their posts about the Yancheng explosion were being taken offline, suggesting that information flows relating to the incident are being strictly controlled. “This is just too big to conceal,” one commenter said.

This is not the first time such an explosion makes headlines in China. In 2015, an enormous explosion at a petrol storage station in Tianjin killed 173 people and caused hundreds of people to be injured. Two years ago, an explosion at a Shandong petrochemical plant left 13 people dead.

By Manya Koetse 

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Insight

Chinese Netizens’ Response to New Zealand Mosque Attacks

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The shocking New Zealand mosque attack, killing at least 49 people, is making headlines worldwide. On Weibo, it is the top trending topic today. A short overview of some of the reactions on Chinese social media.

At least 49 people were killed and 20 wounded when an attacker opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday. According to various media reports, one man in his late 20s had been arrested and charged with murder. Three other people, two men and one woman, have also been arrested in relation to the attack.

Footage of the brutal shootings, which was live-streamed by the gunman, has been making its rounds on social media. Although the videos are being taken down from Facebook and Twitter, people are still sharing the shocking images and footage on Weibo at time of writing.

The gunman, who has been named as the 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant, reportedly also posted a 70-page manifesto online expressing white supremacist views.

On Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo, the New Zealand mosque attack became a number one trending topic on Friday night, local time, with the hashtag “New Zealand Shootings” (#新西兰枪击案#) receiving at least 130 million views, and thousands of reactions.

“It takes the collaborate efforts of all people to work on a beautiful world, it just takes a few people to destroy it,” one Weibo user wrote.

“Extremism is incredibly scary,” others said. “I saw the livestreaming video and it’s too cruel – like a massacre from a shooter video game.” “I’m so shaken, I don’t even want to think of the panic these people must have felt.”

“I’ve seen the footage, and this is so horrible. It makes me want to cry. It’s a massacre.” Other commenters also write: “This is just so inhumane.”

One aspect that especially attracted attention on Chinese social media is that, according to many people posting on Weibo and Wechat, the main suspect expressed in his manifesto that the nation he felt closest to in terms of his “political and social values” is “that of the People’s Republic of China.”

Journalist Matthew Keys reportedly uploaded the main suspect’s manifesto, which was published on January 21, 2019. This article says that to the question about whether he was a fascist, Tarrant indeed wrote that “the nation with the closest political and social values to my own is the People’s Republic of China.”

Some netizens wrote that, in mentioning the PRC, the shooter “also vilified China.” Others also said that the shootings definitely “do not correspond to the values of China.”

There are also dozens of Weibo users who blame Western media for the attacker’s comments on China corresponding to his own values. “What he appreciated is what Western media is propagating about our management of Muslims in Xinjiang,” some say: “He was influenced by the foreign media disseminating that we’re anti-Muslim.”

“He sympathized with the China portrayed by foreign media, not with the real China.”

“Western governments and media have demonized China for a long time, what they are making Western people believe about what China is, this is what the New Zealand shooter felt closest to in terms of his values,” one person wrote.

“These kinds of extreme-right terrorists would be destroyed in China,” others wrote.

Among all people expressing their disgust and horror at the Christchurch shootings, there are also those expressing anti-Muslim views and hatred, with some comment sections having turned into threads full of vicious remarks.

Then there are those criticizing the Muslims that are also commenting on Weibo: “The Muslims in China were quiet when it was about the [islamist extremist] attacks in Kunshan, but now that this massacre happened at the pig-hating mosque, they are all bemoaning the state of the universe and are denouncing terrorism.”

Among the thousands of reactions flooding in on Weibo, there are countless comments condemning those who turn the shocking attack into an occasion for making anti-Muslim or political remarks. “This is a terrorist attack. The victims are ordinary people. Why would you make malicious comments?”

One Weibo user simply writes: “The world has gone crazy.” “A tragic event. I hope the victims will rest in peace.”

By Manya Koetse 

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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