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Looking for ghosts in China

27 January 2014
by Brian Keeley

A friend in Kunming laughed when we told her our travel plans: “Chenggong? But there’s nothing there!” More accurate, perhaps, if she’d said there’s no one there.


Under construction since 2003, Chenggong is a satellite city of Kunming, capital of mountainous Yunnan province in southwest China. Such projects are not rare in China, and they tend to follow a familiar pattern: Universities and government offices are relocated, students and officials move in and, eventually, so do other people.

Chenggong is different: Yes it has students and, as far as we know, bureaucrats but – so far at least – pretty much no one else. Its wide-open highways and empty estates have won it plenty of attention in the blogosphere and earned it a reputation as one of Asia’s biggest “ghost cities”.

In truth, the place is not as quiet as all that. Around the spacious university campuses there’s a noticeable buzz. A few small streets are filled with shops selling student necessities – cheap grub and trendy clothes. On one campus, an English-language student, Tina, showed us around and enthused about the quality of the facilities. When we asked her if she liked Chenggong, she nodded enthusiastically: “Oh yes, the air is so clean.” That, too, is often a novelty in China.


But, elsewhere, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Chenggong lacks people. Cars bowl along six-lane highways at speeds unthinkable in most of China’s congested cities, while passengers seem sparse on the light railway that will eventually link the city to the provincial capital. Driving back to Kunming in the evening, we passed housing estates where not a single light seemed to be shining. According to the World Bank’s Holly Krambeck, Chenggong has over 100,000 empty apartments.

Regardless of how many people Chenggong eventually manages to attract, the city is part of one of the most remarkable human transformations in history. In just a little over three decades, China has gone from being a country that was overwhelmingly rural to one where just over half the population now lives in urban areas.

That might sound high but, by international standards, and for a country at its level of development, China still has a relatively small urban population. That wasn’t always the case. As a fascinating recent OECD paper by Vincent Koen, Richard Herd, Xiao Wang and Thomas Chalaux notes, China was once one of the most urbanised places in the world, admittedly in an era when globally around 90% of people lived in the countryside. By around 700 C.E., the city of Chang’an – now known as Xi’an, home of the terracotta warriors – is believed to have had around a million inhabitants, levels that London and Paris would only reach in the 1800s.

By the dawn of the 20th century, however, the proportion of Chinese living in cities hadn’t changed much in 400 years and, throughout that troubled century, it grew only very slowly. By 1949, urban dwellers accounted for just 12% of the population, around a third of levels then typical in the world.

Today, China is playing catch-up. In the last decade, the urban population rose by about 20 million a year; by 2020 the government expects around three out of five people to be living in urban areas. And by 2040, it’s estimated that around one billion Chinese will be living in cities.

China’s government believes cities are essential to building a modern economy. For one thing, cities make it easier for companies to do business, making them hubs for growth. For another, city dwellers tend to spend more than their country cousins, which should help China meet its goal of relying less on exports and more on domestic demand. So, cities will be key to China’s economic and social future. But planning them will require careful thinking about their “hardware” and “software”, to borrow a metaphor.

For an example of the hardware, take transport. By international standards, Chinese cities have relatively low levels of public transportation. That’s evident even in a new town like Chenggong, where, as urban planner Luis Balula notes, “the wide streets and superblocks […] continue conveying the image of a car-oriented urban environment waiting to be populated by cars.”


According to the OECD paper, China would need to invest the equivalent of around 11% of its GDP just to bring transport provision in its ten biggest cities up to international standards.

As for the software, think of that as the people who will live in China’s cities. Many will be rural migrants and, so far at least, the legal situation in China’s cities hasn’t worked in their favour. And that’s a topic we’ll return to soon.

Useful links

Policies for Inclusive Urbanisation in China (2013, OECD Economics Dept.)

OECD work on China

网站 (中文) (The OECD’s Chinese-language site)



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