A version of this story first appeared at What's On Weibo?
Tens of millions of empty apartments in brand new cities all over China, deserted cinemas and quiet parks. It is an image that has captured the public imagination: China's "ghost cities" have become a popular topic in international media.
American author Wade Shepard spent the past few years touring these new territories for his new book Ghost Cities of China. Earlier this year, he came to a sold-out event at Beijing's Bookworm Literary Festival to speak about his project with New York Times reporter Dan Levin.
"The term 'ghost cities' is actually not appropriate," Shepard said. "Ghost cities are places that once lived and then died. What I write about is new places that are underpopulated, and where houses are dark at night." Shepard points out that most of China's ghost cities actually do have people living in them. The ones that don't are still under construction: "These new underpopulated cities are built by world luxury developers who are working on constructing new urban utopias all over China. The people living in these cities come from various places. Some are trendy people who are looking to live in a new city. Others have been relocated from their original villages. There are many from the countryside."
"Never in my life had I seen anything like that: a brand new neighborhood without any people in it"
By 2020, China hopes to move 100 million people from the country's farming regions into cities, in the largest urban migration in history. China's government-driven push for urbanization is part of changing the economy, going from export to domestic demand. New towns, with hospitals, roads and sport centers, are mushrooming all over China.
Shepard's fascination with China's new towns started about ten years ago. "I saw a 'ghost city' for the first time in 2006, when I was a student near Hangzhou," he said. "It happened in the small town of Tiantai. I took a wrong turn after getting off the bus, and I ended up in this new part of town with nobody there. Never in my life had I seen anything like it: a brand new neighborhood with nobody there. I was so excited about it. My professors later told me those places were everywhere, they were not impressed. But it stuck with me. Just take any bus, and there is going to be a new city or neighborhood under construction. I enjoyed walking around these areas. I went to Mongolia and forgot about them for a while, until I returned in 2012. I travelled around and tried to figure out what these places really were. They are the new landscape of China."
Shepard went out into China's new areas by bicycle. "My objective was to go there and try to make friends. A foreigner showing up there is not a common thing, so many people want to know what you are doing there. It isn't too difficult to talk to people."
"People go from a traditional village structure to an elevator culture"
There is an upside and a downside to the emergence of China's new cities. "There are people who are very happy to move there. Because they get a urban hukou, they feel like they're moving up."
A hukou is an urban residency permit. In China's new towns, residents will get a different permit than their countryside one. It enables them to legally work within the cities and enjoy certain benefits. Health care, for example, is better than in the countryside. For some elderly people from rural areas, moving to the city could literally save their life.
But there is also a big downside to China's urban migration, Shepard says. "Many people are moving from a traditional village structure, where people make daily social connections, and ask each other what they are doing today and what's for dinner tonight. With these high apartment buildings, this structure changes; they don't do that anymore. It's an elevator culture. People also come from so many different places that they don't really connect."
Some people who move to the city feel like they have lost their livelihood. "There are those who have been out in the hills for thousands of years. Once they're in the towns, they suddenly have to pay for water and electricity. They have to go to the store to buy things."
"Good behaviour is the answer to Ordos becoming a civilized city"
The issues that come with China's new towns are also visible in The Land of Many Palaces, a new documentary by Adam James Smith and Song Ting. The Land of Many Palaces focuses on Ordos (鄂尔多斯), a 21st century city in the deserts of Inner Mongolia. The city holds an estimated one-sixth of the country's coal reserves. After the coal was discovered, the region went from becoming one of the poorest to one of richest in China. Coal exploitation has created many millionaires investing in infrastructure and real estate. New city district Kangbashi sprung from the desert sands, and is the result of such an investment. Ordos Kangbashi was built between 2005 and 2010. It has skyscrapers, stadiums, a grand theater, museum and thousands of apartments. It is ready to house one million future residents.
The documentary starts with a scene that shows how Mrs. Yuan, the community manager, guides people through their new homes. Some don't know how to use modern toilets, stoves or heaters. Mrs. Yuan teaches them, and also shows them how the television works ("There are over 100 channels!") These new surroundings are in stark contrast with those of a nearby village, where one farmer is working on the land, where the houses are abandoned. "They all moved to the new city," he says. "In the countryside, you can live for months without spending money"
The Land of Many Palaces shows that moving to one of China's "ghost cities" is not just about moving houses, but about changing lifestyles. Farmers have to get used to living in the city and cope with all the things that come with it. Community staff members go to public places to teach them "how to become a civilized person"; telling people that good behavior is the answer to Ordos becoming a civilized city.
"If the developers of the new city need your land, they will take it anyway"
Employment is a major problem in China's new cities. Many farmers have ample experience in raising pigs and working on the land, but their experience is of no use in the urban environment where there is more need for hair stylists and shop attendants. The lack of jobs is one important reason why farmers are hesitant to migrate from the countryside to the city.
A trailer for The Land of Many Palaces, 2015.
One film scene shows a village where only two farmers are left. The rest of the villagers have already moved to the city. Ordos's community manager visits the farmers to convince them to trade their clay houses for an apartment flat. When they decline, she says, "If the developers of the new city need your land, they will take it anyway."
"When we first visited Ordos in 2011, we expected to find a ghost city. Instead, we found a place that is becoming a city"
After a recent screening of the film in Amsterdam, Adam Smith described how the project began. "When we first visited Ordos in 2011, we expected to find a ghost city. Instead, we found a place that is becoming a city."
Many of China's so-called ghost cities look like ambitious dreams that turned into nightmares. "When we first started the project, we were somewhat indoctrinated by the general media reports in Europe and North America on how this top-down style of urbanization and city-building is wrong. But the more time we spent there, the more we started to think like the people there," Smith says: "Nobody felt like what was going on was wrong. They were uplifted by the plan."
Smith explains how many people, ironically, were pushed out of the cities to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. In many of these areas it was hard to farm, and people struggled to survive. In some way, being taken to the city is like being saved for many: "We met very few people, if any, who were opposed.""Ghost cities are a hot topic, but ex-ghost cities are not."
Although ghost cities are a hot topic, ex-ghost cities are not. "When a 'ghost city' comes to life we barely hear about it anymore", Shepard writes. Although many of China's new cities are still virtually empty, there are also those that have now become busier. Shepard names a few example in a recent article, such as Dantu (Zhejiang), Wujin (Changzhou), and perhaps the most famous one, Shanghai's Pudong district.
"For the past few years I've been chasing reports of ghost cities around China, but I rarely ever find one that qualifies for this title. Though the international media claims that China is building cities for nobody, I often find something very different upon arrival," Shepard writes.
Earlier this year, Global Times and China Daily published a statement from the mayor of Ordos on Sina Weibo: "We are not a ghost city." Over the past year 10,000 houses were sold, he says. But that still leaves 34,000 houses empty.
"They buy it to sell it, but none of those rich people actually live there," one netizen responded. "The mayor just doesn't wanna lose face."
Other netizens said they like the city of Ordos. "The town is quite pretty, and the air is good," user '392' wrote. "I've just been to Ordos, and it's really not as bad as the media says," another netizen wrote: "The city is well-built, the air is good and it is safe."
One other Weibo user praised the still-mostly empty city "Finally a place in China that is not crowded yet."
Maybe China's 'ghost cities' are not that bad, or that ghostly, after all. They just might need another decade to really come to life.
A version of this story originally appeared at What's On Weibo.
Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of What's On Weibo, a website providing cultural, historical and political insights into trending topics on China's biggest social media sites. She's a Sinologist and PhD researcher in Sino-Japanese Relations at Leiden University.
The researchers' data set contained billions of locational data points for 770 million Baidu users—China has a population of 1.36 billion—captured between September 2014 and April 2015. The results were used to make a handy interactive map of China's ghost cities.