China’s urbanization has proceeded at an amazing pace in the past few decades. More than half the Chinese population is now living in cities. There are over 160 cities with more than a million inhabitants and at least six megacities: Shanghai (22 m), Beijing (18 m), Guangzhou (18 m), Tianjin (13 m), Chengdu (12 m), and Shenzhen (12 m). Shenzhen is often held up as the poster child of China’s revolutionary urban transformation: it went in three decades from a cluster of small fishing villages to a megacity.
Chinese megacities are different from those in the Global South, or those in the United States, in that so much of their development is government planned. This applies to massive residential areas, industrial zones, and business districts in existing cities but it also involves, even more spectacularly, the creation of entirely new cities from scratch, such as Ordos in the province of Inner Mongolia. Another example of a jaw-dropping megaproject is Yujiapu: The construction of a vast complex of some forty-seven skyscrapers outside Tianjin nicknamed “China’s new Manhattan,” a huge new district of finance and producer services planned to be finished in 2019.
It is estimated that from 2000 to 2012 China’s construction industry built twice as many new homes as there are today in the entire United Kingdom. And it’s not just homes. The growth of China’s megacities is accompanied by massive infrastructural investments in roads, highways, power grids, bridges, tunnels, airports, public transportation, high-speed rail, and so on. China is also in the middle of a huge south-north water diversion project, from the Yangtze River near Shanghai to the Yellow River, that feeds much-needed water to the megacities in the arid northeast, Beijing and Tianjin.
The dizzying pace of China’s urban growth is fueled by the country’s rapid industrialization and accompanying need for urban workers. But it also reflects a model of development where fast-increasing revenues are almost routinely channeled into construction and in which building companies have become powerful players; where local and regional governments are increasingly independent and invent their own pet projects; and where speculation in real estate has escalated and where the market is highly non-transparent. Urban growth in China, in this way, reflects a peculiar mix of central planning and capitalism—one that has in the past delivered unprecedented and spectacular growth but that may now be getting out of control in more ways than one. The debate is now in full swing.
Since late 2012 it has become clear that tens of millions of new high-rise apartments, from the residential suburbs of Zhengzhou to the brand new city of Ordos, are sitting empty. The price range of most apartments is US$60,000-120,000 which is way out of reach for the average Chinese. A good number of the apartments are actually sold, but to well-off members of the new urban middle class who have no intention of ever living there and who speculate that prices will continue to rise as they have done in the past. Ordos is now referred to as China’s biggest ghost town. By early 2013 only 10 percent of the 300,000 new homes were occupied, while construction continued relentlessly.
China’s construction boom may not be sustainable. Real estate bubbles are common to economies all over the world and certainly the United States has had its share. But in China, everything is bigger and if this bubble does burst, it will be the biggest real estate meltdown the world has ever seen. That will not do away with China’s megacities, but it may change the way they are planned.
This piece was excerpted from Atlas of Cities.