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China’s ghost cities and abandoned factories

Shifting industrial landscape has left its mark on Chinese cities built for the migrant workers. Large urban areas have become “ghost cities”, left unoccupied when the expected rush of inhabitants from the countryside never appeared. [PHOTO: COURTESY]

China is an unrivalled powerhouse in the global economy. For the last three decades, its growth has outpaced that of all other nations.

Entire industries that took decades to mature in the West have sprung up in just a few years.

Much of this activity takes place in designated industrial zones where new cities have been built from scratch to accommodate the workers flooding in from rural regions to be a part of the boom.

Between 1984 and 2010, the amount of built-up areas in China increased nearly fivefold – from 3,413 square miles (8,842 squrae kilometres) to 16,126 square miles (41,768 square kilometres).

To construct these new urban zones, China used more concrete in the three years between 2011 and 2013 than the whole of the United States used in the 20th Century.

Yet even in the world’s second largest economy, the rate of development has overtaken demand.

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Faced with falling prices and slumping sales – partly due to overproduction — the Chinese government has had to step in to cut back some industries.

It has meant huge lay-offs. In areas like Hebei, a northern province that surrounds Beijing, the impact has been especially hard. This was once a thriving region, long regarded as the country’s steel belt.

Many of its state-owned plants have been shut down and now lie empty. Privately owned steel mills are struggling to survive.

The same fate has befallen other low-tech sectors, creating so-called “zombie factories” across the country.

In China, the shift from industries like steel production to electronics, telecommunications and biotechnology has happened very quickly.

Europe and the United States underwent a similar shift over the course of several decades, as industries expanded and matured. China’s high-tech revolution took just a few years.

Driving some of this change is the Chinese government’s own attempts to restructure its country’s economy, leaving traditional sectors like mining, steel production and cement manufacturing to bear the brunt of the job losses. In the cities of Changzhi and Luliang, close to the Yellow River in the northern province of Shanxi, the shells of cement factories that have been unable to survive these changes lie empty.

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Others, crippled by debt and low sales, limp along purely to pay off the huge loans taken out to build them in the first place, when times were good. Factories that once employed more than 1,000 workers now function with a skeleton staff of fewer than 100.

This shifting industrial landscape has also left its mark on the cities built for the migrant workers.

Large urban areas have become “ghost cities”, left unoccupied when the expected rush of inhabitants from the countryside never appeared. Many developers have gone bankrupt, leaving housing developments empty. A study by Chinese search giant Baidu identified 50 huge regions across the country where newly built residential housing was largely uninhabited.

They could be picked out by tracking sources of internet traffic and looking for built-up areas that were relative deadzones. Among the cities Baidu found is Kangbashi, a new district in the city of Ordos, built in 2006 to support the burgeoning coal industry in the area. Kangbashi could house 300,000 people but only 10 per cent of its residences are occupied.

Others include Suzhou City in Changshu, Erdos City in Dongsheng District and Tongliao City in Horqin District. Entire apartment blocks, shopping centres, plazas and parkland lie empty, waiting for their residents to arrive.

Photographer Kai Caemmerer has been documenting some of the empty cities in China for the past two years. He thinks part of what makes these places seem so weird is the speed with which they have been built.

“Many of these cities are built on a scale that is somewhat unfamiliar to the methods of Western urbanisation,” he says.

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But he does not think the label “ghost town” is accurate. “For me, the term implies that the place in question was once well populated and has since been abandoned. That’s not what I see in the new cities that I have visited in inner mainland China,” he says. Rather, some of these places are built in anticipation of a need that has not yet arisen.

The buildings are finished but they may not be filled with people for another 15 years. “I see them as unborn cities,” says Caemmerer.

In fact, an enormous relocation could soon be underway. The Chinese government has said it intends to move 100 million people from rural parts of the country into cities by 2020. This coordinated migration could fill at least some of the vacant cities.

For example, Ordos has been trying to fill its empty buildings using “housing exchange certificates”, which are given to people whose property elsewhere in the country is requisitioned by the government. Those holding a certificate – or fangpiao – can redeem it for a property in Kangbashi.

The Chinese Government is also putting up 100 billion yuan (£11.5 billion or Sh1.45 trillion) to help mining firms and other struggling businesses to retrain and relocate their staff.

There are signs that it is working. Baidu’s data also shows that another ghost city, Zhengdong — a vast new district built around the city of Zhengzhou that covers 57 square miles (150 square kilometres) is filling up with residents. China’s ghost cities could yet be born.

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