China’s Ghost Cities: Unraveling the Myth and Reality

ghost cities china

In the heart of China’s economic boom rise enigmatic urban landscapes known as ghost cities. Towering apartment complexes, expansive shopping malls, and interconnected highways stretch across the horizon, yet they remain eerily silent. These underpopulated developments have become a symbol of China’s complex urbanization story and raise questions about the future of its real estate market.

Contrary to the term ghost town implying abandonment, many of China’s ghost cities are brand-new but haven’t yet reached their intended population densities. The scale is undeniable: approximately 65 million homes across China stand vacant, while estimates suggest the existence of at least 50 of these under-occupied metropolises.

In this guide, we’ll look into the origins of China’s empty cities, examine the economic and social drivers behind their creation, and explore their shifting fates. We’ll also dispel a few common misconceptions.

Let’s start by understanding exactly what these vast and underpopulated developments really are…

What are China’s ghost cities?

The images of China’s ghost cities are striking — vast urban landscapes with modern infrastructure, yet a noticeable lack of human activity. But what exactly defines a Chinese ghost city, and how do they differ from the abandoned boomtowns of other parts of the world?

  • Beyond the “ghost” label: While “ghost city” or “ghost town” are attention-grabbing terms, they can be misleading. China’s underpopulated developments are often newly built, intended for future population growth. They may have residents, but at significantly lower densities than originally projected. Rather than ghost cities, photographer Kai Michael called them “unborn cities”, which is far more apt in most cases.
  • Scale of the phenomenon: It’s estimated that there are at least 50 identifiable ghost cities or large-scale, under-occupied districts scattered across China. The sheer number of vacant homes is staggering. Some of the most well-known examples include:
  • Kangbashi, Ordos (Inner Mongolia): Once widely publicized as China’s most famous ghost city, Kangbashi was initially designed for a million residents but held a fraction of that number in its early years.
  • Yujiapu Financial District (Tianjin): Envisioned as China’s answer to Manhattan, this district remains sparsely populated despite ambitious construction.

Understanding the unique context of China’s ghost cities is crucial to exploring the forces that brought them into existence. Next, let’s take a look at the economic and governmental factors that fueled their development.

Related Reading: Tips for a First-Time Visit to China

Why do China’s ghost cities exist?

China's ghost cities

The rise of China’s ghost cities can’t really be understood without looking into the country’s unique economic landscape and government policies. Let’s break that down a bit.

Economic drivers

China’s real estate market is a unique beast, and its impact on ghost cities is undeniable. Here’s how investment strategies and a lack of alternative options influence housing purchases, leading to China’s empty cities.

  • Investment-driven real estate: In China, real estate is a major investment vehicle for individuals and businesses. A culture of homeownership, driven by limited alternative investment options and a focus on securing future generations’ well-being, leads many Chinese citizens to purchase multiple properties, often without the intent to reside in them.
  • Lack of property taxes: With no property taxes in most areas, owners face little financial pressure to rent out or sell vacant units. This further contributes to the oversupply of housing within many of these underpopulated cities.

Government policies

Local governments in China have strong economic incentives when it comes to land development, and those incentives can influence the creation of China’s empty cities. Here’s how.

  • Land revenue bonanza: A crucial source of income for local governments is revenue from converting rural land to urban and selling it for development. Statistics show that this can generate up to 40% of local government income. This incentivized rapid construction and a focus on visible economic growth, even if true demand for housing wasn’t guaranteed.
  • The push for GDP growth: Local officials, often with short tenures, were incentivized to show immediate results. Building new cities became a way to demonstrate economic progress, occasionally leading to overambitious projects that outpaced the real need for housing.

Rapid urbanization

China’s urbanization is a story of massive population shifts. As you’d expect, those intense periods of population movements played a role in the emergence of ghost cities.

China’s massive transition from a rural to an urban society fueled a belief in an insatiable demand for new housing in emerging cities. In some cases, projections outstripped the actual pace of population relocation, contributing to the mismatch between the built environment and its occupancy levels. These complex factors created a recipe for China’s peculiar ghost cities.

Related Reading: Mandarin for Travelers: Essential Phrases

Dispelling the myths: China’s ghost cities aren’t what they seem

China's ghost cities myths

The images of China’s ghost cities are obviously striking. There’s a sense of apocalypse around them — vast modern landscapes seemingly frozen in time. The term “ghost city” itself evokes a sense of abandonment and failure. However, the reality behind these underpopulated developments is far more complex than media headlines often suggest. Let’s challenge some of the most persistent myths:

Myth #1: Complete abandonment

While the media might portray deserted cities in China as desolate wastelands, it’s crucial to remember that most of these developments aren’t entirely devoid of life. They often house residents but at significantly lower densities than originally planned. These ghost cities often have basic amenities, functional infrastructure, and even a degree of economic activity. It’s a matter of under-population, not complete abandonment.

Myth #2: Static failures

While attention-grabbing, the “ghost city” label often fails to capture the dynamic nature of urban development. Many of China’s underpopulated cities are better understood as works in progress. Over time, factors like economic shifts, government initiatives, and changing migration patterns can lead to significant population increases. Examples include:

  • Pudong, Shanghai: Once criticized as a potential ghost city, Pudong is now a global financial powerhouse.
  • Zhengdong New Area: Labeled a ghost city by some in the past, it has seen significant population growth, partially fueled by its proximity to a major industrial hub.
  • Kangbashi, Ordos: Perhaps the most iconic ghost city, Kangbashi has grown slowly but steadily since its initial construction. While still underpopulated compared to its ambitious projections, it has evolved from a 20,000-person town to a district housing around 150,000 residents today.

Myth #3: A uniquely Chinese problem

While China’s ghost cities attract significant attention, it’s important to recognize that the phenomenon of underpopulated or mistimed urban developments isn’t unique to the country. From boomtowns that went bust in the American West to planned cities struggling to attract residents globally, the challenges of aligning urban planning with demographic and economic realities are universal.

Related Reading: Exploring China as a Digital Nomad

Unveiling the stories: Case studies of China’s ghost cities

China’s ghost cities aren’t a monolithic phenomenon. Each development has its own unique story, shaped by specific planning goals, economic contexts, and demographic trends. Here are some of the most well-known examples to illustrate the diversity of these underpopulated cities:

1. Kangbashi, Ordos: A Symbol and a Work in Progress

Kangbashi, located in Inner Mongolia, is often considered the archetypal Chinese ghost city. Designed for a staggering one million residents, it famously struggled to attract even a fraction of that number in its early years. Images of deserted avenues and empty apartment blocks cemented its reputation as a deserted city in China.

However, Kangbashi’s story is far from over. With a current population of around 150,000, it has grown steadily in recent years. Government incentives, infrastructure improvements, and a strategic location near resource-rich areas are contributing factors. While still underpopulated compared to its ambitious beginnings, Kangbashi starkly illustrates the evolving nature of China’s ghost cities.

2. Tianducheng: A Parisian replica facing reality


Located in Hangzhou, Tianducheng offers a peculiar twist on the ghost city phenomenon. This gated community boasts a 300-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, Parisian-style architecture, and even a replica of the fountains at Versailles. Designed to house 10,000 residents, its population has remained significantly lower, creating an eerie sense of a European city transplanted into a Chinese landscape.

Tianducheng highlights the potential clash between ambitious theming and actual demand for such developments. It raises questions about the appeal of living in a replica city, especially when located a significant distance from major urban hubs.

3. Yujiapu Financial District, Tianjin: A glittering enigma

Tianjin’s Yujiapu Financial District shows a different side of China’s ghost city phenomenon. Inspired by Manhattan’s financial hub, Yujiapu boasts impressive skyscrapers and a modern cityscape. However, occupancy rates have remained low, leading some to question its future viability.

Despite its current challenges, Yujiapu’s potential shouldn’t be discounted. Its proximity to Beijing and its status as a free-trade zone could attract businesses and residents in the long run. Only time will tell if Yujiapu transforms into the bustling financial center it aspires to be.

4. Thames Town: An English village in the heart of China

Thames Town, located within Shanghai’s Songjiang District, offers a glimpse into a peculiar cross-cultural urban experiment. This suburban development aims to emulate a quintessential English town, with Tudor-style houses, cobblestone streets, and even a replica church. Designed for approximately 10,000 residents, Thames Town has struggled to maintain a consistent population, leading to a lingering sense of emptiness in its picturesque setting.

The story of Thames Town raises interesting questions about the desire for Western aesthetics within the Chinese housing market. Many homes were purchased by investors rather than those seeking a European-inspired lifestyle. This mismatch contributes to its underpopulated atmosphere and highlights the complex interplay between idealized design and the lived realities of potential residents.

You can check out this cool interactive map to find out more about where China’s ghost cities are located.

Related Reading: A Tourist’s Guide to Chinese Money

What lies ahead for China’s ghost cities?

The future of China’s ghost cities is, as you might expect, shrouded in both uncertainty and possibility. Several social and economic forces could shape their evolution in the years to come. Let’s look at some key factors:

  • Changing urbanization patterns: China’s rapid urbanization may slow down, affecting the demand for new large-scale urban developments. This could shift the focus away from some of the current ghost cities.
  • The appeal of smaller cities: Younger generations might prioritize compact, walkable cities with a high quality of life. This shift in preference could pose challenges to the sprawling, underpopulated landscapes often found in China’s ghost cities.
  • Policy adjustments: Changes in government policies related to real estate investment or localized revenue generation could significantly impact how ghost cities develop and whether their occupancy rates improve.
  • Finding a niche: Some of China’s empty cities may find success by pivoting towards specific industries or targeted functions. For example, they could become hubs for renewable energy development, manufacturing, or even specialized tourism attractions.
  • Smart city potential: Integrating smart city features into existing ghost cities could improve their appeal. Efficient infrastructure, technological innovations, and advanced services may attract a new wave of residents and businesses.
  • Adapting to remote work: If remote work trends continue, some ghost cities could attract residents seeking affordable living with a decent quality of life, making location less critical.

It’s crucial to remember that China’s ghost cities are typically works in progress. Success or failure won’t be determined overnight, and their transformations could take years or even decades.

Lessons for the world: The evolving story of China’s ghost cities offers valuable insights for global urban planning. Balancing ambitious development with realistic projections, understanding changing demographics, and embracing flexibility will be key to sustainable urban development worldwide.

Related Reading: Do You Need to Learn Chinese to Visit China?

Beyond the hype: The lessons of China’s ghost cities

The specter of China’s ghost cities has long captured global attention. These underpopulated urban landscapes are a complex byproduct of rapid economic growth, ambitious urban planning, and shifting demographics.

While the term “ghost city” makes for a catchy headline, it obscures the reality that many of these developments aren’t entirely abandoned. Understanding their potential for evolution or reinvention is key. The stories of Pudong, Zhengdong, and the ongoing experiment of Xiongan New Area showcase the fluid nature of such projects.

China’s experience with its empty cities holds crucial lessons for urban development. It highlights the need for long-term, sustainable planning that aligns with population trends and caters to the changing preferences of urban residents.

Are you fascinated by the complexities of Chinese society and eager to understand the forces driving the country’s development? If so, learning Mandarin Chinese is your key to unlocking deeper insights.

Mastering the language will allow you to access a vast array of information beyond what’s typically translated into English. You’ll understand the nuances of news reports, social commentary, and on-the-ground perspectives about China’s ghost cities and other dynamic trends.

Imagine being able to directly engage in conversations about these topics and access insights and analyses firsthand!

Want to start your journey towards Mandarin fluency? Discover where you stand and how to unlock your potential with the FREE Mandarin Fluency Scorecard! Identify your personal weaknesses & barriers to fluency, discover the next step based on your current level, and get a custom report with immediate action steps.

Yes! Take the Scorecard!