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Chinese Ghost Cities Coming to Life

China’s so-called ‘ghost cities’ are a hot topic, with Ordos. Inner Mongolia. being of the most famous. Are China’s ‘Ghost Cities’ 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. 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 founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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What Happened to Hu Xinyu? Disappearance and Death of 15-Year-Old Student Attracts Widespread Attention in China

Although Hu Xinyu’s school had 119 cameras, his disappearance remained a mystery for 106 days. Near Hu’s remains, a voice recorder was found.

Manya Koetse

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After 106 days of searching, Hu Xinyu’s parents now know their son has passed away. The student’s remains were found at a grain warehouse near his school, but questions still linger on what happened to the 15-year-old and why it took so long to find him.

The case of a Chinese 15-year-old student named Hu Xinyu (胡鑫宇) has been trending on Chinese social media over the past few days. Ever since October of 2022, Hu Xinyu’s case has been a much-discussed topic.

The young man from Jiangxi was missing for 106 days before his body was discovered, leaving many unanswered questions surrounding his death and why search teams were unable to find Hu in the months before.

One of the reasons why Hu Xinyu’s disappearance has been attracting widespread attention is because many people believe there are some details or occurrences surrounding Hu’s case that are purposely being hidden or not revealed to the public.

 
Hu Goes Missing: A Timeline

The story begins on Oct. 14, 2022, when Hu Xinyu, a student at the Zhiyuan Middle School (致远中学), first went missing in Yanshan County, Shangrao City. The Zhiyuan Middle School is a private school where students live in the dorms, only going home to their families on days off. Hu allegedly had good grades as a student at Zhiyuan.

The incident attracted attention due to the peculiar circumstances surrounding it. It was first reported that security cameras allegedly had not recorded the student leaving the school’s premises and that Hu’s family suspected that the security camera system had been tampered with. The school reportedly has a total of 119 cameras installed on its premises.

Later reports claimed that security cameras did in fact capture how Hu left the dorms at 17:51 that day, but there was no footage of him actually leaving the school premises.

On Oct. 15, after unsuccessful attempts by friends and family to locate Hu Xinyu, he was reported as a missing person at the local police office.

On Nov. 20, when Hu had already been missing for over a month, local authorities set up a joint task force to try and speed up efforts to find Hu and further investigate his disappearance. Hu’s social media and bank accounts reportedly had zero activity since he went missing.

On Nov. 22, 2022, Chinese media reported that rescue and search teams still had not found a single clue about where Hu might be. Meanwhile, his parents were gradually losing hope of finding their son back alive.

Missing person posters for Hu Xinyu (via 163.com).

On Nov. 29, 2022, 46 days since Hu went missing, a chemistry teacher by the name of Wang was called in for questioning but he was later released. Weeks later, on Jan. 1, the police informed Hu’s relatives that – despite rumors – they ruled out the possibility of school staff being involved in Hu’s disappearance.

On Dec. 25, 2022, Hu Xinyu’s mother shared some more information via social media about some contents in her son’s old notebooks, in which Hu allegedly had noted how he felt that it was not easy for him to adapt to his living environment at the school and that he felt hindered by his introvert personality. These contents were later deleted again.

After Jan. 7, 2023, the search for Hu continued, including teams with search dogs, and thousands of people volunteered to join.

On Jan. 28, 2023, a body was found hanging near the woods in the Jinji mountain area in the town of Hekou. A voice recorder was also found at the scene.

The body was reportedly found by a local guard who was near the premises with his dog to look for a chicken that had wandered off. The dog started barking at something, and the guard then discovered the remains, which were not immediately clearly visible.

One day later, on Jan. 29, Chinese media reported that DNA research confirmed that the remains belonged to Hu Xinyu. He was wearing his school uniform when his remains were found. Hu’s parents decided to have a post-mortem examination of the body to determine the cause of death. The voice recorder found near Hu’s body was sent for analysis.

The hashtag “Hu Xinyu’s Remains Found” (#胡鑫宇遗体被发现#) was viewed over two billion times on Weibo.

 
The Latest Details Surrounding Hu Xinyu’s Death

Chinese news outlet The Paper reported that the location where Hu’s remains were discovered is a large grain warehouse just about 300 meters or a 5-minute walk southeast of the Zhiyuan Middle School.

According to a spokesperson of the search & rescue team, the area where Hu was found had been previously included in search efforts (#搜救队曾去胡鑫宇被发现地周围搜寻#).

The biggest questions that remain and that are asked by so many on Chinese social media are: how is it possible that search teams previously did not find Hu if this is where he was all along? Is the place where Hu was found a crime scene or not? How is it possible that security cameras did not capture Hu beyond the dorms?

Some details that surfaced over the past few days provide further information on the case.

On Jan. 31, Chinese media reported that one of Hu’s teachers had discovered something written down by Hu Xinyu on the last page of his notebook: “What would it be like if I’m not longer here?” (#胡鑫宇曾写如果我不活了将会变得怎么样#).

It has also become known that Hu Xinyu purchased the voice recorder that was found with his remains. He purchased the 4GB-capacity recorder on October 4, 2022.

At the time of writing, the data on the recorder was not able to be retrieved (#胡鑫宇购买录音笔数据删除后无法恢复#). A recording device such as the one found near Hu’s body might become damaged due very low or high temperatures or by moist and liquid (#胡鑫宇录音笔已送深圳检测#).

A recording device that allegedly is similar to the one found near Hu Xinyu.

If the original manufacturer would be able to get the data on the recorder, Hu’s relatives finally might get some of the answers they have been waiting for for so long.

According to Hu Xinyu’s father, search and rescue staff previously had in fact been inside the grain warehouse, but apparently did not come to the exact location within the warehouse where Hu was later found (#胡鑫宇父亲称未到达遗体发现点#).

On February 2nd, 2023, a press conference on the latest developments is planned to take place in Yanshan county in Shangrao at 10:00 AM.

 
Societal Distrust, Armchair Detectives, and Social Media

There are multiple reasons why the Hu Xinyu case is attracting such wide attention, and in some ways, the case is similar to the 2021 ‘Chengdu 49 Middle School Incident.’

At the time, the death of 16-year-old Lin Weiqi (林唯麒) also attracted nationwide attention and led to a wave of online rumors and theories on what might have happened to him.

Although Lin never went missing – he fell to his death from the school building, – there was also online speculation about corporal punishment and abuse taking place in the school, with one theory suggesting Lin had been hurt by a chemistry teacher. Just as in the Hu Xinyu case, netizens speculated that the school was trying to cover up the incident.

According to a joint statement later issued by the local propaganda department, police, and the Education Bureau said that they had come to the conclusion that the student had taken his own life due to personal problems.

The Lin Weiqi story sparked concerns at a time when security cameras had become a part of everyday lives. The fact that there were blind spots in the surveillance footage and that cameras never captured how and if Lin actually took his own life triggered doubts among Lin’s relatives and netizens alike.

The case surrounding Lin’s death also attracted nationwide attention in May of 2021.

Many reasoned that since there are security cameras all over the school, there must be a cover-up going on if the incident was not captured on camera. A similar thing happened in the case of the Tangshan BBQ Restaurant Incident in which female customers were assaulted and beaten by a group of men. Although the beating incident was captured by security cameras, the last part of the incident occurred at a nearby alley and was not captured by the outdoor security cameras. This led to a lot of speculation on what happened there and if local government officials were covering something up.

Another factor that plays a role is that there have actually been stories about schools or other institutes covering up scandals in recent years, such as in the RYB Education incident of 2017 that shocked the nation and did not help in improving trust in educational institutes.

Social media also plays an important role in how and why the Hu Xinyu case received so much attention. For some online communities of armchair detectives, identifying suspects and uncovering clues becomes like solving a puzzle, while following the latest details in these high-profile cases also becomes like a form of infotainment for others – comparable to the online sleuthing and major attention for the case of Gabby Petito in the U.S.

Furthermore, those who are closely related to the case also use social media to attract more attention. In Hu Xinyu’s case, his family members personally turned to social media and media reporters to ask for help or update with information. This also makes social media users more involved since they get the feeling they know the family, and sympathize with them. Very different from just reading a headline in the local newspaper, social media users feel involved and get involved.

For now, many social media users would like to see some clarity in this case and a conclusion so that Hu’s family can finally get some of their questions answered.

While many think it is highly likely that local authorities will soon come out with a statement that Hu committed suicide, others think there might still be other outcomes.

“It’s lasted long enough now,” some Weibo commenters write: “What is most important now is to finally know the truth.”

By Manya Koetse 

with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

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For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
 

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‘Divorce Day’: Queuing Up to Get Divorced after Chinese Spring Festival Holiday

The first day after the Spring Festival holiday is a busy one at the Bureau of Civil Affairs as couples are lining up to register a divorce.

Manya Koetse

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On the first day after the Chinese Spring Festival holiday (Jan. 21-27), there are long lines at the Civil Affairs Bureau in several places across China.

In Jiangxi, one resident shared how couples were queuing up to file for divorce on the first day the local Bureau of Civil Affairs reopened its doors. The lines were allegedly so long that people had to wait outside. Another video showed similar scenes at a local bureau in Anhui province. A third video showed crowded scenes of people lining up to register a divorce in Henan.

Chinese media accounts such as Toutiao News (@头条新闻), Vista (@Vista看天下), and Phoenix News (@凤凰周刊) all posted about the long divorce lines on Jan. 29, with one post about the topic receiving 70,000 likes.

“I thought they were lining up to get married, then I watched the news and saw they were actually lining up to get divorced..,” one commenter wrote. Others wondered if the busy lines for the divorce registration office might have something to do with the Covid outbreak over the past weeks, with some couples finding out that their partner actually is not very sympathetic when they are sick (also read this article).

The Chinese media outlets posting about the divorce registration lines mentioned how the ones who suffer the most in a divorce are the children, but many commenters did not agree with this statement, arguing that children suffer the most when parents stay together for the sake of the children and then continue fighting.

The divorce trend after the Chinese Lunar New Year has also been discussed in Chinese media and on social media in previous years (“春节后离婚潮”).

In Western countries, it is a known fact that divorce rates increase after Christmas time; the Monday after Christmas break is also dubbed “Divorce Day.” Some sources claim this is often due to quarrels that occur during Christmas and the financial pressures that come with the festive season.

It is arguably not much different for the Chinese New Year, when incidents taking place during family gatherings could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“The Spring Festival is like a big marriage minefield,” one commenter wrote: “When you return to your family home, it doesn’t just mean reuniting with your close relatives, there are also various tests of human relations and etiquette. A careless moment can cause conflicts between a married couple, leading to quarrels or even divorce. Is your marriage good or not? You will know during the Chinese New Year. After the New Year, there will be a wave of divorces.”

But the pandemic situation of the past years, in including the lockdowns, mental stress and financial difficulties, inescapably also play a role in the recent divorce wave.

In December of 2022, this Chinese blog article already predicted that more people would file for divorce after the Chinese New Year since the end of the holiday would coincide with the end of the Covid peak. In times of lockdown, and especially in times of sickness, couples easily get annoyed with each other and their love is put to the test.

Earlier this month, some Chinese media also reported that three years after the pandemic began, cities were already seeing a “divorce wave” (#疫情后一线城市离婚预约爆满#).

Some netizens comment that the ‘cool-off’ period that was introduced to allow couples a month’s time to think and revoke their divorce does not seem to have much effect.

Some people sympathize with those standing in line: “Celebrating the New Year can bring about a war in some families. The divorce season has started.”

By Manya Koetse 

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