China’s Urbanizing Utopia: Ghost Cities and Propaganda Theme Parks

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China’s Four Most Wasteful Infrastructure Projects of 2012

China has been over-urbanizing for years, and egregious 2012 examples include a propaganda theme park for Tibet, a new Manhattan, and a ghost town in Angola.

By Naomi Rovnick in Atlantic Cities

China Utopian Overdose

Ordos new town is empty, the most spectacular example of a new Chinese phenomenon – unsold flats, unlet shops, empty office blocks. From the BBC.

While economists began the year feeling bearish about China’s slowing growth, they have perked up about the nation’s prospects since the government confirmed it would continue with stimulus policies it began in 2008.

The problem with construction for its own sake is that it can create waste, as well as very high debt and possibly the next global credit crisis. China has been building ghost towns for years, and journalists have already written a lot on well-established empty cities such as Ordos in Inner Mongolia and Chenggong, in the southwestern province of Yunning.


The deserted streets of the newly constructed Chenggong, Yunning Province, China.

Yet like a never-ending vaudeville show, the bizarre Chinese overbuilding never stops. Here are four of 2012′s most eyebrow-raising developments.

1. The $4.8 billion propaganda theme park in Tibet.

The land of the Dalai Lama probably has enough going for it to attract tourism. The so-called “rooftop of the world” has captivated spiritual seekers and adventurers for hundreds of years. Not only does it have some of the world’s oldest and most-venerated monasteries, it also boasts Mount Everest.

China, theme park, tourism, Tibet

Chinese paramilitary police march during a flag raising ceremony near Potala Palace in Lhasa in northwestern China’s Tibet province. AP Photo.

But the Chinese officials who run Lhasa plan to pour $4.8 billion into a theme park that will be heavily based on the legend of Princess Wencheng, the niece of a seventh century Tang-dynasty emperor who married a king from Tibet’s Yarlung dynasty. Her tale has been embraced by Chinese authorities as a parable of ethnic harmony between Han Chinese and Tibetans. Officials have said the park will “reduce pressure” on Lhasa’s established tourist destinations, such as the 1300 year old Jokhang Temple, the heart of spiritual Tibet.

In a separate development, despite Tibets’s own extreme natural beauty, Chinese developers also plan to construct of set of theme villages in Tibet’s southeast that look like Switzerland.

Theme parks in China are at the excessive end of the debt-fueled stimulus. Local governments have accumulated a huge amount of debt through infrastructure projects. Last year, the Beijing government briefly suspended theme park construction in an attempt to reign in unnecessary real estate development.

2. “Manhattan” in Tianjin.

China cities utopia

The Yujiapu Financial District plan capitalizes on geographic proximity to the Beijing-Tianjin metropolitan area, broad access to transportation networks, and China’s decision to develop it into an economic engine that will serve the development of the Bohai Region. Maybe. Image by SOM.

This project first hit the headlines last year, but is still under construction. Tianjin, a deeply indebted city 100 miles southeast of Beijing that has relied heavily on land sales to developers to shore up GDP, is building 47 new skyscrapers on coastal salt flats, barely above sea level, to create the massive new Yujiapu financial district. Nicknamed “China’s Manhattan,” early reports said it was set to be a facsimile of New York, with a Rockefeller Center and even some Twin Towers, as well as the threat of global warming infused sea level rise and typhoon flooding.

Unlike the real Manhattan, however, Tianjin is not a natural home for investment banks and law firms and is unlikely to become one. The first dozen skyscrapers built will flood Tianjin with new office space equal to the size of four Empire State Buildings.

Tianjin is offering private equity firms tax breaks to lease office space in the city, which has shown some success. But private equity firms do not tend to employ armies of staff. Chinese cities commonly build financial districts to create jobs and earn money from land sales. Zhengzhou in Henan, an inland province best known for exporting migrant workers to China’s wealthier southeast, has a new financial district that is larger than Vatican City.

3. All the new aluminum smelters.

urban development in China

A worker watches as excavators load aluminium ore onto trucks at an open-cast mine in Xiaoyi, Shanxi province, China. REUTERS/Stringer

Even though China’s economy is slowing, the government is stockpiling aluminum produced by domestic smelters. It is possible Beijing has advance knowledge that the global supply glut of the bendy metal (partly caused by Chinese overproduction) is set to reverse. But it is more likely that the vast number of aluminum smelters China already has are finding it difficult to locate customers.

Building aluminum production plants is a time-honored method Chinese local governments use to keep people employed and hit their GDP growth targets. China accounted for 119 of the 133 aluminum smelters built globally between 1985 and 2005, according to the London Metal Exchange. But it is building more, with projects worth billions of dollars ongoing in poorer, western regions.

4. The $250,000, Chinese-built, empty apartments in Angola.

Luanda, Angola

Just outside Angola’s capital city of Luanda is Nova Cidade de Kilamba a residential development of 750 eight-story apartment buildings, a dozen schools, and more than 100 retail units. Photo Courtesy the project’s Facebook page.

Ghost towns are now the latest Chinese export. Funding China’s long march into Africa is the sort of project that wins China’s state-owned conglomerates political brownie points. So Citic, one of the nation’s oldest state-owned enterprises, has built a $3.5 billion new housing development in Angola. Construction provided jobs for Chinese workers and construction firms, easing pressure on governments in poorer provinces back home to find jobs for their people and giving Chinese real estate developers something to do.

The problem is the town is empty. The apartments range in price from $120,000 to $250,000. GDP per capita in Angola is $5,148 per year, according to the World Bank. It is uncertain what benefits Angola will derive from this project. For Citic’s efforts, China is getting paid back in Angolan oil.

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