China’s Phantom Urbanization And The Pathology Of Ghost Cities

Christian Sorace

University of Texas at Austin

William Hurst

Northwestern University – Department of Political Science

January 29, 2015

Journal of Contemporary Asia, Forthcoming


Many have remarked upon China’s tendency to develop gargantuan, yet nearly empty, “ghost cities” since the turn of the millennium. Yet almost no previous scholarship examines the specific reasons why or processes through which this phenomenon has come to be. Following a thorough and critical analysis of key aspects of China’s political economy that create the perverse incentives behind the excesses of its real estate boom and the growth of ghost cities, we examine two empirical case studies in detail: Kangbashi (in Ordos, Inner Mongolia) and New Beichuan (in an area of Sichuan Province devastated by a massive earthquake in 2008). We are thus able to offer both broad insights into the roots of China’s phantom urbanization and a careful tracing of the specific development and effects of the pathology of ghost cities for the first time.

China’s Phantom Urbanization And The Pathology Of Ghost Cities – Introduction

Today the tragedy of the Great Leap forward is repeating as the comedy of the rapid capitalist Great Leap Forward into modernization, with the old slogan ‘an iron foundry in every village’ reemerging as ‘a skyscraper on every street’ (Žižek 2011, 718).

Urban development since the mid-nineteenth century, if not before, has always been speculative, but the speculative scale of the Chinese development seems to be of an entirely different order than anything before in human history (Harvey 2013, 60).

The conventional wisdom regarding China’s urbanization follows a standard narrative, combining assumptions regarding rural-to-urban migration, modernization, and development. As China attempts to transition from an export-driven economy to one based on domestic consumption, urbanization both absorbs investment1 and creates urban consumers, who tend to consume more than their rural counterparts.2 Even though China’s property market is far from perfect, over-supply problems are seen as temporary, to be resolved as ever-more rural villagers migrate to China’s cities. In the words of economist Stephen Roach (2012), it is “the greatest urbanization story the world has ever seen … according to OECD projections, China’s already burgeoning urban population should expand by more than 300 million by 2030 . . . today’s so-called ghost cities quickly become tomorrow’s thriving metropolitan areas.” China’s miraculous urbanization story and future economic growth are one of those “remarkably resilient narratives” (Li 2009, 69) that rest on the magical formula ‘if you build it, they will come.’

In China’s scholarly, policy and popular discourses, however, a counter-narrative of “urban pathologies” tracks the problems caused by high-speed urban development, such as empty housing, population overcrowding, ecological destruction, and deteriorating infrastructures (DRCSC 2012, Yin 2010).4 Indeed, many Chinese scholars and policy analysts use neologisms like “fake urbanization”, “half urbanization” (ARDHMC 2010-2011), “impetuous urbanization” (Yuan 2008), and urbanization yielding a “city without a city” – literally, walls without a market] (Zhu 2011) to describe the phenomenon of building what resembles a city in name and morphology only. In a stark reversal of patterns typical across the developing world – where millions of people urbanize in the absence of urbanized land or infrastructure – China’s urbanization of land and creation of infrastructure often far outpace the urbanization of its people.

The discourse of “urban pathology” poses a conceptual quandary: does the term “urbanization” in China still connect to a reliable and identifiable referent? Or, might its “definitional contours have become unmanageably slippery” (Brenner 2013, 91)? What we call phantom urbanization challenges many unexamined assumptions behind China’s popular urbanization narrative by disentangling the production of an urban carapace from traditional processes of urbanization. Without the myth of future waves of rural migrants who will some day by some unspecified means afford new urban housing, what remains is the proliferation of urban forms divorced from urban practices and uses. Ghost cities are the extreme pathological expression of this syndrome of phantom urbanization.

Behind China’s ‘miraculous’ urbanization story is a powerful ideological commitment to urban growth as the “royal road” to modernity and assessment of political performance. Local governments have a wide-ranging ‘tool-kit’ for pursuing urbanization ranging from administrative border-drawing to expropriation of rural land and investment in expanding urban infrastructures. Even when urbanization is forced, counter-productive, or fabricated, it is the destination to which all paths lead. Even when building new urban space is financially detrimental to local states, they pursue it regardless. But why? Our concept of phantom urbanization names the process whereby constructing the aesthetic form of the urban is even more important to local state actors than economic, demographic, or environmental repercussions (Cartier and Tomba 2012).


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