They resemble scenes from an apocalyptic movie: several high-rise apartment blocks teetering precariously before crashing to the ground, shrouded in clouds of dust. Others seem to simply disintegrate, collapsing in on themselves like ugly monsters retreating underground.
The images have gone viral in recent months, tracked by online detectives to locations across China. Chinese media say they show ‘illegal buildings’ being ‘forcibly demolished in accordance with the law’.
As China’s great housing bubble began to burst, the videos have fueled speculation that the Communist Party is chopping down its forest of ghost cities: the vast empty metropolises that have sprung up across the country, monuments to madness. economic.
China has an estimated 30 million unsold or unfinished houses. That comes on top of an estimated 65 million homes, roughly the equivalent of one home for every person in the UK, that have been sold as investments but still sit vacant. Dozens of cities, with all the trappings of urban life except the people.
London’s famous landmark, Tower Bridge, has been recreated in the Chinese city of Suzhou
This building frenzy was fueled by speculation enabled by a large wall of debt and built on the expectation of ever-rising prices. In short, a giant Ponzi scheme. But one that, surprisingly, President Xi Jinping wants to revive to rescue a struggling Chinese economy.
During my time as a foreign correspondent in China, I had a morbid fascination with these surreal places. Some cities consisted of endless creepy rows of ugly towers. Others were vast fields of villas. They were all empty.
There was Kangbashi, an extension of the city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia. It was built for a million people at a cost of $500bn (£410bn), complete with museum, great library and theatre, all around a deserted central square. There was a nine-story hospital that, during my visit, treated only one person a day.
But at least the buses arrived on time, through largely deserted streets and unfazed by the almost complete absence of passengers.
I knew a student who traded an empty campus during the day for a night job in an empty restaurant. “I can’t wait to get out,” he told her. At night, barely a light shone in the windows of the monstrous skyscrapers. “He’s too quiet,” a lone policeman told me. But at least there was no crime.
Then there was Yujiapu, a new district of the port city of Tianjin, 400 miles east of Ordos. Built as a copy of Manhattan, it was billed as the world’s largest budding financial center. During my visit, construction had largely stopped, and stray dogs roamed the dusty streets in the shadows of the empty, half-built shells of towering buildings, including a replica of Rockefeller Center.
The photo shows a replica of Paris in Tianducheng, Zhejiang province. The replica of the city looks like a ghost town.
An urban setting of Thames Town that imitates London in the Songjiang district, Shanghai
A tower at Tianjin, 117, was to be the sixth-tallest skyscraper in the world, part of another new commercial district with multiple residential and commercial towers, French and Italian-style manor houses, a wine museum, extensive gardens and even a club of pole. Construction on the 128-story ‘ghost scrapper’ began in 2008, but it is now a rusting, abandoned monstrosity, never completed or occupied.
More than 1,000 miles to the south, Dongguan boasted the world’s largest shopping mall: Alone in its cavernous halls, layer upon layer of marble-lined, winding walkways alongside the structures of hundreds of retail stores, not a single man could be seen. buyer.
China is also pioneering a strange brand of faux architecture, and it’s here that the ghosts are most surreal.
About 20 miles southwest of Shanghai is Thames Town, built as a replica of a British market town, with cobblestone streets, Victorian terraces, a Tudor-style pub, red telephone boxes, and a fish and chip shop.
This town was also largely deserted during my visit, aside from the couples posing for wedding photos, which it’s popular with. They like to be photographed alongside the statues in Thames Town, which include Winston Churchill, James Bond (bearing only a passing resemblance to Roger Moore) and Harry Potter on a broom.
Tudor style wooden houses on the river Thames in Shanghai
On the outskirts of nearby Hangzhou, the farmers were evicted to make way for a Chinese version of Paris, complete with a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. Elsewhere, China has built copies of Amsterdam, Venice and Madrid.
A 90-minute drive into the hills north of Beijing brings you to a ‘Jackson Hole’ clone. The American ski resort in Wyoming is known for its natural beauty, but during my visit, the Chinese version was shrouded in smog so thick you could taste it.
Security guards dressed in cowboy outfits followed me as I explored the empty ‘rustic’ cabins. ‘He’s busy on the weekend,’ one of them assured me.
The search for ghost towns and cities has become something of a cult, with websites dedicated to them. American author Bianca Bosker has written an entire book on China’s copycat architecture. ‘China appears to be reversing the ‘Middle Kingdom’ paradigm. While it once considered itself the center of the world, now China is becoming the center that truly contains the world,” she writes in Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry In Contemporary China.
Most of the houses in China’s original ghost towns have been sold, not for living in, but as investments. They are not rented because in China that reduces the value. So they are left lying around in the hope that their value will increase. Traditionally, there have been few decent investment opportunities in China: bank deposits pay next to nothing and the stock market is like a casino.
Property developers racked up a mountain of debt while pouring mind-boggling amounts of concrete to meet what seemed like limitless demand.
Haunting: A red phone booth outside a church with a traditional English spire in Shanghai’s ‘Thames City’
By one estimate, during three crazy years between 2010 and 2013, China consumed more concrete than the United States in the entire 20th century. China experienced one of the largest and most sustained increases in property prices in history.
According to a recent report by the Chinese business magazine Caixin, China now has about 600 million buildings. But it’s not clear how this number, which accounts for nearly one building for every two Chinese, breaks down between commercial and residential properties.
China’s banks fueled this madness, throwing money at developers and buyers on a rampage, to the point that, by the end of 2020, property-related loans accounted for 39 percent of bank loans, according to Guo Shuqing, chairman. of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission. . At the time, he described the real estate market as a ‘grey rhino’, a very obvious threat that is ignored until it collects.
Real estate companies bought the land from deeply indebted local governments, for whom it became a vital source of income. They, in turn, obtained it from local farmers, who were often forced to leave their land with little compensation.
Ghost towns spread like a virus across the country. The model called for buildings to be built and sold at ever-increasing price, and at ever-increasing price. Then a little over a year ago, the music stopped.
Alarmed that things were getting out of hand, the government tightened lending rules in an effort to contain that great wall of debt.
A giant developer called Evergrande was the first victim, unable to pay off liabilities estimated at $300bn (£250bn), making it the world’s most indebted company. It had more than 1,300 developments spread across 280 cities in China.
Chinese newlyweds walk past a statue of Winston Churchill during their wedding photos near the Thames Town church
Riot police fanned out in front of the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen, where angry protesters gathered. ‘Evergrande, give me back the money I earned with blood and sweat!’ yelled one who managed to force his way into the hall.
But President Xi, after spending two years trying to slowly deflate the housing bubble, now sees reinflating it as a way to provide a short-term fix to the struggling economy.
Real estate companies are being bailed out, their bulldozers and cranes are being unleashed again. “It’s utter madness,” says Gillem Tulloch, who is credited with coining the term “ghost town” more than a decade ago. Tulloch, who runs GMT Research, a Hong Kong-based accounting research firm, says he is not surprised that China is reverting to ownership for a quick economic hit. They don’t know anything else. This is the model they have used to drive growth for two decades.”
Beijing claims that some of its older deserted metropolises are now starting to fill up.
But the ghosts of China, it seems, are a long way from being banished.
- Ian Williams is the author of Dragonfire: China’s New Cold War (Birlinn).