Ghost Cities in China

Ghost Cities in China

Written by Alfonso Elizondo


The extraordinary rapidity of China’s urbanization process is unprecedented in the history of humankind. Between 2011 and 2013 China consumed more cement than the United States in the entire 20th century, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. However, there are no official data on the number of vacant houses because according to this Chinese government office, in reality it is very difficult to define what is considered a vacant house and how long it has been in that condition.


For that reason, Chinese authorities and scientists use other types of measurements, such as population density, to determine the true extent of the problem. So a ghost city is defined as one whose population density is less than the average density of the country. According to China’s Ministry of Housing and Rural Development, this average is less than 10,000 people per square kilometer.


So these studies only give an idea of ​​the average non-occupancy rate of a city and do not give information on the distribution of vacant houses. However, with the appearance of the largest Internet search engine, Baidu’s so-called ‘Big Data’, came a new way of studying ghost cities using the geolocation data of mobile applications and the positioning of the search engine to make an estimate of the country’s least populated urban areas.


Although Baidu has certain limitations because not all the residents are users of this Internet giant, approximately 50% of them (700 out of 1400 million) together with mobile telephony data facilitate an even closer view of this problem of ghost cities.


A study conducted by private scientific organizations over a six-month period distinguished between those cities that are partially depopulated and those that may be empty for random reasons such as tourism. By conducting the study for longer periods it was possible to identify not only ghost cities but also the dynamics of the different urban areas. It was shown that certain residential areas of some cities become empty during certain hours because of people going to work, or that there are areas like tourist locations that were also deserted outside the high season.


To some extent, researchers have been able to establish the population density of Chinese cities in areas of 100 square meters and have compared it with the average density calculated by the Chinese government and they have detected about 50 ghost cities across the country. But they have shown only 20 to the public, with the excuse that such data could cause harm to real estate companies. According to Heishan Wu, one of the authors of the study, their data could be used by the government to fine-tune the study of ghost cities, but the Chinese authorities are yet to contact him. Wu says that the fact that a city is empty does not mean that this will continue in the future and he mentions the city of Zhengdong that has attracted a large number of people in recent years and is not the only case since there are many other ghost cities where the same thing has happened in the last few years.


In contrast, journalist Wayne Shepard, author of the book Ghost Cities of China says that a ghost city is often ‘a place that has died,’ whereas in China they are often the complete opposite, since they are cities that have not yet come to life.


According to the Standard Chartered, typical occupancy rates for a new district in China are less than 20% during the first 5 years, but after 10 years they manage to reach up to 80% occupancy. China’s urban population has grown significantly and in 2011 it surpassed the rural population for the first time, reaching 55% in 2012.


Finally, according to the UN, it is expected that the urban Chinese population will reach 70% of the total population by 2030, coming close to the ratio in some European countries, such as Germany which has 74%.


Addendum: There are many hypotheses that derive from this brief description of China’s ghost cities. These might include, for example, the main idea of ​​the ruling Communist Party to not allow the country’s wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a few real estate and housing finance companies as happened in Western nations, or the possibility that the Chinese autocracy believes that as a country that is not involved in causing wars abroad to grow its economy, it is instead creating a new way of generating wealth that continues to be in the hands of the government, giving the middle and working classes a chance to obtain housing at affordable prices close to their places of work.


One could also think that because of robotization and the replacement of physical labor with new technologies, the Chinese government may have created the idea of building cities with the labor of millions of workers and peasants who have been left without work, at the same time that it is creating infrastructure that will be used in the future for the development of the great Chinese nation.


Many other hypotheses can be developed in  this regard, but the remnants of the myths of Western thought in our minds do not allow us to discern them.