China: boom or bust? (1)

BBC business editor Robert Peston blogs from China

One day into my trip to China and I'm at that stage where I don't know what to think, partly because I've been bombarded with fascinating and contradictory information, and partly because I'm in a jet-lag induced fog.

So probably best to describe what's been going on, rather than draw hasty conclusions.

In no particular order, here is what I have heard and observed.

Ducks tongue and jelly fish

I've spent several hours in the remarkable new city of Kangbashi in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, which is either an example of amazing long-term investment or the manifestation of an insane Chinese property bubble.

I have never seen anything quite like Kangbashi, a vast urban landscape that has been constructed over the past five years on an arid, scrub-like plain in the middle of nowhere.

The local Communist Party official in charge of attracting investment to the region, Mrs Wang Linxiang, told me it was being built to house one million people within 10 years. That's costing in the order of £15bn a year of investment in the Ordos region - or so she said over a lunch of ducks tongues and jelly fish.

And it looks as though Kangbashi will accommodate not far off a million people already - because there is acre after acre of newly completed or soon-to-be finished residential apartments, office blocks and municipal buildings.

It's the public spaces that are most impressive and put town planning in the UK to shame.

The town centre boasts an opera house, a museum, a library and a stadium, any one of which is probably bigger that their largest UK equivalent.

And although their designs won't be to everyone's taste - the opera house looks like a giant traditional Mongolian hat (think Tommy Cooper fez with Asiatic twist), the museum is an enormous bronze coffee bean - there's no lack of boldness in the architecture.

There's also a square not conspicuously smaller than Tiananmen or Place de La Concorde, where there are giant statues celebrating the world-conquering feats of that ambitious Mongol, Tiananmen Khan.

White elephant or far-sighted?

Hubris or sensible long-term planning?

Mrs Linxiang says that the city today has only 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants. Which means that its wide avenues are deserted and slightly ghostly, especially at night.

But that doesn't mean they won't fill up in time - although all commercial history would suggest that the developers and property speculators may incur losses before it's a fully functioning urban community (think Canary Wharf times 20).

Migration from countryside to city remains a social and economic necessity in China, if average per capita GDP is to rise significantly from the current level of around £2,500.

And Ordos is a boom region, thanks to its massive reserves of coal and significant gas fields.

So, as I implied at the beginning, I really don't know whether to see Kangbashi as a spectacular speculative white elephant or an astonishing manifestation of what the Chinese combination of enterprise and state planning can achieve. ‬‪

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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