With an estimated 700 million of its billion or so residents now residing in urban areas, China has reached an important tipping point in its evolution from an agrarian to industrial economy. But this mass population migration, combined with China's insistence on central planning and general disdain for Keynesian theory, has resulted in an odd form of growing pain: massive, pre-fab cities built for a populace that doesn't even exist yet.
China has built more than 500 of these empty cities since the cultural revolution in 1978, with hundreds more set to come online by the end of the decade. The theory behind it is solid; by 2020 one in eight humans will live in a Chinese city, totaling more than one billion people. China's existing urban infrastructure simply cannot support that kind of population boom.
But China's response takes the form of a very significant gamble. Instead of slowly expanding (or densifying) urban areas in direct response to demand, the country's political leadership instead build entire towns all in one go. While it holds the distinct advantage of centralized planning, allowing government officials to lay out a comprehensive urban design—from public works, infrastructure, schools, and government buildings to stores, malls, and even universities—this method is also seriously risky. Should the any part of the town fail to take hold—business, industry, or residential—the entire project could be in danger of failure. These are a few such McCities that have yet to register a pulse.
The poster child of failed central planning, the New South China Mall is everything you'd expect a mega-mall built in the middle of a corn field to be: 99 percent uninhabited nearly a decade after its grand opening. Built in 2005, its cavernous 892,000 square meter footprint houses barely two dozen retailers these days, most of which are fast food shops clustered around the main entrance. [The China Chronicle]
The new city of Tianducheng in Hangzhou is perhaps the most easily recognizable of the country's ghost cities, what with the 300-foot tall, 1:3 scale replica of the Eiffel Tower dominating the skyline and all. In fact, most of the this upscale luxury real estate development mimics the design of Paris—just with a fraction of the population. [Business Insider]
Dubbed the "Dubai of Northern China," the new city of Kangbashi rose from the outskirts of Ordos in central Mongolia in 2003. The region had been undergoing a massive boom in the early naughts, riding high on the area's wealth of valuable mineral deposits, and Kangbashi was meant to provide modern 49ers with all the luxuries of a modern city.
But nothing kills a boom like a housing market bubble. Before anybody had moved in to the city—before they even finished building roads—investors and real estate speculators descended on the town, buying up entire housing complexes in hopes of garnering high rents once residents arrived. But the high rents—exceeding fair market valuations by as much as 30 percent—were exactly what kept residents from coming. A city originally designed for one million was drastically descaled to support 300,000—today, barely 30,000 people currently call Kangbashi home. [I09]
Built in the shadow of Zhengzhou, the capital (and largest) city of China's northern Henan province, the Zhengdong New Area has grown from wheat fields to a metropolis twice the size of San Francisco—in barely over a decade. Unfortunately, rampant real estate speculation akin to that seen in Kangbashi has stunted population growth.
That's not to say that Zhengdong is completely empty, no more than one could rightly call Detroit a ghost town. Between 2000 and 2010, the entire city's population (both existing Zhengzhou and the new district) boomed by some 30 percent to a total of nearly nine million. But that increase is barely visible within the new district. A combination of unrelenting residential construction and inflated housing prices—the average price per square meter of home is $1,660, while the average monthly income for a resident of Zhengzhou is roughly $483—has essentially priced out the very people the city was built for. [CNN - Image: Lennlin]
Much like the NSCM, Wonderland was a project ahead of its time. Located in Chenzhuang Village just 45 minutes outside of Beijing and seated on more than 120 acres of land, it was originally billed as the "largest amusement park in Asia." However, disputes over land values between the park's developers and the local government abruptly halted construction in 1998. Attempts to revive the project in 2008 also failed, amid fears of a regional housing bubble. The park was dealt a death blow earlier this year when crews leveled all uncompleted structures, leaving just the skeletal remains of the knock-off Cinderella's Castle behind. [I09 - Reuters]
Built to house the overflowing populace of Kunming, the largest city in China's Southwest Yunnan province, Chenggong is by all accounts a fully functioning city—save, of course, for the near complete lack of people.
The expansion district features fully-formed infrastructure, including government offices and two universities. A light rail line from the existing city is under construction. Yet despite Kunming's overcrowded conditions—more than 6.5 million people live there—more than 100,000 apartments stand vacant ten years after being completed. Oddly, rents in Chenggong have not fallen victim to speculative price hikes and remain relatively affordable. People simply don't want to move in. [Wiki - World Bank]
These cities, though slowly coming to life, face an uncertain future. China's economy continues to grow and prosper, sure, but they aren't building these districts on Fields of Dreams. Just because you build it, doesn't mean anyone will actually come.