If you’d like to see the Eiffel Tower, but Paris is too expensive, or too crowded, you’re in luck. You can see the Eiffel Tower in China, too. And it’s not crowded at all. Tianducheng, a gated community in coastal Zhejiang province, boasts elements of Paris, including European-style villas, but just a small fraction of the residents it was designed for. It’s estimated that only 2000 people live there, though the city was designed to accommodate around 10,000 residents. Like the 108-metre Eiffel Tower, the city itself is a replica.
It’s just one of scores of Chinese cities that are often labelled “ghost cities,” as they’re capacious but sparsely populated. China’s urban planning strategy involves urbanising the populace, transforming an agrarian nation into an urbanised one. In 1990, 26 per cent of Chinese were urban dwellers. Today urban dwellers account for about 56 per cent of Chinese. According to the government’s National New-Type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020), 100 million people will move from farming areas into cities by 2020. Another 150 million will move by 2026. To accomplish this, more than 500 cities have been built, not through incremental growth, but as planned cities built at breakneck pace.
A few snags, however, highlight the challenges of creating cities from the ground up. Bai du, the Chinese web search company, studied the problem and determined that more than 50 ghost cities exist in China.
The Kangbashi New District, located in the outskirts of Ordos in Inner Mongolia, claims only about 100,000 residents, though the city was designed for 500,000. The city boasts a collection of high-end architecture, such as the the Ordos Museum, designed by MAD Architects, Ordos Opera House, Ordos Sports Stadium, Ordos Grand Theatre, and Ordos Library, which writer Darmon Richter wrote “resembled a cluster of leaning books.” Richter visited the city in 2013, and noted that “Only 2% of its buildings were ever filled; the rest has largely been left to decay, abandoned mid-construction, earning Ordos the title of China’s Ghost City.” He described block after block of towers, some starting to disassemble themselves, with glass panels falling to the concrete below.
The government invested more than $1 billion in the city in the early 2000s, and Western critics cite the relative dearth of residents and point to the city as a failed attempt at central planning. That criticism misses the mark, as corruption and excessive real estate speculation fed China’s boom and bust real estate cycle. Incentives for maintaining GDP growth lead government officials to build more projects than the market needs, which further imbalances supply and demand. According to China’s Xinxua News Agency, cities across China have plans for housing projects that, cumulatively, could house 3.4 billion people.
An eco-city project, Jing Jin City, currently appears to be fully built out, but nearly empty, according to the South China Morning Post. The city includes schools, a shopping district, and a medical center, but few people. Begun in 2002, the city was planned to occupy 258 square kilometres, but that figure was recently changed to 53 square kilometres. As for residents, the local government recently noted an expectation of 300,000 residents by 2020. However, one local resident, Guo Huaxu, a man in his 60s, claimed that only about 10 villas in his neighbourhood of 400 villas are occupied.
China’s approach to building a city from the ground up happens more quickly than attracting residents and businesses, which depend on each other. Working people can’t move to a city if there’s little chance of employment, and businesses can’t succeed without customers and employees.
China’s “ghost cities” are still developing, as Richter’s taxi driver emphatically stated. “They will come,” Richter wrote. “You don’t think our city is beautiful? You’ll see. The people will come.”
Wonderland Amusement Park represents a truly failed project. Developed in the late 1990s as “Asia’s largest amusement park,” the development includes a copy of Disney’s iconic castle. Work was stopped in 1998 over disputes over land prices, as well as links to corrupt government officials. The castle is the only remaining structure after officials razed the rest of the complex, leaving a strange reminder of the country’s urban ambitions.