China’s ghosts are the ghosts of the future. After my first visit in 2011, it took me a couple of years to realize that I would often live in a ghost town. The featured photo was taken one morning in November 2011 from a hotel room in Wuhan, probably on the last morning before I left. Photos taken from the same window at night showed large patches of darkness with a few brightly lit buildings (photo below). The hotel was very good, priced very reasonably, but far from full. On the few nights when I was not at an official dinner I would walk ten minutes to a brightly lit mall nearby and eat at one of the many restaurants there. I never questioned why the roads were not as crowded as the ones in India.
In later visits I found that life on the streets can be quite as crowded and interesting as that in India; it depends on where you live. Other questions attached themselves to this bit of oddity. Why did colleagues speak of the difficulty of finding affordable housing when a fast train across China would pass town after town where very few people seemed to live? Search for “ghost towns in China” and you can piece together an intriguing story. My sources are secondary, so the story is probably more nuanced than I can tell, but bear with me.
More than a decade ago, the government decided to increase spending in housing a hundredfold. It created public and state controlled corporations which started building apartments at a very rapid pace. The industry created jobs, and fuelled the current explosion in the economy. (This has already improved living conditions: the pollution and haze that you see in the featured photo is not seen any longer.) Provinces converted some of the land earmarked for agriculture to construction, so earning part of this budget. In order to control land speculation, builders could not squat on land until the prices rose, but were obliged by law to build immediately. The result was a huge glut in the housing market. But people with money started buying up flats which they did not need as investment. This pushed up housing prices very rapidly. To curb speculation, the government created a class of housing which had to be occupied immediately, but the harm was already done; property prices had gone through the roof. Nobody could buy, so nobody could sell. The government can’t stop financing construction because then a very large number of people will lose jobs. The result is a speculative bubble which is simmering while flats lie vacant. This problem arises from precisely the same long-term planning that China is famous for.
Again, in a November seven years after my first visit to China, I stayed in a nice, very large, and awfully underutilized, hotel in Hefei, The hotel and the recreational area around it were well lit, and reasonably full at night. But when I took a taxi to work in the early mornings, or returned at dusk, I would pass kilometers of housing which seemed barely occupied. China is incredibly safe from street crime, otherwise they would be dangerous places to walk through.
I look at the lone lit window in the photo above and think of the hope which China has of providing housing to all of its people. This photo was taken on the hundred and first anniversary of the failed Russian revolution. The developed world is still living out the Reagan-Thatcher nightmare of shifting jobs, the Blair-Clinton pruning of alternative viewpoints. Has China truly discovered the middle path of publicly funded private enterprise with long-range planning by the government? These ghost cities wait for the future to answer.