Jing Jiang/Sun Staff Photographer

Professor Jeremy Wallace lectures on complexities of China's industrialization.

November 8, 2018

Professor Describes Complexities of China’s ‘Ghost Cities’ Amid Rapid Industrialization

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Two seemingly contradictory realities co-exist in China: on one hand, Chinese cities are overpopulated, while on the other hand, there are also empty cities and tall skyscrapers almost entirely uninhabited.

In a lecture on Monday sponsored by Cornell Contemporary China Initiative, Prof. Jeremy Wallace, government outlined this enigma of China’s rapid urbanization, saying that around 8 million people — roughly equivalent to the total population of New York City — move from rural to growing urban areas in China every year.

These cities have almost everything needed for a modern lifestyle, including high-rise apartment blocks, developed waterfronts, skyscrapers and even public art. Just one essential element is missing: people.

Despite the influx of rural transplants, “ghost cities,” or vastly underdeveloped and unoccupied cities throughout China, are emerging across the country.

China embodies two opposing stories, Wallace said, one of the overcrowded slums in many cities and the other of China’s underdeveloped, empty cities. Academics, he argued, must think of these two phenomena as “separate issues in separate places.”

However, the two distinct stories feed into one another, creating a complicated social plane marked by the simultaneous emergence of slums and ghost cities, according to Wallace.

“Within the same cities, perhaps even in the same area, there is poverty and there is emptiness,” he said.

Wallace attributes this phenomenon to problems with incentive and information. Political motivations and discourse which rely on quantitative metrics often fail to explain the additional factors that push urbanization in opposite directions: while cities are overbuilt, many measures do not account for the true number of urban residents.

“It really depends on what numbers are counted and what numbers are not counted,” Wallace said. “What matters in Chinese politics is numbers.”

“It’s hard for the government to account for the emptiness of buildings, but also local government leaders look for GDP, which includes buildings, fiscal revenue and other statistics,” he said. “Governments avoid counting slums, since they’re not interested in the burden of looking after these migrant workers in slums.”

With nearly 200 million people migrating from rural to urban areas in China, China’s urban population is actually accelerating, according to Prof. John Weiss, history, who attended the lecture.

However, China’s urban density is currently falling due to city building far “outstripping” the number of migrants to cities, Wallace said.

Wallace added that China’s government does not see ghost cities as a failure. Rather, they constitute an investment, built not to live in, but to be bought.

“In many ways, China’s cities are the future,” Wallace said. “Yet they are not a unified, simple story to tell.”