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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?

Manya Koetse

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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.

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 Digital

The Rise of Facial Recognition in China’s Real Estate Market

Some homebuyers counter the rise of facial recognition technology in real estate offices by wearing helmets during their visit.

Manya Koetse

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The issue of Chinese real estate agents using facial recognition techniques to collect information about their clients has sparked privacy concerns among Chinese social media users.

 
– By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Bobby Fung
 

A recent news report by Southern Metropolis Daily exposes how more and more real estate offices in China are working with facial recognition technologies to collect personal information about their prospective clients.

This is not the first time that the widespread use of facial-recognition techniques in the real estate industry receives attention in Chinese media. In 2019, some blogs already raised concerns over the use of such techniques and the negative impact it could have on homebuyers.

But why would the real estate industry benefit from buying expensive face recognition systems?

One reason is that these AI techniques could earn those within the industry a lot of money while reducing time-consuming conflicts over commission fees.

Using facial recognition within the real estate industry solves existing problems regarding the practice of commissions and splits in compensation, as the techniques can register when, where, and how often a certain client visited, and through which channels the eventual property purchase was made.

Besides the fact that the registration of biometric information violates the privacy of visitors, it could also mean they, as homebuyers, are losing out on big money. First-time visitors, not yet registered by the smart facial recognition cameras, can get much higher discounts.

The report by Southern Metropolis Daily claims that homebuyers could end up paying up to 300,000 yuan ($45,560) more when buying property if their face was previously recorded.

This is, among others, because agencies make a distinction between homebuyers who first come to view a property following a real estate agent’s own marketing campaign (a ‘natural visitor’ 自然到访客户) and those who have come through an intermediary (‘渠道客户’). In the latter case, the company also has to pay a commission fee to the intermediary.

This system has led to some potential homebuyers wearing helmets when visiting a real estate agency. Images of a certain ‘Brother Helmet’ (头盔哥) viewing property previously attracted attention online.

One of the companies that is mentioned by Southern Metropolis Daily as providing this kind of smart camera systems to companies is the Shenzhen-based Myunke (Mingyuan Yunke 明源云客), an internet company focusing on the “intelligent transformation and upgrading” of real estate marketing.

On Weibo, dozens of commenters suggest that the use of these techniques in China’s real estate industry is already widespread, with some sharing their own experiences as homebuyers and others saying: “I work in this industry, and it’s true.”

“Where’s our privacy?! This is too scary!”, others write, with some saying that the root of the problem lies in China’s “overly lax privacy protection.”

The ubiquity of commercial use of facial recognition has been attracting more attention recently amid rising privacy concerns.

One example is the use of built-in smart cameras by digital advertisement billboards, which measure customers’ reactions to advertisements. These digital billboard record, for example, if people look at the advertisement, how long they stay interested, and if they are male or female.

Earlier this week, a court in Hangzhou ordered a local wildlife park to delete the facial recognition data of one of its patrons, saying it was “unnecessary” and “lacked legitimacy.” An associate law professor at Zhejiang Sci-tech University named Guo Bing sued the safari park in 2019 for using mandatory facial recognition systems to register him and his wife as park visitors.

As reported by Sixth Tone, Guo decided to file this lawsuit on the grounds that the park had violated China’s consumer rights protection law by collecting sensitive personal information without the permission of its patrons.

In light of the heightened concerns around privacy and commercial use of facial recognition, a draft law to ban facial recognition systems in residential communities was recently submitted to the local legislation department in Hangzhou. This move may signal a stricter overview or even ban of mandatory collection of facial scans in residential areas.

Whether or not the use of facial recognition systems in real estate sales will be curbed any time soon is unclear. Some experts have pointed out, however, that the necessity and legitimacy of employing such techniques – which only protect the interests of the company and not the interest nor rights of the clients – is highly questionable.

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China Insight

Shandong Woman Dies after Suffering Abuse by In-Laws over Infertility

Anger over Shandong abuse case: “Is this how the law protects women?!”

Manya Koetse

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The only photo of the victim on social media is a childhood photo.

Just a month after the tragic story of a Chinese vlogger being killed by her husband triggered outrage on social media, another extreme domestic abuse case has gone trending on Weibo.

This time, it concerns the story of the 22-year-old woman named Fang Yangyang (方洋洋) who lived in Fangzhuang village in Dezhou, Shandong Province. The woman passed away in 2019 after suffering prolonged abuse by her husband and in-laws. Chinese media report that the abuse was related to Fang’s infertility issues.

Fang married her husband Zhang Bing (张丙) in November of 2016. It was an arranged marriage, with Zhang’s parents paying a bride price of 130,000 yuan (almost $20,000).

When Fang did not get pregnant after marrying her husband, she started suffering severe emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her husband and in-laws, beginning in July of 2018. Zhang and his parents reportedly beat Fang with wooden rods, refused to let her eat, locked her up, and let her freeze outside in the cold.

The in-law’s house on November 17, photo by Beijing News / Qiao Chi

Fang, who weighed 180 pounds (80 kilograms) when she got married, only weighed 60 pounds (30 kilograms) in early 2019. Beijing News reports that Fang, malnourished and weak, died on January 31st 2019 after suffering another beating by her in-laws.

The case received more attention on social media this week as the local Yucheng People’s Court (山东禹城法院) reviewed the case after an earlier verdict in January. The retrial is set to take place on November 27.

In January 2020, the court sentenced Fang’s husband and his parents for the crime of abuse. The victim’s father-in-law, Zhang Jilin (张吉林), received three years in prison, her mother-in-law, Liu Lanying (刘兰英), got 26 months in prison, and her husband’s sentence was suspended with a three-year probation time, as reported by Sixth Tone and China Daily.

The relatively light punishments triggered anger on Weibo, where the hashtag “Woman Suffers Abuse by In-Laws for Being Infertile and Dies” (#山东一女子因不孕遭婆家虐待致死#) has been trending for days, along with other similar hashtags (#女子因不孕被夫家虐待致死案重审#, #山东女子因不孕被虐待致死#).

A statement issued by Yucheng People’s Court said the court gave the defendants lighter punishment because they were truthful about their crimes and, in advance, paid a voluntary compensation of 50,000 yuan ($7630). The verdict will now be withdrawn.

In an interview with Southcn.com, Fang’s cousin stated the family had contacted police before when Fang’s in-laws would not allow the family to see her. The second time they contacted the police was after Fang had died.

Sources close to the family state that Fang’s mother had been diagnosed with a mental condition, with Fang allegedly also showing signs of mental disability, although this has not been verified by official sources. There are also sources claiming that the father-in-law, Zhang Jilin, was a heavy drinker who would get aggressive when drunk.

On social media, many people are outraged. “I just don’t understand it!”, one person writes: “It’s just because of societal pressure that this case is now going on retrial. But this is not justice!”

Public anger about the case grew louder due to another case trending at the same time, in which a Shenzhen mother who beat her 12-year-old daughter to death received a ten-year prison sentence (#母亲失手打死12岁女儿获刑十年#).

“This is unimaginable,” one Weibo user wrote: “Isn’t the idea of sentencing someone to actually punish them?!”

“This pains me so much, is this the actual society we’re living in?”

Besides the anger over China’s criminal justice system when it comes to domestic violence, there are also those who express disgust over the fact that the Zhang family apparently arranged a marriage for the sole purpose of producing offspring. “Are we still living in the Qing Dynasty?”

Many of the comments online are similar to those that flooded social media after the death of Lamu: “Is this how the law protects women?!”

We will report more on this story after November 27.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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