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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 Arts & Entertainment

How The Golden Horse Awards Turned Dark after Taiwan Independence Speech

The annual Golden Horse Film Gala has been overshadowed by political controversy over Taiwan issue.

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The festive atmosphere at the 55th edition of Taipei’s Golden Horse Awards was overclouded by political remarks on stage about both an independent Taiwan and a unified Taiwan. The Film Festival’s ‘Taiwan independence’ controversy has become the talk of the day on Chinese social media.

The annual Taipei Golden Horse Film Awards (台北金馬影展) have been shrouded in controversy since Taiwanese director Fu Yue (傅榆), who won an award for the best documentary, expressed her hopes for an “independent Taiwan” in her acceptance speech, followed by a remark by Chinese mainland actor Tu Men (涂们), who expressed his joy over coming to “China, Taiwan.”

During the live-televised event, cameras often zoomed in on the audience. After the remarks by Fu Yue and Tu Men, the divide between Taiwanese and mainland guests became painfully clear from their mixed reactions – with people showing both support and disapproval.

Fu, whose documentary Our Youth in Taiwan focuses on the 2014 Sunflower Movement, was visibly emotional during her speech, which she concluded by saying that she hoped “the country can be regarded as truly independent entity one day” and that this was her “biggest hope as a Taiwanese.”

Although her speech received some cheers and applause from the audience, some shots of the audience also showed people clearly disapproving by not clapping or smiling at all.

Famous Taiwan director Ang Lee (李安), who chairs the Golden Horse committee, could be seen hesistantly smiling, frowning, and holding his hands together without clapping – an image that has since become a meme on Chinese social media.

Later on in the show, actor Tu Men from mainland China struck back at Fu Yue by saying he was honored to present an award in “China, Taiwan” (“很荣幸来到中国台湾”) and that “both sides were one big family” (“我感到两岸一家亲”).

That remark was followed by some audible gasps from the audience, with some people immediately showing their support by clapping and laughing, with others showing stern faces.

The live streaming of the awards received thousands of live comments on Youtube, with people saying things as: “We want our our Taiwan Island, give Taiwan back to us and give us independence” and “I’ll never support Taiwan independence, Taiwan will always be a province of China.”

But that was not all – the controversy further grew when leading Chinese actress Gong Li, chair of the jury , declined to stand on stage with Ang Lee at the end of the ceremony to present the award for Best Feature Film. According to the programme, the mainland actress was supposed to present the award together with Ang Lee, but when Li asked Gong to come up on stage with him, she did not respond.

Although it is not entirely clear what the context of this incident is – Ang Lee later explained that it was because she wanted to sit together with the other jury members – most netizens assume Gong’s move was a political one in response to the remarks on an independent Taiwan.

The hashtag “Gong Li Refuses to Confer Award” (#巩俐拒绝颁奖#) went trending on Chinese social media, receiving over 1,8 billion views on Weibo at time of writing. “Ang Lee responds to Gong Li Refusing to Confer Award” (#李安回应巩俐拒绝颁奖#) received 110 million views.

Reporter Simon Zhou posted a photo of the post-festival event on Weibo, showing empty chairs, saying that many mainland actors and actresses had refused to join the celebrations after the controversial event, even though Zhang Yimou, one of mainland China’s most acclaimed directors, took home the most awards for his film Shadow.

Since the end of the 55th edition of the Golden Horse Festival, the night’s events have been snowballing into a larger issue. According to the BBC, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen spoke out after the festival, saying that Taiwan “never accepted the phrase ‘China, Taiwan’, and never would, because Taiwan is Taiwan”.

Meanwhile, Chinese state media (People’s Daily, China Daily) have been promoting the hashtag “China Can’t Become Smaller” or “Not Even a Bit Can Be Removed from China” (#中国一点都不能少#) on social media, which is a slogan that was first used during the South China Sea arbitration in 2016.

The past year, discussions on the ongoing Taiwan Strait Issue have flared up multiple times. In August, Taipei-born actress Vivian Sung (宋芸樺) attracted thousands of comments on Weibo for a comment she made about Taiwan being her “favorite country” in an older interview.

In the same month, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen paid a visit to a Los Angeles chain of Taiwanese 85°C Bakery Café (85度C) while on her United States trip. The occasion, captured on photos, triggered major controversy among mainland netizens, who tied the event to the 85°C Bakery supposedly supporting Taiwan independence.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 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

Controversy over Yu Minhong Suggesting That Chinese Women Are Responsible for “Decline of the Country”

The famous businessman later apologized for his comments, but the damage was done.

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The comments from education mogul Yu Minhong on the moral degeneration of Chinese women leading to the degeneration of the country, have caused major controversy on Chinese social media.

The founder and CEO of the US-listed education institution New Oriental (新东方教育), Michael Minhong Yu (Yu Minhong 俞敏洪), has caused quite some consternation on Chinese social media for holding women responsible for the decline of the country.

The comments in question were made at the Shanghai Educational Forum (2018学习力大会) on Sunday, November 18, where Yu – also known as “the richest teacher in China” – spoke in front of a large audience and said: “Chinese women’s standard for picking men is now based on his ability to make a lot of money. In the end, if a country is doing well or not, often leads back to women. And now the degeneration [or ‘corruption’: duòluò 堕落] of Chinese women is leading to the degeneration of the country.”

Yu’s remarks, that can be viewed in the video below, drew some laughter from the audience.

The comments by Yu were made in light of his discussion on education, suggesting that people’s evaluation standards define the direction of education, just as women’s standards for men define the quality of men.

Yu’s comments soon went viral on WeChat and Weibo, where the hashtag “Yu Minhong discriminates against women” (#俞敏洪歧视女性#) received over 38 million views.

“What kind of logic is this, to suggest that Chinese women are picking men based on their ability to make money?!”, some commenters said: “Don’t generalize like that, and please respect women!” “Are all the women he knows like that?” some wondered.

The issue especially captured the attention of netizens when Chinese actress Zhang Yuqi criticized him on Weibo, saying that “[your] Peking University education and New Oriental have not helped you understand the value of females and the meaning of gender equality.”

Zhang’s post attracted over 92,000 comments at time of writing.

Despite the general anger over Yu’s comments, there were also those who expressed some support. “He might be a bit extreme, but many women are actually like that,” one male commenter wrote.

Yu Minhong later apologized for his remarks on his Weibo account, where he has over 14 million followers. His post, that had disabled comments, received nearly 240,000 likes. Yu wrote:

Today at a forum, I mentioned that ‘evaluation standards can determine the direction of education,’ and I used women’s standards for choosing spouses as an example. But I didn’t express myself correctly, and it has led to much misunderstanding among netizens – I greatly apologize for that. What I really wanted to say is: the standard of women in a country represents the level of that country. Women who have high inner quality, and mothers who have high quality, will raise high-quality children. Men are also led by women’s system of values. If it is an intellecual life that women pursue, then men will become wiser. If women only have money in their eyes, then men will desperately strive to make money, and neglect their spiritual life. If a woman is strong, then a man is strong, then a country is strong.

By now, many (video) reports and comment sections about Yu’s remarks have been taken offline.

Yu Minhong founded the educational institute New Oriental in 1993, and it has now become the largest provider of private educational services in China. As a successful businessman and a national political advisor, the “Godfather of English Training” is known for his outspokenness.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 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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