Ghost Cities of China

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I would recommend to anyone who wants a short, accessible read about the effects of Chinese economic development to ask their local library, if there is one left, to order Ghost Cities of China. For anyone who has visited China beyond the usual tourist destinations and wonders why a large railway station has been built in the middle of a desert, or where the roads with no cars go to, or whether anyone will ever live in the multiplying tower blocks, Wade Shepard’s book provides some answers.

I have visited one of the “ghost cities”, Thames Town in Shanghai near the end of tube line 9. It is a very surreal place. It feels like a film set deserted except for couples having their wedding photos taken. This estate was built to house 10,000 people, but nine years after completion it remains empty. It is built to look like a quaint middle class English village, complete with a church, fish and chip shop and statues of Winston Churchill and Harry Potter.

There have been numerous reports in the Western media about China’s so called ghost cities. Shepard explains that actually Thames Town is something of an anomaly rather than an indication of how things are in China. He spent seven years travelling round the “ghost cities” and as he was brought up in the Rust Belts of the US, has seen first hand cities whose economic basis for existence is no longer there. In contrast to the American rust belt cities, the “ghost cities” are part of China’s economic boom and process of urbanisation. In 1949 12 percent of the Chinese population lived in cities; now the figure is over 50 percent.

Shepard describes the massive economic development taking place across every region of China. He explains that all the land belongs to the government; it has the right to clear the land, take it over, build on it or sell it on to a developer or use it as collateral for loans. Until 1978 rural land was owned by the collective and urban property was owned directly by the state. Although technically Chinese people might own their house or apartment they do not own the land that it is built on. Land held by collectives has been sold by village chiefs from underneath the residents, who have lived there in some cases for generations. Villages rarely get compensated for stolen land, so they are left with no land and the vast majority don’t receive the urban Hukou, rights for them and their children to education, health and housing in the cities.

This came to a head in the village of Wuhan in September 2011 when the villagers rose up and chased the Communist Party and police out of town. As a result of the uprising the villagers were allowed to elect their own representative. However the representative soon resigned after he discovered that it was impossible to get the stolen land back or to develop the village without selling off the land.

House prices in the four main cities, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai, rose at between 20 and 25 percent in 2014 alone. Over a fifth of urban households own more than one house, not as a second home but as an investment. Within the cities affordable housing is only 3 percent of total houses being built. Shepard describes the devastation this urbanisation has had on the environment. It is estimated that China has lost 50 percent of its rivers since 1990 and 40 percent of the remaining rivers are heavily polluted. Some 78 percent of China’s electricity comes from coal, the production of which not only destroys air quality but also depends on water. The coal producing province of Hebei once had over 1,000 lakes and now has fewer than 90.

Attempts by the state to reduce its dependency on coal have resulted in half of world hydropower being generated in China. Shepard describes in detail the dangers of this extensive dam building programme. At the same time China is the largest producer of wind energy in the world. Shepard has many criticisms of the actions of the Chinese government, which have resulted in the gap between rich and poor widening as the economy has grown; had a devastating effect on the environment; increased car usage which has resulted in high levels of pollution and congestion.

So it is interesting that he has been able to hold book launches within China itself. I suspect this is because he explains why, within five years, ghost cities can suddenly become vibrant places to live. In 200 pages Shepard has covered a great deal, however I would have liked to know more about the living conditions of the migrant workers who were building these cities. Maybe that could be volume 2: Ghost People.