Connect with us

China Insight

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

Published

on

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.

005O5365jw1esaz6o55xkj318g0xctl9 005O5365jw1esaz6jm2pij318g0xc15b 005O5365jw1esaz6hxfg3j318g0xc16r

“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.

image_print

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.

Advertisement
1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

China Insight

From Hong Kong Protests to ‘Bright Future’ – The Top 3 Most Popular Posts on Weibo This Week

These are the most-read posts on Weibo this week.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

The three most-read posts on Weibo over the past week – an overview by What’s on Weibo.

The protests in Hong Kong have been dominating Chinese social media throughout August, and the past week has been no different. Two out of three most-read posts on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms, were about Hong Kong this week.

A wrap-up:

 

#1 Hundreds of Hong Kong Taxi’s Flying Chinese National Flag

Image shared by CCTV on their Weibo account.

While Hong Kong is gearing up for the 13th consecutive weekend of mass anti-government demonstrations, there are no signs of the protests fizzling out any time soon.

The Hong Kong protests started in March and April of this year against an extradition bill that would allow local authorities to detain and extradite people wanted in mainland China, and have intensified over the past weeks.

Although authorities in mainland China initially remained quiet on the topic, the Hong Kong demonstrations have been dominating the trending streams on China’s popular social media platforms for all of August.

Through videos, online posters, and slogans, Chinese state media have propagated a clear narrative on the situation in Hong Kong; namely that a group of “separatists” or “bandits” are to blame for the riots that aim to “damage public security” in Hong Kong and are “dividing the nation.”

News outlets such as People’s Daily and CCTV are sharing many stories that emphasize the One China principle and praise the Hong Kong police force. Those voices in Hong Kong speaking up for the police force and condemning protesters using violence have been amplified in Chinese media.

One story that became the number one trending post on Weibo this week is that of dozens of Hong Kong taxi drivers hanging the Chinese national flag from their cars (video).

On August 23, the taxi drivers reportedly formed a rally against violence at Tsim Sha Tsui, waving the flags and putting up signs saying “I love HK, I love China.”

The hashtag “500 Hong Kong Taxi’s Hanging up Chinese National Flags” (#香港500辆的士挂上国旗#), hosted by CCTV, attracted over 700 million views on Weibo. The CCTV post reporting on the event received over half a million likes and 47000 shares.

The commenters mostly praise the Hong Kong taxi drivers for “standing up for Hong Kong” and flying the Chinese flag.

In English-language media, it has mostly been Chinese state media reporting on the rally. Xinhua, Women of China, ECNS, and Global Times all reported on the August 23 peace rally.

CNN only shortly reported how “a number of taxis have been spotted driving around the city displaying Chinese flags — something that has not happened on this scale during previous protests” (link).

 

#2 ‘Bright Future’ Title Song for Upcoming Movie ‘The Moon Remembers All’

Over 266.000 Weibo users have been sharing a post by Chinese actor Li Xian (李现) on the title track for the new Chinese movie The Moon Remembers All or River on a Spring Night (Chinese title: 春江花月夜).

The upcoming movie itself is a very popular topic on Weibo recently, attracting 430 million views on its hashtag page alone. The movie just finished shooting and will be released in 2020.

The song titled “Bright Future” (前程似锦) is sung by Taiwanese singer Chen Linong (陈立农) and Li Xian, who are both the leading actors in the fantasy movie. The song was released on August 29.

The Moon Remembers All is produced by Edko Films and directed by Song Haolin (宋灏霖), also known for Mr. Zhu’s Summer (2017) and Fatal Love (2016).

 

#3 Interview with Hong Kong Pro-Beijing LegCo Member Junius Ho

The third most popular Weibo post of this week comes from Xia Kedao (侠客岛), a popular commentator account for the People’s Daily Overseas Edition, and concerns a live broadcasted interview with Hong Kong lawmaker and Legislative Council (LegCo) member Junius Kwan-yiu Ho.

Junius Ho (何君尧) is known as being ‘pro-Beijing’ and stirred controversy earlier this summer when a viral video showed him shaking hands with men wearing white T-shirts who allegedly were linked to the mob attacking people at the Yuen Long MTR station on July 21.

Xia Kedao describes Junius Ho as a “straightforward” politician who “speaks out for justice” and denounces “reactionaries.”

In the August 28 interview, that was live-streamed on Sina Weibo and later also written up, the Hong Kong legislator discussed the background of the protests.

Ho argues that the people with “ulterior motives” used the extradition bill for their own power struggle, distorting and exaggerating the facts behind the regulation.

The politician also partly links the protests to a “weak national consciousness” in Hong Kong due to its education curriculum and says that there have not been enough legal consequences for those participating in illegal activities and riots.

Thousands of commenters on Weibo write that they appreciate Ho for speaking out against the “pro-independence riot youth” and praise him for his “deep understanding” of mainland China.

By now, Junius Ho, who is also active on Weibo with his own account, has gathered more than half a million fans on his page.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

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

image_print
Continue Reading

China Insight

Exchange Student to Be Deported from China for Harassing Young Woman at University

An exchange student studying at the Hebei University of Engineering has been expelled and will soon be deported after harassing a female student.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

An exchange student from Pakistan who was studying at the Hebei University of Engineering (河北工程大学) has been expelled and detained after harassing a female student at the same university.

The incident, that is attracting much attention on Chinese social media this week, adds to the wave of recent controversies over the behavior and status of overseas students in mainland China.

On July 31, a female student at the Hebei university filed a police report against a Pakistani student who allegedly harassed her and attempted to forcefully kiss her and touch her breasts.

Screenshots of a supposed WeChat conversation between the exchange student and the female student, in which the man apologizes and claims the interaction is a “requirement for friendship,” are being shared on social media.

According to various reports, the police initially tried to mediate between the two students, which the female student refused.

Together with the school principal, the police then further investigated the case and found ample evidence of harassment after examining the university’s surveillance system.

On August 1st, the Hebei University of Engineering announced that they had expelled the student and that he will be deported from China. The announcement received more than 14,000 reactions and 150,000 ‘likes’ on Weibo.

The student is now detained at the local Public Security Bureau and is awaiting his deportation.

A photo of two officers together with a man in front of the detention center in Handan is circulating on social media in relation to this incident.

At time of writing, the hashtag page “Exchange Student to Be Deported after Molesting Female Student” (#留学生猥亵女学生将被遣送出境#) has been viewed over 310 million times on Weibo.

Among thousands of reactions, there are many who praise the Hebei university for supporting the female student after she reported the exchange student to the police.

“This may not be the best university, but at least they stand behind their students!”, some say, with others calling the university “awesome.”

Many say that the Hebei university should serve as an example for other Chinese universities to follow, with Shandong University being specifically mentioned by Weibo users.

Shandong University was widely criticized earlier this summer for its “buddy exchange program,” which was accused of being a way to arrange Chinese “girlfriends” for male foreign students.

Another incident that is mentioned in relation to this trending story is that of an exchange student who displayed aggressive behavior towards a Chinese police officer in July of this year. The student was not punished for his actions, which sparked anger on Chinese social media.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

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

image_print
Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Support What’s on Weibo

If you enjoy What’s on Weibo and support the way we report the latest trends in China, you could consider becoming a What's on Weibo patron:
Donate

Facebook

Instagram

Advertisement

Contribute

Got any tips? Suggestions? Or want to become a contributor? Email us as at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Popular Reads