News - January 29, 2016

Ghost towns in China

Albert Sikkema

More than 20 percent of all the new buildings in China – 49 million of them – stand empty. These unheard-of numbers of empty premises are not just bad for the country’s economic development; they represent massive environmental damage too.

Photos Hollandse Hoogte

Half the Chinese population lives in cities these days. This is the result of the rapid urbanization of the past 20 years. Besides liberalizing the housing market at the end of the 20th century, the Chinese government decided to build 20 cities a year with accommodation for a million people. Parts of these cities now stand empty.

To be precise: in 2013 as much as 22 percent of the new buildings across China were empty, shows a study by professor of Environmental Policy Arthur Mol and his colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The results were published in the Environmental Development journal, revealing for the first time both the scale of the ghost towns and their environmental impact.

On the basis of Chinese government statistics the researchers estimate that there are a total of 49 million empty premises in the 28 ‘wasted cities’, as they are called. These empty buildings cover 3643 square kilometres and would be more than enough cover the entire province of Friesland. Between 23 and 90 percent of the premises in the ghost towns stand empty.

Building frenzy

New, uninhabited houses in the once popular coastal town of Rushan.
New, uninhabited houses in the once popular coastal town of Rushan.

The extraordinary thing about the Chinese ghost towns is that they are new and have never been inhabited. The most famous example is Kangbashi, a complete city with apartments, theatres, museums and other – unused – facilities. The building frenzy was triggered by provincial and municipal governments, who profited from the sale of farmland to project developers without looking at the demand for housing. These land transactions account for 30 to 50 percent of the income of the provinces. During the peak period in 2010 the Chinese provinces and municipalities were offering a total of 2910 km2 of land for construction projects, report the researchers. That land went to project developers who don’t concern themselves with the longer term demand for housing. And central government was unable to keep an overview of or control over the building plans.

The ghost towns are not just a source of economic problems, such as large financial risks, falling house prices and unemployment, state Mol and his Chinese colleagues. They also represent a stupendous waste of resources. One and half billion tons of building materials, including aluminium, steel, wood, cement, bricks and sand, were used in the construction of the ghost towns. The construction also caused air pollution, disturbed local ecosystems and wasted energy and water, say the researchers.

Environmental regulations

Mol and his colleagues recommend that the Chinese central government applies stricter control and enforces regulations. Mol: ‘Central government could evaluate local governments – mayors for instance – more rigorously on the extent of land speculation and the number of empty premises than they do now.  Because currently they are primarily evaluated in terms of economic targets.’ He also thinks the government should transfer more money to the regions so they become less dependent on income from land speculation.

The Chinese government should also submit urbanization to environmental regulations, say Mol and his colleagues. ‘This is a general problem in China,’ explains Mol. ‘Increasingly there are better and stricter regulations but the monitoring and enforcement leave a lot to be desired. One of the reasons for this is that the local officials tasked with enforcement are often under the direction of local governments that stand to gain from the land transactions. As a result it is not in the interests of local environmental services to enforce the rules strictly.’

The urbanization will continue over the coming years. The prognosis is that 70 percent of the Chinese will be living in cities in 20 years’ time.

Famous ghost towns

The abandoned Japanese island of Hashima.
The abandoned Japanese island of Hashima.

The word ‘ghost town’ often evokes images of abandoned Italian or Spanish villages, the result of the decline of small-scale agriculture and rural depopulation. Or perhaps of the American city of Detroit, which emptied out after the demise of the car and steel industries.

But there have been famous ghost towns in other countries too. The former holiday resort of Varosha on Cyprus has been a ghost town since the Turkish invasion in 1974. Another example is the city of Prypjat in northern Ukraine, which had 50,000 inhabitants until the nuclear disaster in the nearby Chernobyl reactor in 1986. Not to be forgotten, too, is the abandoned Japanese island of Hashima, familiar from the James Bond film Skyfall: this island covered in flats built for the miners working in undersea coalmines has been deserted since 1974.

A ghost city with a touch of Holland to it is found in China: Holland Village, a suburb of Shanghai complete with windmills and giant clogs, started in 2001 to relieve the pressure on the megalopolis. Since the Dutch-style houses did not particularly appeal to the Chinese and are quite pricy, this suburb is still almost empty.