A replica of Paris is one of the latest ghost cities created in China... Dateline asks why so many uninhabited towns are still being built.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS One

When Dateline visited China's vast empty cities in 2011, it became one of our most popular stories ever with over three million views online.

So are the uninhabited towns now bustling with residents? And is the building of unwanted homes and businesses still continuing?

Adrian Brown returns to China for Dateline to answer those questions; and finds 20 new cities are taking shape in this year alone.

There's already a near deserted replica of Paris complete with its own Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysees, while even levelling a range of 700 mountains can't stand in the way of another vast new conurbation.

With China's population and prosperity growing at a rapid rate, Adrian also asks an expert if it's all good urban forward planning or an economic bubble that's about to burst.

WATCH - Follow Adrian on his latest tour of China's Empty Cities.

BLOG - Adrian blogs about his return to China's empty cities, and the mixed response from the Chinese to all the media attention.

SATELLITE VIEW - The satellite images of the empty cities in Adrian's report show their scale and in many cases the lack of signs of life.

EXTRA - Follow the links on the right-hand side of the page to find out more about the places and people in Adrian's story.

CHINA'S GHOST CITIES - Watch Adrian's original story from 2011, which has been viewed over three million times online.

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Blog

Adrian writes for the Dateline blog about his return to China’s empty cities, and the mixed response to all the media attention"¦

China, frankly, has grown weary of endless reports about its severely under populated cities. That’s why the provincial government of Inner Mongolia refused to issue me with an invitation letter. Maybe they'd seen my earlier Dateline report on China’s Ghost Cities.

Anyway, the coaxing and cajoling failed, and no letter was forthcoming. So in the end I had to visit Ordos and its Kangbashi New Town unofficially.

Arriving in the city, I am struck by the similarity with North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. Wide, empty boulevards. Grandiose architecture with confused themes. And an eerie shortage of people. At times you have to pinch yourself and say, "Yes, it's real."

Our cover was blown within a few hours of arriving though. My tour guide was suspicious of my endless questions about why the place was so empty. Eventually her boss turned up, along with an official from the Public Security Bureau.

After checking my passport, their suspicions were confirmed"¦ no journalist visa. Strangely I was told that while this meant I did not have permission to talk to anyone, I could continue filming.

But eventually, it was clear I had overstayed my welcome and was told I would be driven to the airport"¦ just four hours after arriving. I was being politely deported from China’s biggest ghost city. I joked to my guide, 'but don’t you need people."

'Yes, but not like you," she replied sharply.

But more than 700 kilometres to the south, the welcome could not have been more different. The officials behind Lanzhou New Area, a new city being carved out of the mountains of Gansu Province, seemed overjoyed to receive us.

I was encouraged to pose for pictures with the deputy mayor and other senior local party members. I was also invited to give my views on China’s newest city to the local media"¦ less than two hours after arriving in Lanzhou.

In this lunar landscape they are are levelling 700 mountains to build a 130,000 hectare metropolis from scratch. Up to a million people will eventually move in.

The new city’s Deputy Mayor, Guo Zhiqiang, told me the city will not repeat the mistakes of Ordos.

Satellite View

The satellite images of the empty cities in Adrian's report show their scale and in many cases the lack of signs of life...


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Tianducheng is a replica of Paris, complete with its own Eiffel Tower, grand boulevards and French-style architecture.


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The image of the South China Mall in the southern city of Dongguan is partially obscured by cloud, but its scale can still be seen.


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Ordos is one of the most famous ghost cities. Closer inspection shows its massive scale, but the lack of cars on the streets.


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Lanzhou New Area is currently being built near the existing city of Lanzhou. The surrounding landscape shows why 700 mountains needed to be levelled to make way for it.

Find out more by using the interactive Google images above and by following the links on the right-hand side of the page.

Resources

Transcript

Which of our stories has received the most amounts of hits online? The undisputed winner with a staggering three million hits is a story by Adrian Brown in 2011, which looked at the new cities springing up all over China with almost no one in them. Are they part of a massive property bubble that's about to burst? Or do the Mandarins in Beijing have a very big plan for the future? Adrian has been back to China to try to find out.

REPORTER: Adrian Brown

The Chinese don't have to go to Paris anymore. It's come to them. This is the district of Tianducheng in Zhejiang province. A bizarre mix of Parisian townhouses, fountains from the palace of Versailles and an Eiffel Tower clone, a third the size of the original. It's an incongruous scene;..; a place where China's aspirations and traditions collide.

REPORTER (Translation): Vous parlez Francais?

WOMAN (Translation): We call it the metal tower. He's funny!

REPORTER (Translation): Vous parlez Francais?

But just like my French, this architectural clone has gone badly wrong. On Champs Elysees Square just about every shop stands abandoned.

WOMAN (Translation): In the beginning, very few people lived here, even fewer than when we moved in. The bus was empty much of the time. There are more people now. Some shops did open, but there wasn't much business to sustain them.

Tianducheng is proving popular with wedding photographers. But the Parisian vibe hasn't quite proved to be the attraction it was meant to be. 10,000 people were sup[posed to live here, today the population is a tenth of that.

MAN (Translation): It's like Paris, but it's quite remote. These buildings are quite pretty and prices are not high. People buy these flats because they are affordable. People don't care about the architecture.

At a local noodle bar, I find Wu Shui Qing serving up the lunchtime noodles. She's tried to make a go of it for the last year and a half but is worried how long her business can stay afloat.

WU SHUI QING (Translation): There aren't many people here - our business is volume-based. We are a food vendor, we need diners. Yes, it's tough doing business here, it is hard to say what will happen in the future.

It's possible that more people will move in and the shops will re-open. But for now Tianducheng is another of China's ghost cities.


On it goes. Every shop, empty - Boarded up - Amazing. In the southern City of Dongguan I've returned to the vast and crumbling South China Mall. It claims to be the world's biggest shopping centre. It's also the emptiest. Nothing has changed in the two and a half years since I was last in the Great Mall of China.


I last reported from here in 2011, back then I found toy Shop owner Tian Yu Gao trying desperately to make a go of it.

REPORTER: Do you get very lonely in here?

TIAN YU GAO (Translation): It is a bit boring looking after the shop here. There are two few customers.

REPORTER: When was the last time you sold something?

TIAN YU GAO (Translation): Yesterday. I sold one toy. Once it took four to five days.

Today Mr Tian's old shop is boarded up. He didn't survive. But the shopping centre could yet prosper. The local government has taken over, classifying it as a national tourist attraction. Billions of dollars are being spent on a makeover that includes a massive apartment and villa complex. The aim is to turn this miserable mall into a new town. It's a build, build mentality that has some high ranking officials concerned.

LI TIE (Translation): The central government must control urbanisation, it must stop any fanatical actions by local authorities who blindly and hastily implement unreasonable urbanisation measures.

Li Tie heads the country's top economic planning agency. For such an influential figure, his language is refreshingly frank.

LI TIE (Translation): Urban planning in many cities is done at the will of the governor. A governor may be fond of a Western urbanisation model and may want to replicate it to prove that their city can out-perform the West. These urbanisation efforts are superficial.

For the ultimate display of rampant and unchecked urbanisation, I've come to Inner Mongolia...

REPORTER: Is that a whole city over there?

;to the city of Kangbashi, in the sprawling district of Ordos - 8.30am - peak hour on the main road into China's largest and most infamous ghost city. In the middle of a mining boom, developers were given free reign here, this is where Genghis Khan meets Alice in Wonderland, complete with a Yellow Brick road to nowhere. People may be at a premium here, but space is not.

WOMAN (Translation): The square is 2.5 kilometres long and 200 metres wide.

When the short lived mining boom went to bust, the influx of new residents never came. Designed to accommodate a million residents, today the population is reportedly less than 70,000. Driving around this city is an eerie and unsettling experience - everywhere, apartments stand empty, office blocks remain half-finished and the cranes are idle.

TOM MILLER, AUTHOR: I think the problem in Ordos is that things just took off. They went completely crazy.

Author Tom Miller has written a book on China's urban explosion and why places like Ordos have failed.

TOM MILLER: The kinds of population pressures Ordos imagined they would have, have not come to pass. And so yes, in Ordos there is going to be an awful lot of waste

REPORTER: When you travel around China, as I have done, and you see all these empty apartment blocks and houses that haven't been lived in, are we seeing the signs of a property bubble that is beginning to burst?

TOM MILLER: I think there are bubbles within China, but I think that China is a very, very large country and it doesn't make sense to talk about a single bubble. I think it's... Imagine China as bubble wrap. Some of those bubbles within it might burst. But in places like Beijing and Shanghai there is massive demand for housing and there isn't enough housing.

It's the area's lack of people that, ironically, is drawing in the visitors. Some have come a long way to see for themselves the emptiest city in the world's most populated country.

REPORTER: Ah, there's tourists. Where are you from?

TOURIST: From Iraq.

REPORTER: From Iraq?

TOURIST: Yeah, what about you?

REPORTER: Australia.

It'll be a while before the tourists come here though, 850 kilometres south of Ordos, they are building another city from scratch. In Gansu Province, in China's arid west, Lanzhou New Area is taking shape. It's a project that began with military precision just two years ago, when army engineers cut the tops off 700 mountains and filled in the valleys. And this is what they're building, a 130,000 hectare metropolis.


This project is all part of China's ambitious goal to move more than 400 million people from the countryside to the city in the next 10 years. It is perhaps only China that couls contemplate something on this almost unimaginable scale. Since the turn of the century, China's urban population has grown by a mind-boggling 220 million people. The government is gambling that cities that are empty now will, in time, start to fill up.

TOM MILLER: If you travel around China you will find lots of empty places and if you come back five years later you will find they have filled up. And this, a standard pattern of development in China and it's very, very different from the way development works in almost any other country in the world.

REPORTER: Thank you very much for inviting us to your new city.

Guo Zhiqiang is Lanzhou's New Area deputy Mayor, he insists that his city will not make the same mistakes as Ordos.

GUO ZHIQIANG (Translation): Lanzhou New Area will definitely not become an empty city or a ghost city. Essentially, it will be a fantastic, fully equipped city. It will be a beautiful city. It can lift the residents' standard of living.

The foundations of a new life are taking shape by the day. Lanzhou will soon become home for thousands of rural migrants from the city's sprawling hinterland.

BUILDER (Translation): What we see here is a bird's-eye view of less than one-fifth of Stage One of the Green Finance City project. The high-density housing caters to the needs of the majority of the people, people who move into the area to find work or to start a business.

Before we left Lanzhou, the deputy mayor had some people he wanted us to meet. We have been invited here by the local government and they are basically organising all of our interviews. Now we are being taken to meet some local farmers who are having to leave their land to make way for this new city.


These farmers have had no say in their relocation, but with government minders in ear shot, all insist they are glad to be moving.

MAN (Translation): We're like pioneers in our village. We are doing what has never been done before. This is really good.

MAN 2 (Translation): Yes, I'm happy about it, thanks to the Communist Party.

For men who've worked the fields much of their lives, the big challenge will be to find work in the city.


I suppose in a way it's not difficult to see why these people are happy to move. But it's always hard to know whether they are saying what they really mean when you have got government minders all around you. Here you can see the demolition work has already begun. And soon all this will be one vast construction site.


I asked to see one of the next houses on the demolition list and quickly discovered was only built 10 years ago.


REPORTER: What's wrong with this? This seems alright. Why does it have to be knocked down?

WOMAN: There are a lot of houses like this.

REPORTER: And yet they are going to be knocked down?

WOMAN: Yes, yes.

For the owner, the gain of a new apartment will mean losing his family home.

HOME OWNER (Translation): Yes, of course it's a pity. We had just settled down, but we're responding to the government's call. We're happy to accept the government's arrangements.

REPORTER: Will your apartment be bigger than this?

HOME OWNER (Translation): We're not sure. We haven't seen it. It's hard to say. We haven't been resettled yet, we're not sure about it.

Across China, millions more are making the move from the country to the city. It's social engineering on the grandest of scales.

MAN (Translation): This is where we're living now, but we're moving into high-rises. Living in high-rises is like going up to the sky.


ANJALI RAO: Adrian Brown in China. And that plan to move more than 400 million people into those new areas in the beggars belief. Our website has a blog from Adrian about the rather mixed reaction from Chinese authorities to his visit. And there's revealing interactive satellite views of the deserted streets. Plus you can see his original report from 2011, which as I mentioned, has been viewed over three million times.

Reporter/Camera
ADRIAN BROWN

Producers
VICTORIA STROBL
GARRY MCNAB

Fixer
BESSIE DU

Translations
KENNY WANG

Editors
WAYNE LOVE
NICK O'BRIEN

Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN

10th September 2013