China's ghost towns and phantom malls

A view of abandoned buildings at the Wonderland theme park outside Beijing (image by Trey Ratcliff, Weeds cover a deserted theme park north of Beijing

As growth slows, China's huge investment in infrastructure is looking ever harder to sustain, leaving a string of ambitious projects - towns, shopping malls and even a theme park - empty and forlorn.

"We have spoken a lot about these ghost towns in Ireland and Spain recently [but China] is Ireland and Spain on steroids," says Kevin Doran, a senior investment fund manager at Brown Shipley in the UK.

Investment in infrastructure accounts for much of China's GDP - the country is said to have built the equivalent of Rome every two months in the past decade. And with such a large pool of labour, it is harder to put the brakes on when growth slows and supply outstrips demand.

"You have got seven to eight million people entering the workforce in China every single year, so you have to give them something to do in order to retain the legitimacy of the government," says Doran.

"Maybe 10 or 15 years ago they were doing things that made sense - roads, rail, power stations etc - but they have now got to the point where it's investment for investment's sake."

So which are the most striking of these white elephants?

New city of Chenggong, Yunnan

Apartment blocks in Chenggong, Yunnan, China (image: Matteo Damiani

"In Chenggong, there are more than 100,000 new apartments with no occupants," according to the World Bank's Holly Krambeck.

Start Quote

It looks to outsiders as though the great Chinese building boom is over, the real estate extravaganza that shook the world.”

End Quote BBC's Peter Day, in Ordos

Designed as an overspill point for nearby Kunming, a city of nearly six-and-a-half million, Chenggong began to take shape in 2003.

High-rise apartment blocks have mushroomed but today it is still largely deserted after failed attempts by the authorities to attract new residents.

Matteo Damiani, an Italian journalist who worked for seven years in Kunming, has visited Chenggong several times, photographing empty tower blocks that loom over gigantic plazas, peopled only by enormous works of art.

He found a small community of students, workers and security guards but nobody else.

"The suburbs and even the city centre are empty," he says. "You can find a big stadium, shopping malls and hundreds of buildings finished but abandoned."

There is even an area for luxury villas that is totally abandoned, he adds.

It is said to be one of the biggest ghost cities in Asia.

New South China Mall, Dongguang, Guangdong

Empty buildings inside the New South China Mall, Dongguang, China (image by Mathilde Teuben)

The distinction of being the world's biggest ghost mall, or emptiest shopping centre, may belong to this vast complex on the outskirts of Dongguang, a city of 10 million.

You may think the mall would be booming, with a population of that size, but the vast majority of its 1,500 stores have been empty since it was finished in 2005.

It has been hurt by poor transport infrastructure. As one blogger puts it, "unfortunately it was built in the middle of nowhere".

When Australian broadcaster SBS visited, they found a solitary toyshop owner who waits days at a time to sell a toy.

It is not as though the developers did not try. They threw in a canal, windmills and replicas of the Campanile from St Mark's Square in Venice and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The mall's website says it is "bound to be a miracle of commercial history".

"It's a building where you can see that there was some activity earlier - though very little - but it's like a ghost town," writes Netherlands-based blogger Mathilde Teuben, who visited two years ago.

"The very few shops that are there are deserted of customers. It was also funny to see some of the promotional posters for the mall which mostly depicted happy Caucasian children."

Wonderland Amusement Park, Nankou Town, Changping

A view of abandoned buildings at the Wonderland theme park outside Beijing, 12 December 2011

The Disneyesque castle and medieval ramparts of this theme park north of Beijing, conceived nearly 20 years ago, lie abandoned. Local farmers grow crops among the empty buildings.

In the mid-1990s, developers had promised to build the largest amusement park in Asia, but the project got mothballed over a land rights dispute.

The site does in fact attract visitors, according to locals quoted by Chinese media, but hardly the sort the developers had in mind - they are drawing students, photographers and artists from Beijing, apparently, in search of a "ruin culture".

Thames Town, Shanghai

Chinese newlyweds pose for wedding photographs in Thames Town, Songjiang, China, 19 November 2010

Photographers who visit this imitation English town generally come not to capture decay but newlyweds, posing in front of mock-Tudor buildings and red phone boxes.

The Shanghai suburb boasts a market square, a castle, a neo-gothic church, cobbled streets, a pub, a chip shop, Georgian-style houses and statues of well-known English figures, such as Winston Churchill, James Bond and Harry Potter.

As a backdrop, Thames Town is a hit with the wedding industry, but that is about it.

"The city is a virtual ghost town, with empty shops and unused roads," according to an article in Business Insider.

Yet perhaps not all is lost. Apartments have reportedly been sold, to buyers who want them as investments and second homes.

The proof of the developers' pudding may lie in news that the construction of another mock English town is being planned near Beijing.

"Four miles of polluted rivers running through 1,000 acres of blighted semi-rural land will be restored and landscaped into scenic standards becoming of the English countryside," a Chinese official told the Daily Telegraph.

New business district, Yujiapu, Tianjin

Manhattan skyline, New York, 19 August 2011

Perhaps you can copy a small English town, but how about Manhattan (above)?

If Chinese developers have their way, the name Yujiapu will be synonymous with international finance a decade from now.

They say they are laying the foundations of the world's biggest financial zone in the muck of the northern port city of Tianjin.

However, the Reuters news agency suggests that they had to scale back their ambition recently to achieving something short of "the next Shanghai".

Tianjin now styles itself as China's home of private equity, offering firms generous tax breaks to set up there.

Meanwhile, the city looks set for a glut of prime office space.

"Tianjin... will soon have more prime office space than will be filled in a quarter-century at the current absorption rate," says business magazine Forbes.

Kevin Doran spoke to World Update on the BBC World Service

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