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China’s Ghost Cities

by Brian Dunning, Feb 10 2011

Be skeptical of what you read on the Internet.

I'll give you a moment to stop reeling from that shocking warning and collect yourself. The news is that China is building “ghost cities”, vast megalopoli (cool word) that have nobody living in them. Some of these cities are even built in the middle of nowhere: Mongolia, for example (no offense to our Mongolian readers). Conspiracy theorists have all sorts of speculations about this. Is China planning to forcibly relocate millions of people? It is China; certainly they must have something nefarious up their sleeve.

Much of the speculation is in line with the FEMA Prison Camp conspiracy theorists, who honestly believe that Obama is actively herding millions of law-abiding Americans into remote prison camps for systematic execution.

Indeed they may, but as we see so often, it is unnecessary to introduce a non-evidenced extraordinary explanation. Sadly for the conspiracy theorists, China does have perfectly rational, and disappointingly mundane, reasons for building “ghost cities”. But understanding these reasons teaches us more useful information than does our friendly neighborhood conspiracy blog.

Click to see that there are, in fact, cars parked here.

The first point is that the stories are exaggerated. None of these cities are deserted, though they're certainly underpopulated. Here's another image of one such city, and note that are quite a few cars parked in one of the parking lots. Many other residents take bikes and don't show up so easily on Google Earth. A Skeptalk contributor from Finland noted that if the picture is taken at the right time of day or on a weekend, almost any city can be made to look like a ghost city. Note this shot of Helsinki, and this one of its largest hospital.

In the case of Mongolia's Ordos City, which is often cited as the most bizarre instance of a ghost city, there's really no mystery at all. Ordos is home to a hugely disproportionate share of China's coal and natural gas. Its economy is the fastest growing in China, and its per-capita wealth is the highest in China. Ordos' government decided to keep their cash windfall in their own pocket, and so rather than see it invested elsewhere, they've built a fantastic new city capable of housing a million people, as a public works project. Enjoy Time Magazine's fascinating photo essay on Ordos City.

This is the case all over China. China has more people than jobs, so the government often hands out massive public works projects. It's often the case that the works are not needed immediately, but China knows that they will be soon. Click this Google Maps link that shows another frequently cited “mystery ghost city” — Zhengzhou New District — and then zoom out, and you'll see that it's merely a new suburb buried in an existing large city. It's hardly the unaccountable middle-of-nowhere enigma the conspiracy theorists make it out to be.

Time Magazine's article also fears that these “ghost cities” are symptomatic of a real estate bubble throughout China. Whole retail complexes near Beijing's Olympic Village remain unoccupied, and there is a housing oversupply in many regions. In the case of the ghost cities, vast blocks of residences have been purchased by investors with the intention of flipping them; and since the buyers of expensive new houses have not yet materialized, some analysts predict a seismic popping of China's real estate bubble. It could be the biggest market crash the world has ever seen.

Or, the analysts could be wrong, and maybe China is planning to imprison millions of its citizens in remote cities to execute them, following Obama's example.

30 Responses to “China’s Ghost Cities”

  1. Robo Sapien says:

    The China ghost cities should be obvious: they are building cities for all the ghosts so they quit bothering the citizens. We should expect to see “T.A.P.S. in China” on SyFy in the near future.

    Also, it should be numbingly obvious that Obama isn’t building death camps at all, they are neo hippie communes. Idiots.

  2. Max says:

    I see, by Mongolia you mean Inner Mongolia that’s a part of China.
    China already imprisons millions of its citizens in over 1000 laogai, or labor camps. Here’s a map.

    You know who runs mini labor camps in the U.S.?
    The Church of Scientology, which is reportedly why the FBI is investigating them.

  3. Trimegistus says:

    I haven’t noticed any black-helicopter theories about the ghost cities. Most of the far-right web sites are too busy using them to point out that a government-planned economy has managed a worse real estate bubble than our “unregulated” one.

    • itzac says:

      OT: I love that it doesn’t occur to the far right that the best solution could be somewhere in the middle?

      I don’t spend much time lurking on conspiracy message boards, but no matter how absurd an idea, you can usually find someone on the internet who believes it.

      • Patrick says:

        >OT: I love that it doesn’t occur to the far right that the best solution could be somewhere in the middle?

        Begging the question much?

  4. Steelsheen11b says:

    Wait hold the phone people on the internet lie? Does that include the son of the disposed interior minister of Nigeria that has access to oil leases and just need to park some money in my bank account? hold on I’ll be right back I need to call my bank.

  5. Steelsheen11b says:

    to be fair, according to the conspiracy theorist, FEMA has been executing American citizens since Clintons first term and have ramped up operations in every presidency since then. The gooberment can’t deliver mail but somehow it can kill millions of people in sprawling concentration camps and nobody notices. Conspiracy theorist are just plain dumb. Yes former Governor Ventura I am looking right at you.

    • The Midwesterner says:

      Luckily, former Governor Ventura is the only whacked-out politician from Minnesota who believes in conspiracy theories.

  6. Jim says:

    This is clearly just more denialism and propaganda from Brian. First JunkScience, now the Communist Party of China. The man has no shame.

  7. FEMA will secretly, systematically eliminate millions of US citizens? It’s a good thing the tinfoilers are out there to make us all aware of the Government’s evil plot. I feel safer already. I mean, if they didn’t make us aware we’d never notice a million or two US citizens who’ve gone missing right?

    If I dared visit one of these conspiracy sites, I could write a hit comedy with the a copy/paste keystroke.

  8. George Geckleham says:

    The plural of megalopolis certainly isn’t *megalopoli. Even though some writers apparently think it is, it doesn’t make any sense at all. As a third declension noun it follows the -s to -es pattern, which results in megalopoleis (however in Ionic and related dialects, most notably the classical Greek we know from Homer, the original megalopolies is retained).

  9. CreidS says:

    Wanna see spooky? Check out Pyongyang. Miles of highway with no cars at all. Full of parks never used.

  10. MadScientist says:

    I guess someone missed the announcement by the Chinese government quite a few years ago now that part of the plan to modernize China was to build 20 cities a year for 20 years – 400 new or refurbished cities over 20 years (and I bet they’ll build more than that). People will move there as jobs are created.

  11. Daniel Raffaele says:

    The Chinese have a view of property that is similar to the way we view cars. It’s still brand new as long as no-one has lived in it. A home loses 20% of it’s value (paraphrasing) as soon as it’s “driven off the lot.” So, the vast majority of investment properties are deliberately empty in order to preserve their resale price. Unlike the West where homes gain value just by being homes, in China they only gain value if they are kept in their original packaging.

  12. john says:

    You should really go take an entry level economics class.

  13. Tom says:

    Central planning always distorts efficient use of capital. It produces overabundance in some areas and shortages in others. Usually the overabundance is in showy egocentric projects and the shortages are in the necessities of life often leading to disease and starvation.

    • Eric says:

      You,re right.

      However, there isn’t any “central planning” in China nowadays, at least not in the traditional communist sense that you’re thinking of.

      Since Den Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s/early 1980s, China has been following the classic East Asian paternalistic **capitalist** model, just like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore did a generation or two before.

      Moreover, efficient use of capital can very well be distorted in non-central planning scenarios as well.

      The United States is a prime example of inefficient use of resources of all kinds, from energy to inefficient land use. We have large areas of our cities that are decaying and even abandoned, and rather than reinvigorating existing urban areas, we spread out more, build more suburbs, use up more farmland/natureland, build new malls, build new freeways to connect these new suburbs, new sewers, new water tunnels, new electric lines, new gas pipes, and so on.

  14. Matt says:

    What an idiot – who wrote this BS? China is building massive infrastructure to prop up its GDP. It’s not some sort of idiotic plan as suggested, no mysteries. Just a government manipulating its massive trade surplus. Give me a break. Oh, and by the way, this will make the real estate bubble in the US look like childs play when it collapses.

    • Eric says:

      So, you’re calling Brian an idiot for writing “this BS”, but then you just reiterate what he wrote. Did you even bother to read his article? He says that there’s no conspiracy here (to house labour prisoners, etc, etc). It’s just what looks like an impending housing bubble.

      However, we don’t know if “China is just doing this to prop up its GDP”…that’s merely your speculation.

      China is not the centrally-planned communist economy that you remember when you were in grade school; China today resembles capitalist South Korea or Taiwan of the 1960s/70s/80s. No doubt, there’s private developers involved. As the article noted…and this is TRUE, not just something Brian made up…these apartments, commercial spaces, homes, etc, were all built to be SOLD capitalist-style, and many have already been sold to people looking for something to invest in (not a place to live).

    • Andrew says:

      No, not to prop up its GDP, especially since it’s likely that GDP in China has been OVER-reported (grey economy goes unaccounted for) and GDP figures have consistently exceeded expectations. China has been trying to slow down its economy.

      China is building infrastructure because they’re predicting 600 million peasants moving to urban areas, all happening in 20 years. You can either build the cities once they move there, or build now so they have a place once they arrive.

      There are currently 64 million unoccupied housing units in China. That seems a healthy number, especially since some have been purchased by investors.

      People thought Chinese were idiots for building highways when there weren’t any cars. Now they don’t have enough highways.

      Not saying Chinese don’t sink money on bad bets. Just saying that they’re a lot more prescient than most think.

  15. Matt, just above, is right. Reportedly, China has nearrly 65 million vacant apartment units. Large swaths of the country are giant Potemkim villages.

  16. Macandron says:

    However implausible these “ghost towns” may be, they are plausible enough that an Australian news agency made a 15-minute report with plenty of footage and interviews. Of course they did not imply that the ghost towns are part of any sinister plot – merely a symptom of a property crisis the likes of which the world has never seen.

  17. maxwell says:

    deffo reptilians, get educated people, they control media, corrupting govenments and slowly taking over adverts companys ect ect. china are a cleaver race, props to much of a thret so they must be taking them out. have hope people there are ways to beat them.

  18. Eric says:


    This could very well be a housing bubble that has yet to burst, as you noted. And how big this housing bubble may be, we don’t know. As you pointed out, some Chinese cities have built new districts, which is different than “China building new cities”. These new districts are really a spec on a map.

    But when the internet shows images of the same two new districts over and over again, it creates the impression that there’s some huge building boom in China, building “new cities” left and right.

    From the looks of it, it appears to be an urban planning mistake similar to that of the US 50 years ago.

    The suburbanization of America (and later, the exurbanization of America) created an oversupply of housing. In the first wave (suburbanization), developers didn’t lose out because their developments sold like hotcakes. However, the cities emptied out a a result.

    In the second, more recent wave (exurbanization), we have a more complicated picture…some exurbs sold out at the expense of older suburbs, while others remain empty. But in both cases, there was an oversupply of housing.

    There’s another, very noticeable urban planning mistake in these images from China, where China is mirroring the same mistakes made by America 50 years ago.

    Note the large sections of segregated-use development. For example, note the several blocks of apartment buildings or single family homes with no commercial area in sight; which means that anybody that lives here will have to make a long trek just to buy a carton of eggs from the nearest grocery store…just like the American suburbs. Brazil’s capital city Brasilia was also built this way, and -more recently- so was the city of Dubai in the UAE. Many communist-era districts in Soviet cities were also built this way, with block after block of apartment buildings.

    Segregated-use zoning is a failed urban planning model. Could this be why these developments in China are empty? Maybe the American-suburban model doesn’t appeal to Chinese people? Maybe middle-class Chinese prefer the traditional city?

  19. Rudy Haugeneder, Canada says:

    China is readying itself for rapid Climate Change.
    A Time Magazine story talks about it in the following story: China
    Soaring to Sinking: How Building Up Is Bringing Shanghai Down
    As land-subsidence concerns sweep across more than 50 cities in China, the country’s most populous metropolis remains among the most vulnerable

    Read more:

  20. Artak says:

    China is building to no end, there are 65 million vacant apartments in china, cities built for 12 million people with only 20% of that occupied, and those occupants being construction workers building the rest of the city, all of this to meet GDP targets? To create jobs? These cities are also purported to be in the middle of nowhere, but infact they are built near other major cities. Media sensationalism perhaps, all I’m asking for is a second opinion, all I hear is, ”china meeting GDP targets” but why would china want to senselessly inflate its GDP, and to what avail is inflating a countries GDP exactly? Other people suggest that its not a case of inflating GDP, but rather the fact that these dwellings and cities will be needed in the future, and China is merely creating jobs with these ‘public work projects’ of building cities. That seems feasible to me, prices are on average 15 times the average Chinese workers yearly wage for one apartment, but will invariably drop, to the dismay of developers, be it private or government developers.