China’s Ghost Cities

A few people have asked me since I’ve been back whether I saw any of China’s “ghost cities” while I was there. I have usually responded that there are indeed droves of empty condos but the existence of multitudes of “ghost cities” sounds to me like an exaggeration.

I came across this 60 Minutes feature ( on this issue, and as it turns out the city (Zhengzhou) Lesley Stahl goes to is the one I lived in during my 1st year in China. She pronounces it incorrectly – it sounds more like “(hard j) Jung Joe”, but regardless I recognize some of the sights.

Anyway, a few quick thoughts:

– When she says “there’s miles…and miles…and miles of empty apartments”, well, many of those buildings are not completely empty. It is certainly true that many are mostly empty – often to an absurd extent – but she makes it seem like they are almost just sitting there not even open for business. Not the case. In most cases these are just recently constructed and a low percentage of the condos have actually been bought, though I’m not saying that’s about to change. But yes admittedly one of those long stretches of mostly empty apartments was very near where I lived, and we (other foreign teachers and I) would joke about the uninhabited “city within the city.”

– I thought it was very misleading around the 8:00 mark to use Shanghai as the base for how many more times purchasing an apartment costs than the average resident’s annual salary. Without even checking the math on this comparison – and certainly buying a condo is way too expensive for a huge segment of the population – this is like discussing how expensive housing is for average Americans and using housing in Manhattan as the comparison. In fact it’s probably even more skewed. Shanghai is universally regarded across China as an amazing city but literally impossible to buy housing in unless you are rich. Suzhou (where I lived my 2nd year in China) is just a 30-minute train ride from Shanghai and is itself one the 50 most populated cities in the world, however housing there is much less expensive. Travel further inland and the prices continue to drop in most locales. Once again though, this is not to say that buying a condo is realistic for all the millions of construction workers, maintenance men, etc.

– I found the empty shopping mall bit amusing (and most likely true in regards to the fake signage). However, malls are everywhere in Chinese cities, and while many of them are seemingly too ornate compared to what I would guess their actual revenue to be, there are customers in most of them. Certainly there are examples of bankrupt malls, but some of the most popular malls are so flooded with customers that it is easy to see why enterprising businessmen would build yet another mall in the hopes that it becomes a new hotspot.

I’ll close with this thought: Construction is omnipresent in Chinese cities. You hear shocking statistics of how many projects are currently underway in various cities and funny trivia such as “there are more cranes in China than in any other country in the world.”

Right now, I would not buy a Chinese condo. (This line of thinking is not without its drawbacks, however, as virtually any Chinese girl’s family views ownership (or plans of ownership) of a condo as priority #1.) I think the prices are bound to drop (in these over-developed areas at least) as the reality continues to set in that the units are not going to be bought any time soon at the advertised prices.

However, consider for a minute what might happen if the government were to lift the one-child policy completely (currently one must pay a hefty fine when in violation of this decree): sure it would take a while for the effects to be realized, but there would be a hell of a lot of new Chinese babies on the way who would need a place to live 25 years down the road. I’d say it is at least plausible that the government is simply preparing for this eventual societal expansion.

I’m not sure what the point of this e-mail is, but if you’ve read this far then I guess it’s too late.


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