China’s Ghastly

Ghost Towns

by Selina Wabl


City block after city block sits bursting with hundred-story skyscrapers

and towering high rises, parks are complete with cheerful fountains and statues, sprawling suburban areas are filled with residential family houses, subways and high speed rail systems are implemented, and enormous shopping malls are adorned with joyous banners. The city stands in hopeful anticipation, ready to welcome the millions of people who are supposed to live in the fully equipped metropolis—but the inhabitants are nowhere in sight.

In the past ten to twenty years, China has faced a new epidemic in addition to its overpopulation: the country is now also the site of an overproduction of new cities. The excessive creation of urban development is a seemingly logical solution to human overpopulation within certain areas. But ironically, many of the new cities that have been built remain empty. Hence, these municipalities have been infamously dubbed “ghost cities.” This sudden burst of construction can be attributed to several factors within China: the rapidly rising population level, the government’s desire to relocate people from the countryside to the city, and the definition of success to some in Chinese culture (Johnson 2013). The justification to build many of the cities that later become infamous “ghost cities” comes from the myriad reasons that are mostly defined by China’s goals for the future of the country, and developers’ desire to make a profit. However, what greedy developers, conglomerates, and the government oversee, or purposely choose to ignore, is that a successful city consists of more than just the infrastructure, and that their ignorance of existing cultures and affordability can be hurting more than helping: both themselves and the economy. Consequentially, both the cities and their developers are left empty handed. 



One of the leading factors propelling the construction of cities are the Chinese government’s plans to move over two hundred and fifty million people from the countryside to the city in as few as ten to twelve years (Johnson 2013). That number encompasses nearly more than the combined population of all of the world’s largest urban areas. The hope is that rural farmers will become part of urban consumerism, instead of continuing with the self-sustaining lifestyle of a farm. Moving to a city will force rural dwellers to spend money on facilities such as air conditioning, electricity, gas, and television. The move will make the lucrative properties of rural landowners available for future development, and the people fuel the Chinese economy. This overall plan comes from China’s desire to appear successful, which is often culturally measured by tangible outcomes, namely cities and infrastructural constructions such as schools and hospitals (Johnson 2013). China is intent on boasting a high gross domestic product (GDP) both within the country and internationally, which each of these new cities has been hoping to help China compete for (Schmitz 2014). 

The knowledge of the government’s strategy to boost the economy, paired with the rapidly increasing population level in China, has led many developers to invest in the creation of additional habitable spaces in the country. Investors have been creating with the vision of booming metropolises through highly sophisticated and almost excessively pre-conceived infrastructures. However, the high hopes and standards for the cities come hand-in-hand with equally high prices for housing, and thus developers must turn away many people who cannot afford it (Ranasinghe 2014). Those who are in fact able to afford the housing are mainly other investors, who buy units with the intent of selling them when overpopulation forces people to the new cities (Barnaby 2014). Hence, the city is left empty, removing all allure of an enjoyable life there. Simultaneously, the land developers loose money, as their profit does not in the slightest cover the production cost, which forces construction to stop and materials to decay. This cascade of malfunctions then ultimately ends with a loss of government support or revenue (Ranasinghe 2014). Finally, the developer is left with nothing but debt and the cities are left abandoned, resulting in a delicate situation frighteningly similar to the United States housing market crash in 2007.




Unfortunately, the trend to keep building has already amounted in over four hundred ghost cities to date, and has had more ramifications: it has also displaced tens of millions of people and destroyed timeless cultures. For example, the city of Ordos, in the northern region of China, was constructed after the discovery of the largest coal deposits in the country, and is a prime example of the logical shortcomings of developers (Brown). After the mining proved to be extremely lucrative, developers decided to invest the acquired money on the only medium that many Chinese still have faith in: real estate. However, instead of becoming the envisioned thriving center of Inner Mongolia, with a population of over one million, Ordos remains nearly lifeless after ten years, home to only about ten percent of the population the developers had planned for (Richter 2014). Yet, just like many other ghost cities, what is now lifeless was built atop the ruins of what used to be a thriving rural town embedded with ancient culture and history. To add insult to injury, the city that was built in its place is evidently too expensive for those who used to live there. This forces the people to furthermore leave the land they had ties to, as unrecognizable as it may be to them now.

China’s new urban developments, which are too often left incomplete or obsolete due to neglect, raise the question of when it becomes justifiable to undergo the process of pursuing a goal on such a large urban scale if it doesn’t have a definitive or reliable outcome. This is moreover questionable seeing as the price China pays is a loss of historically significant villages and towns dating back to dynasties, which are continuously being eliminated by bulldozers. These events bring forth a somewhat frightening reality of the rationale that people in power are able to use, and begs the question of whether it has become acceptable to destroy priceless history in exchange for superfluous cities that are abandoned in ghostly solitude.