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.”
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.
Quiet 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.
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.
“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
To know more about The Land of Many Palaces, check out the documentary website here.
featured image by Manya Koetse
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Noteworthy Weibo Moment: Qingdao Government Account Shows Support for LGBT Community
“The best official account post I’ve ever seen on Weibo.”
Just a day ahead of the 2019 International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (May 17), a Qingdao government social media account has attracted the attention of Chinese netizens for showing support to the gay community.
“In a world of equality, let all people turn away from homophobia” (“在平等世界里，让所有人不再恐同”), the post said, commenting on the recent trending news of a 15-year-old boy who came out as gay and posted a suicide note on his Weibo account.
“The incident shows us the difficulty and hopelessness homosexual people are suffering. The world should be equal and free, and as the International Day Against Homophobia (#517不再恐同日#) is nearing, let’s call on the people around us to express our love of equality and kindness,” the post said.
Within a day after it was published, the Qingdao Fabu post was shared over 30,000 times and received more than 23,000 likes.
A Weibo Suicide Note
The Weibo user referred to by the Qingdao local government account had posted a lengthy letter on the night of May 14. Using an anonymous Weibo account (@用户7138253812), the author, identifying himself as a 15-year-old boy from Qingdao, came out as gay and shared his pain and grievances over the pressure he faced.
Because the boy wrote he wanted to “leave this world forever” and ended his post with a farewell, many people became worried about the boy’s mental state and whereabouts.
Later that day, another post was published on the same anonymous account saying: “Thank you everyone, everything is fine.” The farewell note has since been deleted. See a full translation of the text below this article.
Qingdao Official Account Receives Praise
With its post supporting the young gay man and the LGBT community at large, the Qingdao Government official news account is receiving hundreds of comments praising them.
Besides their original post, the Qingdao government account also posted a total of nine different quotes relating to LGBT issues, including one from Taiwanese film director Ang Lee saying “There’s a Brokeback Mountain in everyone’s heart.”
Another one stresses the fact that homosexuality is not a mental illness, with yet another quote mentioning that the Netherlands became the first country in 2001 to legalize same-sex marriage.
As the Qingdao Weibo post is gaining more popularity on Weibo at time of writing, these are some of the popular comments below:
- “This is so awesome for an Official Weibo account!”
- “That an Official account would post this.. seeing this makes me tear up. I will always support equal rights.”
- “I’m crying, this was really sent out by an Official account.”
- “This must be the best Official account post I’ve ever seen on Weibo.”
- “Let’s give it up for Qingdao!”
- “This means progress!”
- “I’m not from Qingdao, but I will follow this account from now on. This [post] shows you have guts.”
- “I feel proud to be from Qingdao.”
- “I am so moved by your post. Thank you for your support. I hope your light will shine on all the people.”
Over the past few years, Chinese social media have seen many times when gay content was censored.
One important moment occurred in 2017, when the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA, 中国网络视听节目服务协会) issued new criteria to strengthen regulations over online audio-visual content on Chinese platforms. One of the new regulations regarded the removal of online content that “displays homosexuality” (“展示同性恋等内容”), grouping homosexuality together with incest and sexual perversity as “abnormal sexual behavior.”
Although it is very noteworthy for an official government account to publish social media posts that strongly support the gay community, it is not the first time it has happened.
In July of 2017, the official account of the Communist Youth League of Fujian published a post that stated “Being gay is no disorder!” Many netizens at the time, like today, said the unexpected support moved them to tears.
Sometimes on Weibo, it’s the little posts about big matters that seem to matter the most – especially when they come from a government-run source.
Full Translation of Suicide Note
The suicide note in question has been deleted from Weibo, but The Beijing LGBT Center translated the text and posted it on its Facebook page.
Please note that the following translation is not a What’s on Weibo translation and that all credits for this translation go to the Beijing LGBT Center. Follow them on Facebook here:
“I am from Qingdao and am a 15-year-old student from Laoshan No.8 Secondary School.
I am a homosexual. I never expected I would be able to utter this word.
Growing up a frail and meek boy, I am that ‘fem’ everyone is referring to. An easy target, bullied, assaulted, teased, abused, and shunned by classmates and teachers alike. This is how I grew up, and so did many other gay children. Naive as I was, I did not fight back or told anyone about my feelings. I was afraid, and am still afraid of this world. I acted strangely and they called me lunatic, but I know that was my only way to protect myself. After I tried in vain to fit in, I chose to close myself from this world, and this is how I lived my childhood.
By sheer luck, I had a short childhood. I started to realize what’s ‘strange’ with me in grade 5 or 6. I remember how I exulted when I first read about affirmative answers about gay on Zhihu (Chinese version of Quora). But I was soon overwhelmed by those derogatory, abusive, and hurtful answers. I cried the whole night and yet I put my mask back on the very next morning. What people saw as maturity in me was in fact avoidance and isolation.
Things got a little better in secondary school because I am a top student. There was less bullying but I reminded that fem guy teased and mocked at by everyone. Among the worst was my class teacher, Chen Feng. For two years he inflicted me with corporal punishments. Listening to him indoctrinating his banal views was pure suffering. I’ve got enough of his so-called masculinity values, his genders have their fixed roles, his homosexuals are modern perverts. Yet he is not alone among his peers and colleagues. I have had enough of my teachers’ cursing, smearing, ridiculing, and insulting anything related to gays. All their rubbish made me sick and isolated.
Gradually I become irritable and violent. I came out to my mother rather abruptly. Though she seemed to have acquiesced it, I was giving in to the pressure and thinking about ending everything. I have no idea what happened to me and I know choosing death is not courageous, but rather an act of cowardice. I chose to avoid my family and I knew my indifference and avoidance hurt them, especially my mom, the one person who loves me the most.
My father is a weak and arrogant scum and inflicted my mother her whole life. He broke down my door when I was most vulnerable and isolated and banged my head on the wall. At that moment, I only wished he could kill me. But he was stopped by my sister.
Just now, my so-called “family” once again stormed my room and hurled their most insulting curses at me. I realized that my mom might be the only person who can accept me in this world. Or maybe she was just pretending too.
This is not the first time I’ve thought about dying to end it all. Just a few days ago, I scaled high trying to leave all these sufferings. When I called my mom to hear her voice one last time, I hesitated, climbed down and wandered for miles away from home.
Now I have once again escaped from home with that scum’s phone in my hand. Yes, this account is my father’s. I want to tell the world what I’ve always wanted to say and to do. And then leave this world forever.
I understand living on might be the better choice. I could have a bright future and watch this world getting more open and inclusive. But I have had enough. I am sorry to have vented everything on here, and I am sorry to be so weak my entire life. I wanted to do something for this world but in reality, I can do nothing. I know, China will not have its own Stonewall; its people can put up with anything. I am losing control of emotion…
I apologize for my cowardice. To be honest, I am not innocent. But even if I had the courage to change the world, a stab in the back could have easily killed me. I have chosen to solve the radical question with the radical way.
I love you all, the kind and beautiful people of conscience, I trust you to make the world better. If there were a heaven, I will send my blessings…I wish my story will be a faint voice to your fight.”
* Communist Youth League: “Being Gay is No Disorder!”
* Why the Gay Kisses in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Won’t Make It to Chinese Cinemas
* Weibo Administration: “We’re No Longer Targeting Gay Content”
* China’s Online Gay Revolution and Rainbow Warrior Geng Le
By Wendy Huang and Manya Koetse
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Zhejiang Movie Theatre Displays Blacklisted Individuals in Avengers Movie Preview
A special ‘trailer’ before the Avengers movie premiere showed the audience blacklisted individuals.
A local movie theatre in the city of Lishui, Zhejiang province, showed a noteworthy ‘trailer’ before the Avengers: End Game premiere on April 24.
Chinese state tabloid Global Times reports that the sold-out premiere had a ‘surprise’ moment just before the movie was about to start: a short Public Service Announcement by the Liandu district court of Lishui displayed people who are currently on a ‘debt dodging black list.’
The short film also informed the cinema audience of potential consequences of being on a blacklist, including no traveling abroad, and no traveling by air or on high-speed trains.
According to Global Times, the local district court has registered a total of 5478 people on its blacklist since 2018.
The names and faces of more than 300 people on this list have reportedly been displayed on cinema screens, public LED screens, and on buildings. Allegedly 80 of them have since complied with court orders.
As part of China’s emerging Social Credit system project, there are public court-issued lists of ‘trust-breaking enforcement subjects’ (信被执行人名单), referring to people or companies who have failed to comply with court orders.
Individuals on the judgment defaulter blacklist system run by the court system, whose information is publicized, can risk having their photos and names displayed on local LED screens on courthouses or other buildings (Dai 2018, 26).
Beyond that, they will face restrictions in various ways, from being denied bank credit to being restricted from staying in high-end hotels or traveling by air.
On Weibo, the Global Times post on the noteworthy cinema preview received over 4000 shares. The same news was also reported by CCTV and Phoenix News.
Some commenters joke about the Public Service Announcement, saying: “Blacklisters [can now say]: Mum! I was on TV! On a big IMAX screen! Together with the Avengers!”
Others leave comments in support of the measure, calling it “creative,” and saying: “This is good, we should implement this all across the country.”
“Blacklisters should be displayed on all kinds of platforms.”
“This is for people to lose on their social credit,” another commenter writes: “If you don’t want to ‘socially die’ then just fulfill your duties.”
But not everyone agrees. “People are buying a movie ticket to see their film,” one person says: “They suddenly get exposed to this kind of content that has nothing to do with them, what about their rights as a consumer?”
By Manya Koetse
Dai, Xin, Toward a Reputation State: The Social Credit System Project of China (June 10, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3193577 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3193577 [5.3.19].
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