CHINA is awash with “ghost cities” where apartment blocks stand abandoned or mothballed with some 65million empty homes.
No economy has ever risen from the dust at such a rapid rate – and no country has ever built so much so quickly.
But the side effect has been so-called ghost cities in every corner of China – also known as metropolises that have yet to come to life – and a property market in freefall.
Some of the cities are yet to be finished, while others are fully functioning with the bells and whistles of a bustling city – but without any residents.
Dozens of skyscrapers continue to pop up overnight in all corners of the country and chilling pictures show the vacant – and sometimes half-finished structures – which have been deserted.
Lone dogs roam empty high-rises as street cleaners sweep deserted roads with no commuters or traffic in sight.
Rows of post-apocalyptic housing estates tower over visitors, and impressive attractions and shopping malls gather dust without any residents or tourists stepping foot inside.
According to Insider, China had around 65million homes standing empty in 2020 – enough properties to house the population of France.
But many experts can’t put their finger on how many ghost cities currently exist in China.
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Built on a mountain of debt, the construction boom started in the late 1990s when huge swathes of rural farmland was snapped up by local officials for redevelopment.
Constructing vast towns from scratch was an easy way for politicians to artificially boost economic growth during their time in office – and get a cushy promotion in Beijing.
Apartments were rapidly bought up by homeowners who had no intention of moving in, and prices rose – resulting in a massive property bubble and vast uninhabited cities.
With strict investment regulations in place in China, people sink their savings into real estate as a fool proof way of investing their cash and making a profit.
They also snap up the properties for their future spouses, kids and grandchildren, or as a retirement pot.
It means nearly all the properties in ghost cities are owned – but no one lives there, and some homeowners might never live there.
Max Woodworth, an expert in Chinese urbanisation, said China’s developers and buyers have “tremendous faith” that the value of their property will steadily creep up – and prices won’t crash.
He told Sun Online: “Even people who purchased homes in so-called ghost cities, in my experience, rarely express regrets.
“They have come to believe time is on their side and these cities will fill out over time and keep the home values steadily rising.”
But China’s house prices have plummeted in the last 12 months as a deepening property crisis sweeps the country.
The professor at the Ohio State University said putting a stop to the construction of ghost cities in China would require a “very substantial change in the political economy”.
“Without more productive outlets for capital, real estate is and remains an attractive investment, despite its many shortcomings in terms of laying the foundation for future growth,” he said.
The Communist regime has known full well for over a decade the risks that have been building in its economy
“Ghost cities are still a real problem if we understand the phenomenon as a surfeit of real estate.”
And governments get massive sales revenue from leasing the land out to developers.
“It remains a cornerstone of local economies,” Woodworth said.
“The land system in China produces strong incentives for city governments to promote real estate and land development as a way to raise to revenue and generate economic growth.”
Writer Wade Shepard first noted the nation’s ghost cities in the early 2000s after making a wrong turn at a bus station in Tianti, Zhejiang and finding miles of empty high-rises.
One of the most well-known ghost cities in China is Ordos – known as Kangbashi – in Inner Mongolia.
The city of world-class architecture and extravagant public plazas was intended to eventually house a million people – but as of 2016, only 100,000 people lived in it.
Chilling photos showed a sea of high-rises in the barren deserts with barely any indication of human life.
Kangbashi eventually managed to lure more residents in after top schools moved into the city, Nikkei reports.
Tianducheng is another Chinese city which appears to have failed spectacularly.
Located on the outskirts of Hangzhou, rural farmland was rezoned to make way for a Chinese version of the French capital of Paris.
Construction started in 2007 with a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower and a recreation of the fountain from the Luxemburg Gardens.
But very few residents moved in and the city is deserted apart from day-trippers from nearby cities who want to have a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower.
In Chenggong, near Kunming in China’s south west, there were few signs of urban life for many years.
Until recently, the town was made up of unnecessarily wide avenues with traffic, and rows and rows of empty high-rise apartments.
The ghost city finally came to life after the government relocated university campuses and government buildings to the area.
Although some of China’s ghost cities have rumbled to life thanks to government policies, many still stand empty.
And the deserted metropolises come as a fresh wave of financial chaos is spreading across China after Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the massively indebted real estate business.
Thousands of construction schemes have screeched to a halt amid fears the country’s property boom is about to collapse – with debts of an estimated £86billion ($117billion).
The construction frenzy has left half-built amusements parks and tourist attractions abandoned for years – and a full-scale replica of the Titanic costing £110million has been sat rusting for six years.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Logan Wright, a Hong Kong-based partner at consultancy Rhodium Group, called the situation a “slow-motion financial crisis”.
Evergrande, China’s most indebted developer, is at the centre of the disaster with a massive $300billion in liabilities.
Once China’s top-selling property developer, the embattled company now has dozens of stalled residential projects and an estimated 1.5million unfinished houses that it needs to deliver to investors.
Building work at Guangzhou Evergrande football stadium was halted due to a lack of cash – with pictures showing cranes sitting abandoned and dormant over the half built structure.
Roger Garside, Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, told Sun Online that China is facing “debt mountain”.
Mr Garside said: “The Communist regime has known full well for over a decade the risks that have been building in its economy.
“It has been relying excessively on debt to fuel growth since 2008, a reliance which is most strikingly illustrated by the property sector, until it now has a debt mountain of a height such that no nation has ever succeeded in reducing it significantly without either inflation or recession.
“Its return on investment has been steadily declining. More and more of its economic activity has been unprofitable.”
Michael Pettis, professor of finance at Peking University, said everyone in China, including developers, had “made the same bet” on exponentially rising property prices.
He told The Guardian: “The problem of course is if property prices ever stop rising, because everyone has made the same bet everyone’s balance sheet starts unravelling at the same time, and it immediately becomes a systemic problem.
“That is what has happened in China.”
Dr Marco Metzler from Deutsche Marktscreening Agentur warned the collapse of the company could spark the crash of the world financial market.
He told the Express: “This is the first domino of the collapse of the market. It will be even worse than the 2008 financial crash.
“The market is bigger than what the US was.”
Some authorities have taken drastic steps to deal with the plague of derelict buildings.
Last year, 15 skyscrapers in the city of Kunming were dramatically demolished after standing unfinished for seven years, with the empty high-rises vanishing into a pile of dust in just 45 seconds.
The construction of the complex – named Sunshine City II – began in 2011, but the developer quickly ran out of money and construction came to a complete halt in 2013, Vice News reports.
Another company bought the project – and its $3.6million debt – in 2020 and asked for the buildings to be bulldozed due to the shoddy state of the building work.
According to reports, it was the single largest demolition in China to date.
Whether China’s other ghost cities will ever be populated or stand as a symbol of the nation’s whirlwind economic growth of the last 30 years remains to be seen.