Changzhou has recently been named one of 12 ghost cities in China by the China Youth Daily, which is a rather unbecoming label for a city that has a 2,500 year history.
4.5 million people, about the same as Greater Boston, live in Changzhou, a city in China’s Jiangsu province that sits right between Shanghai and Nanjing. Together with Kunshan, Jiangyin, Suzhou, Wuxi, and Zhenjiang, Changzhou is a part of the emerging Yangtze River Delta megacity that will stretch all the way from Shanghai to Nanjing, and be home to more than 60 million people. In no way is Changzhou, which spans 4,385 square kilometers and counting, a ghost city. What the ghost city reports refer to is the Wujin district in the south of the city, which has been undergoing a complete transformation, sprouting hundreds of brand new high-rise apartments, many of which are currently devoid of residents or maintain a relatively low population density.
I met James in a cafe in the Wujin district, which commands the southern arc of Changzhou. As is customary for native Chinese who are used to interacting with foreigners professionally, he only gave his English name. He was chiseled sort of man of around 40 years of age, his polo shirt and jacket looked to have been plucked from a mannequin at some high-end, over-priced men’s fashion store; his shoes were well shined. There was a Macbook on the table in front of him. It didn’t come as a surprise when he told me that his job was to travel around sourcing parts for an American farm machinery company that had a manufacturing plant nearby. “I go around China and the world and I look for things like ball bearings,” he said.
James showed up in Wujin pretty much at the same time as everything else. Just three or four years ago the new district began opening up for residents and businesses, but when I mentioned that both the Chinese and the international media has been calling this place a ghost city he recoiled in disbelief.
“That’s not true,” he exclaimed, “you can come here and see that it’s not a ghost city,” he then pointed to the bright lights of the shopping mall that was visible outside the window of the cafe. “Wuyi Road is a main road of Changzhou!” he proclaimed with an exasperated laugh, seemingly unable to understand how anyone could see this place otherwise. “Just look out there, does that look like a ghost city to you?” he asked rhetorically.
More on The China Chronicle: In Search of China’s Ghost Cities Series
On July 22nd, 2013, exactly two months before I was sitting in Changzhou talking with James, a reporter from Global Times, a Chinese tabloid, claimed to have visited this stretch of Wuyi Road in the Wujin district and found it a ghost city. “Only one thing is missing, people,” he wrote. He then painted a picture of a stagnant new district that never knew the breath of life, a place straining for business and residents, a place potentially doomed to become another of China’s White Elephants.
What I found there was rather different. I had already done what James suggested, spending the day walking through the streets of Wujin, talking with people and gauging its current level of habitation and prospects for the future. I traveled from the point where Lanling Road crosses over the Wujin bridge and becomes Wuyi Road all the way through Wujin district to where the street forays into older, more village style housing far in the south of the city.
The BRT bus line made this trip more than convenient, and for one yuan (16 cents) I was able to travel from one side of the district to the other. Unlike many other expanding Chinese cities, Changzhou has erected an incredible mass transit system that already extends far out into its outlying areas, essentially providing a skeleton for its new districts to be built upon as well as linking together the new cities with the old. So there was little lag time here between when the apartment complexes opened up to residents and the people having an adequate public transportation system.
Beyond the BRT, the city also erected an elevated highway that cuts through the heart of Wujin district and has a second one in the works. This is in stark contrast with many other new developments in China — such as Thames Town, Anting, the New South China Mall — that sit for years as un-tethered satellites of larger cities, too inconvenient to get to for many people and businesses to seriously consider moving into.
Almost every shop on the Wuyi strip that wasn’t still a construction site had a functioning business in it, there were big shopping malls full of shoppers, bakeries, cafes, hotels, banks, tea houses, restaurants, there is a Golden Eagle department store, a Decathlon — everything you’d expect from a new-style Chinese city. Changzhou will start constructing its first subway line in 2014, and it will mainly run directly under Wuyi Road, right through the heart of the what has been dubbed a “ghost city.” An additional 8 billion yuan ($1.3 billion) has also been committed to the continued vitalizing this district. To put it simply, this place was inhabited. There were people everywhere, and the density of foot, bicycle, and car traffic was not much different than in the new districts of any other second, third, or forth tier Chinese city — which is not to say that it was particularly crowded though. If any new district in China doesn’t deserve to be demarcated as a ghost city, it’s Wujin.
“The first time I come here I was surprised, there were already lots of stores and shops,” James stated.
When people are packed into high-density housing, the residential buildings do not have to be filled to capacity to fully support the businesses in the area. Though most of the new high-rise towers did not yet have people living in them, the businesses at their feet were active, and many appeared to be flourishing. The Metropolis Mall was as much booming as any other trendy new shopping center in a more developed city, and even the smal local businesses seemed be surviving. I talked with a shopkeeper who had a retro-style clothing store near the rear entrance of the mall, and he told me that he has been in business there for three years — a telltale sign of economic solvency in a country where small shops like this tend to rotate in and out of business every few months.
If you don’t mind the monocultural architecture of a new Chinese city then these places often come off as rather nice — or at least crisp, clean, and spacious (at least when compared with the urban design fails that characterized the 1980 – 2000 phases of development throughout China). The Wujin district was clearly at the point of development where it has everything that residents need — good transportation links, shopping malls, supermarkets, restaurants, cafes, wide roads, entertainment — without the crowds and congestion of a fully inhabited, densely packed urban center.
Like most other sizable cities in China, the Wujin district is still far from being completed, it just keeps expanding ever outward. Though it already boasts phalanxes of brand new high-rise apartment complexes, legions more keep coming. An ever increasing number of construction sites attest to this, as Changzhou grows and grows, asphyxiating as much of the fertile Yangtze River floodplain as it possible can with a tight seal of concrete.
Perhaps fearing that they’re running out of space to build, Changzhou had a new development plan approved by the Central Government in August of this year, which will allow the municipality to absorb yet more neighboring towns and villages to turn into an additional 1,872 square km new district of yet more towering high-rises, shopping malls . . . New China.
To put this building boom in proper perspective, Changzhou is one of the wealthiest cities in China in terms of per capita GDP. The China County-level Economy Research Institute pegs the city as the tenth wealthiest in the country, and neighboring Suzhou and Wuxi are also in the top ten.
The occupancy rates of the finished apartment buildings range from almost full to completely empty. Some complexes had every window full of hanging laundry, gangs of elderly people dancing and doing qigong in the gardens, kids running around, and adults struggling to find places to park their cars, while others were barren of any and all signs of inhabitants. While to an extent this is to be expected: the buildings are new.
One of the pitfalls of journalists covering China’s “ghost cities” is that just looking at apartment complexes is not enough to tell the story of them. I discovered early on in my ghost city investigations that just because an apartment complex or city district looks finished doesn’t mean that residents are being permitted to move in, and it’s far too easy to call a place deserted long before it’s even opened its doors. Back in March, I went into real estate offices in Xinyang posing as an expatriot with a Chinese wife who was looking to buy property. I was taken seriously, I was shown around, and then I was told that I wouldn’t be able to move in until 2015. Even though properties were being bought and sold nobody could actually live in them yet — they were more like stocks being traded than places to live, which is something that has come to characterize China’s housing market at this juncture.
More on The China Chronicle: Welcome to Xinyang, the Ghost City That Isn’t Even Built Yet
Wu Haiyong, the deputy director of the Changzhou Housing Administration Bureau, realistically admitted that while most properties on Wuyi Road are new or are still being built, “it is unreasonable to judge the vacancy rate when the area is still in a transition period.” The local government of Changzhou is aware of the ghost city claims that are being hurled their way, and they try to debunk them, even as their army of high-rises continues advancing.
Filling all the empty spaces of within the boundaries of a municipality with buildings is the game here, and what Changzhou is doing is nothing differently than what’s occurring in just about every other city, big and small, all across China — though most have been able to lay low and dodge the “ghost city” label.
The apartments in the Wujin district are being sold nearly as fast as they can be built. The demand for new property is real here. In 2012 alone, 62,093 residences, totaling 6.58 million square meters of floor space, were sold in Changzhou. They churn out apartments fast in China, but not fast enough: the demand is still greater. Whether people move into all of these new residences or not seems to be a mere secondary concern, as the fact of the matter is that they sell, they are traded, they are kinetic economic entities. And this is why:
“The cost of housing rose from 2,000 RMB per square meter to seven or eight thousand RMB,” James stated. “At first many people only bought one house for themselves but now they wish they bought more than one,” he said with a hearty laugh. “By the time you hear about places like these it is already old news,” he sigh, “but there are people who are always smelling for them. They know exactly where to buy.”
In a way, property has become a new form of currency in China. In a country of 1.3 billion people housing will always be of value because it will always be needed and, more than that, desired. This is especially true when 300+ million more people are expected to migrate to urban areas by 2030. Money has value because we are convinced that it represents something of value, the ancient Inca used spondylus shells as a metric of value in trade, the Trobrianders used dry banana leaves. The Chinese are convinced that houses have value, whether they are lived in or not, and they invest in them like stocks or gold.
The Wujin district of Changzhou is in its “golden era” of development. This is a tenuous interim period between the time when a new area is stocked with everything the people need and want to live there and when the crowds roll in. There is a pattern that most of China’s new cities and districts tend to follow. For the first few years after a central core and some housing is build, new developments stand as virtual ghost cities that are more or less unlivable. Then the places begin to develop economically, infrastructurally, and culturally, and residents begin to trickle in. For a couple of years the small communities that develop seem to live happily in their freshly minted city, and many enjoy the “small town” feel. Eventually, this trickle of residents becomes a flood, and a former outpost of progress, a trendy new district, is swallowed up into the belly of the plain-old-city which it soon becomes. Changzhou’s Wujin district is in no way out of the ordinary, especially among the booming cities of the Yangtze River Delta.
As I talked to James about his neighborhood being dubbed a “ghost city,” I felt like I was trying to force him to have a deep conversation about white rice. What could anyone say? It’s white rice, it’s normal: just look at it.
I left the cafe and went for a stroll by many of the new residential apartment complexes in Wujin. Though it was dark, it wasn’t late. Away from the Metropolis Mall the place was as dark as a forest. Though florescent lights were slapped onto the faces of many of the high-rises, this did not belie the fact that not many people were living in them yet.
“I think Wujin is where the rich people live,” a university student in the city said to me.
I saw no reason to counter her and say something like, “I think Wujin is where rich people stash properties,” as I know that if given enough time property speculation produces enough residents. The fact that Wujin is full of high-population-density housing means that they don’t need to be completely full to function as full-fledged living centers, and new districts don’t need to be filled to capacity to function as full-fledged urban areas. The desire to own additional housing space beyond what is needed is a very Chinese phenomenon, not entirely unlike peasants building six story houses in the countryside when they only have any use for the first two floors. Unused housing space is normal here, it serves an economic function that doesn’t exist in the West.
The Wujin district of Changzhou has so many high-population-density style housing blocks that if they were all filled to capacity the place would more than likely be so jam packed with cars and people as to be virtually unlivable. High-population-density neighborhoods can economically function at a respectable capacity while significantly vacant. Wujin district is a forest of 30+ story apartment towers. There are literally hundreds of them crammed into an area spanning around a dozen blocks. Cut down these towers by two thirds and you have a city of ten story buildings virtually filled to capacity in a thriving new area. A city district of partially occupied high-rise towers still often has a lot of people per sq kilometer. Housing vacancy rates alone are a faulty criteria to qualify districts as ghost towns. A lot of room is built into China’s new cities for speculation.
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The author has been researching and documenting the so-called ghost city phenomenon across China since 2012. Read his other reports here.