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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 Insight

“I’m One of 1.4 Billion” Goes Trending as China’s Population Now Tops the 1.4B Number

China’s total population is up, but its birth rate has fallen to the lowest level.

Manya Koetse

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According to the latest numbers, China’s birth rate has hit a new low, but state media are instead highlighting the fact that China’s population has now surpassed 1,4 billion.

This Friday, official data, released annually by the National Bureau of Statistics, shows that the total Chinese mainland’s population has surpassed 1.4 billion at the end of 2019.

In light of this news, Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily launched the hashtag “I’m One of 1.4 Billion” (#我就是14亿分之一#), propagating a sense of unity among such a massive population.

This message was also reiterated by other accounts, such as the Shenzhen Police, that said: “We’re all one big family, our name is China, we have a lot of brothers and sisters.”

China’s Birth Rate Falls to Lowest

While People’s Daily is publicizing the 1.4 billion number, the annual statistics also show that China’s birth rate has fallen to its lowest since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Although only 14,65 million were born in mainland China in 2019, the death rate of the country was also lower than before – meaning that the total population number still went up from 1,39 billion to 1,4 billion in the last year.

One thread started by People’s Daily on Weibo received nearly 530,000 likes by Friday afternoon, with thousands of Weibo users posting a response to the latest numbers.

Many netizens responded to the news in a similar fashion, saying: “There are already enough people [in China] now, I don’t need to have children anymore,” or: “Good, there’s so many people, I don’t have to worry about having kids.”

China’s marriage rates hit a new low in 2019 after dropping year by year.

Over recent years, various trends in Chinese (online) media have highlighted the existing social issues behind China’s dropping marriage and birth rates.

The rising costs of living and the fact that many among Chinese younger generations “prefer to marry late,” are often mentioned as an explanation for China’s decline in marriage rates and the interrelated lowering birth rates.

But China’s so-called ‘leftover’ single men have also been pointed out as a “crisis,” with China having millions of more men than women of marriageable age – partly a consequence of the one-child policy and general preference for baby boys.

Although Chinese couples are allowed to have two children since 2015, the new regulations have not had the desired effect, with many couples simply not wanting a second child or not being able to afford it.

For some years, ‘leftover women’ were mentioned as a reason for China’s declining marriage rates; China’s well-educated, career-oriented, urban single women were sometimes singled out for making it harder for China’s unmarried men to find a wife because of their ‘choice’ to postpone marriage and family life. This has increased the pressure on China’s single women to get married, which has become a recurring topic of debate on Chinese social media.

Today’s responses on Weibo seem to indicate that many young people are still not very eager to have children. “Let’s not add to the population, it’s enough burden for the planet,” some say.

Others say the number of 1,4 billion make them or their action seem “irrelevant” and “tiny.”

There are also those with entirely different concerns about the number: “There are 1,4 billion in China now, and yet I’m still not able to find a boyfriend!”

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

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.

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China Insight

Top 10 Buzzwords in Chinese Online Media

From blockchain to hardcore, this is an overview of China’s media top buzzwords over the past year.

Jialing Xie

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Some of the expressions and idioms that have been buzzing in Chinese media the past year. What’s on Weibo’s Jialing Xie explains. 

Last year, we listed China’s “top ten buzzwords” for you (link), giving an overview of some noteworthy expressions on Chinese social media and in the media in 2018. Recently, the chief editor of the magazine Yǎowén Jiáozì (咬文嚼字) has again announced the “top ten buzzwords” in China of the past year.

Yǎowén Jiáozì, which literally means “to pay excessive attention to wording,” is a monthly publication focused on the Chinese language. Chinese (state) media have been widely propagating the magazine’s selection of the top words and terms of the past year in newspapers and on Chinese online media. The ten terms have also become a topic of discussion on Weibo over the past month, with the topic receiving 290 million views.

We’ve listed them for you here:

 

1. 文明互鉴 (wénmíng hùjiàn): “Mutual Learning”

  • Literal Meaning: “Mutual learning,” “Exchanges and mutual learning among different cultures and civilizations.”
  • Original context: This expression can be traced back to the era around and during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), a time of division, bloody battles, and political chaos. The demands for solutions brought forth a broad range of philosophies and schools. During this time, Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, Mohism and many others were developed leading to the phenomenon known as the “Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought.”
  • What does it mean now? In 2014, at the 4th summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward a major initiative to convene a conference on dialogue between Asian countries followed by an introduction emphasizing how “diversity spurs interaction among civilizations, which promotes mutual learning.” This sentence and expression were later repeated in speeches during various major events. In May 2019, President Xi once again emphasized the idea during the CICA, making the term pop up across Chinese state media again. 

 

2. 区块链 (qū kuài liàn): “Blockchain”

  • Literal Meaning: Blockchain Technology
  • Context: “Blockchain” is no longer a new concept since it was first introduced to the public around a decade ago. Development of the malleable blockchain technology has become an important trend in China’s tech market through the years. 
  • What does it mean now?  Blockchain was all the buzz in China over the past year. In early 2019, the Cyberspace Administration of China released the Provisions on the Administration of Blockchain Information Services. In October, President Xi singled out blockchain technology as an important breaking point in developing China’s core innovative technology and emphasized the importance of investing and stepping up research on the standardization of blockchain to increase China’s influence and power in the global arena. 

 

3. 硬核 (yìng hé): “Hardcore”

  • Literal Meaning: “Hardcore” – 硬 = hard, 核 = core. 
  • Context: “Hardcore” is known as the abbreviation for Hardcore Punk, a punk rock music genre originated in Southern California during the late 1970s. The term was later used to reference things of a certain level of complexity, such as “hardcore games” (versus casual games). The term started to mean something along the lines of “terrific” (厉害) or “strict”/”rigid” (刚硬)  and in Chinese, started being used in expressions such as “Tiger mom” (硬核妈妈) or “Hardcore game players” (硬核玩家).
  • What does it mean now?  As the Chinese science fiction blockbuster The Wandering Earth (流浪地球) was categorized as ‘hardcore science fiction’ (硬核科幻), the term ‘hardcore’ resurfaced as a popular word often popping up in (online) conversations.

 

 4. 融梗 (róng gěng): “Mixing up ideas”

  • Literal Meaning: “Integrating other people’s ideas into one’s own work” or “integrating punchlines,” “mixing up plots.”
  • Context: Over the past two decades, many literary works, including a few by prestigious Chinese writers, have been suspected of plagiarism and triggered heated discussions online — when it comes to drawing inspiration from other art and literary creations, where is the boundary between artistic freedom and plagiarism?
  • What does it mean now?  Soon after the Chinese movie Better Days (少年的你) came out in October (read more here), the writer of the original novel was accused of plagiarizing parts of Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino’s work. Many netizens argued that in the field of online literature, borrowing ideas from others (融梗) is ubiquitous and does not necessarily equate plagiarism because the act (融梗) itself requires original work and creativity. From October to now, the term has become a recurring topic in Chinese media. 

 

 5. “XX 千万条,XX 第一条” (XX qiān wàn tiáo, XX dì yī tiáo): “Out of millions of things,..is the first one”

  • Literal Meaning: “Out of ten million things,.. xxx comes first as the rule of thumb.” 
  • Context: List thinking is prevailing in China; from codes and regulations enacted by the government and laid down by companies, to the way teachers outline their lectures, the usage of “articles” (sometimes used as ‘rules’)  or “items” (条) to organize ideas and outline objectives is commonly seen in daily life.
  • What does it mean now? This phrase caught people’s attention after appearing in the aforementioned science fiction film The Wandering Earth, where a robot voice reminds a driver of traffic safety in a noteworthy way, saying something along the lines of: “There are thousands of road rules, but safety rules always come first. If you disregard safety, your loved ones will end up in tears.” Despite sounding like a sketch that rhymes poorly in Chinese, the lines stuck around and were later also used by Chinese traffic police across the country. The sentence structure is now also more often applied in various other contexts, for example: “There are thousands of things good for health, but sleep is the most important.”

 

6. 柠檬精 (níngméng jīng): “Lemon monster”

  • Literal Meaning: “Lemon mythical spirit” or “Sour lemon goblin”
  • Context: In ancient Chinese superstitions, it’s believed that animals and non-living objects may have the potential to grow into something with spiritual and immortal characteristics if meeting certain criteria. One of the criteria is to be around long enough, usually hundreds of years – if not thousands. For instance, in the classical work Journey to the West (西游记), the four main characters except Tang Sanzang are all spiritual beings derived from animal prototypes. 
  • What does it mean now? Lemon tastes sour (酸), which is often used to describe the feeling of envy or jealousy. When lemon becomes a spiritual being, it basically means the lemon has reached the ultimate stage of being a lemon and maximized its characteristics such as being terribly sour. The phrase is used to deride those who feel envious of others’ possession and achievement. Lately, the word is more often seen in a self deprecating humoristic context. For instance, when someone says “I’m a lemon jing now/I feel sour now( 我柠檬精了/我酸了)”, instead of expressing envy towards others, it’s more about acknowledging others more advantageous position compared to one’s own. 

 

7. The 996 work schedule 

  • Literal Meaning: 996 working hour system
  • Context: 996 is a work schedule commonly practiced by many companies in the internet and tech industry in China. With the 996 schedule, employees are required to work from 9 am to 9  pm, 6 days per week. 
  • What does it mean now? In April 2019, Jack Ma, the co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group, commented on 996 during an internal meeting with Alibaba employees. Ma’s comments seemed to justify how companies and employees can both benefit from the work schedule, however, the comments quickly triggered criticism after widely circulating online for allegedly violating of the Labour Law of the People’s Republic of China. 

 

8. “我太难(南)了” (wǒ tài nán le): “Life is so hard for me” 

  • Literal Meaning: “I’m feeling uneasy” or “life is so hard for me” 
  • Context: The phrase originated from a 10-second video self-posted by a user on video-sharing site Kuaishou earlier in 2019. As the video begins, the user – an older Chinese guy –  says to the camera: “I’m feeling uneasy…” followed by sad music. He then continues to say “Lao tie [bro/guys], (I) have been under a lot of stress lately.” The video, in which the man dramatically drops his head in his hands and seems to cry without tears, quickly went viral. The phrase “I’m feeling uneasy” was quickly adopted and applied in daily conversations.  
  • What does it mean now? The broad circulation of this phrase on the internet reflects that the uneasy feeling about life is relatable to many people. Acknowledging the stress in a self-deprecating humorous tone is in itself a way of relieving stress. To add a sense of humor to this phrase, many replace the initial character “难” (nán, adj. difficult) with “南” (nán, adj.& n. south), which is believed to be taken from the mahjong tile “南风”(south wind).  

 

9. “我不要你觉得,我要我觉得” (wǒ bùyào nǐ juédé, wǒ yào wǒ juédé): “I don’t want to know what you think, I only care about what I think”

  • Literal Meaning: “I don’t want to know what you think, I only care about what I think.”
  • Context: The line was taken from Xiaoming Huang, one of the guests in the third season of the entertainment TV show “Chinese Restaurant”, which was broadcasted in the summer of 2019. In the show, Huang, who took the role as the manager of the restaurant, is self-centered, and often disregards the opinions of others in matters such as menu ideas or pricing, showing his blind self-confidence and arrogance. In addition to this line, Huang’s frequently used language includes “There is no need to discuss this matter”, “Listen to me, I have the final say” and so on, and it spread quickly on the internet.  
  • What does it mean now? The popularity of this line reflects people’s ridicule and resentment against arrogant and dominant personalities.

 

10. 霸凌主义 (bàlíng zhǔyì): “Bully-ism”

  • Literal Meaning: “Bully-ism”
  • Context: The word 霸凌 (bàlíng) comes from the English word “bully.” Here, it refers to bullying other countries in the face of conflicts between nations. 
  • What does it mean now? As the trade conflict between the US and China was ongoing in 2019, many believed that the current government administration of the United States has been handling international affairs in almost a bullying manner. The slogan “America First” is also often perceived as a declaration in front of the entire world that the interests of the United States come first. As a buzzword, “bullyism” has come to be used by Chinese media in the context of international affairs. 

 

By Jialing Xie
Follow @whatsonweibo

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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