China Blows Up 15 High-Rises Because Constructors Ran Out of Money to Finish Them

Tons of explosives were detonated to tear down the half-finished apartment buildings in China.
September 15, 2021, 11:00am
Kunming construction real estate
Huge promotion adverts are seen on half-constructed buildings in Kunming in 2015. Photo: Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

A group of high-rise buildings have been sitting unfinished in a Chinese city for seven years. And it took 45 seconds to tear them down.

Stunning footage from the demolition last month showed 14 buildings in the southwestern city of Kunming collapse in controlled demolition. The blast failed to destroy a 15th high-rise, which was torn down three days later, local media reported. 

These partially-built buildings were a side effect of China’s aggressive urban development model that created what critics called “ghost cities” in parts of the country. Local governments had sold land and embarked on massive infrastructure projects to boost economic growth, while developers often took on heavy debt to bet on ever-rising housing prices. 

Some of the vacant neighborhoods filled up later on, but in some cases, the newly-built, dazzling urban spaces struggled to find occupants or even funding to finish construction projects.

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Construction of the Kunming complex, named Sunshine City II, began in 2011. The developer soon ran out of money and was acquired by a new company. Work on the residential project stopped in 2013. 

The high-rises had been sitting idle since then. In November 2020, another company acquired the housing project’s developer along with its $3.6 million debt. Citing quality defects of the unfinished buildings, the developer applied to have them demolished to make space for new, lower-rise apartment buildings. 

The demolition on August 27 required 4.6 metric tons of explosives, installed at some 85,000 detonation points on the buildings, Kunming Daily reported. More than 5,300 residents had to be evacuated for the work, and each household received about $23 in compensation, the report said. 

Many local residents, including children, turned up to watch the explosion on the day, according to a livestream of the event by Chuncheng Evening News. “This is the most exciting moment,” a woman in the crowd told the reporter. “I have never seen buildings blown up before.”

“What a pity,” another onlooker said. “It cost a lot of money to build those, and now they are being torn down.” 

Following the blast, the entire neighborhood was shrouded in dust, the livestream showed. Water was later sprayed into the sky to soak up the dust. 

Sunshine City was one of many projects that had been abandoned for years. In Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, authorities counted 93 unfinished property projects, an official said in April, adding the government aimed to bring them back to life by next year. They could be demolished or taken over by new developers. 

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Yang Yang, an assistant professor of real estate at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Chinese developers tended to sell apartments years before construction finished, and use the pre-sale revenues to fund the construction. 

But when demand drops due to population outflow, slowing economic growth, and land oversupply, developers facing a cash crunch could be forced into abandoning their projects, she said. 

Yang expects fewer unfinished buildings in the future as the government puts more restrictions on how much developers could borrow, although disputes caused by past projects could take a long time to resolve. 

Buyers of unfinished projects have staged protests after seeing their life’s savings going up in smoke. Members of the Chinese middle class often take on heavy debts themselves to buy these apartments, believing the real estate market to be the safest investment. 

Some buyers were forced to move into these unfinished buildings, as they continued to pay mortgages, according to Chinese media reports. 

At another unfinished residential complex in Kunming, with a Chinese name that stands for “town of another way of happiness,” some homeowners had been living without water and electricity. They used solar power and candles, and one man climbed the stairs to his 18th-floor apartment every day. 

In August last year, five years after the buildings were abandoned, a new developer took over the construction. For the time being, residents are housed in a dormitory.

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