Adrienne Arsenault: Ghost city shows cracks in China's urban planning

CBC News correspondent Adrienne Arsenault went to Ordos in Inner Mongolia to get a first-hand look at some of the difficulties China has been having when it comes to planning economic and social growth on a massive scale.

China's most influential people are in Beijing this week to decide who will lead the country and set the agenda for how the economic, political and military superpower evolves over the next decade.

Whoever takes the reins faces the mammoth task of managing the world's most populous nation – a job that hasn't been going smoothly in some parts of the country.

CBC News correspondent Adrienne Arsenault went to Ordos in Inner Mongolia to get a first-hand look at some of the difficulties China has been having when it comes to planning economic and social growth on a massive scale. 

Ghost city

Arriving at night in Ordos left us — here’s a shocker — in the dark. There was no problem with the electricity, but the skyline lacked the brightly lit high-rises that are the mark of a thriving city.

Adrienne Arsenault on The National

China’s gravity-defying growth has been going on for so long the chatter now is all about when it will head back down to earth and will it float or crash. Either way, this won’t just be China’s problem. Everything that happens here ripples around the world, particularly in Canada.

Canada’s growth rate will surely suffer if China’s does. So how to mitigate the damage? Is it possible that more actively embracing Chinese state-owned enterprises can offset it a potentially slowing Chinese economy? Maybe … maybe not. But saying no might have consequences. China’s chill could strike twice.

Tonight on The National at 9 p.m. ET, Adrienne Arsenault takes a closer look at a Chinese city without people, meets an economist who resorts to sneaking into ports and factories to understand the truth of the economics of China, and speaks with Chinese executives about what Canada needs to know — and do — to ride whatever wave is coming.

We drove down a snowy road from the gleaming and seemingly desolate Ordos airport in Inner Mongolia, along an empty highway past darkened building blocks and abandoned parking lots at vast malls.

We pulled into the hotel driveway at around 9 p.m. on a Saturday night. This is a city supposed to be able to house a million people. But stepping out of the car the only sound was the pinging of the crosswalk countdown timer across the road.

It actually echoed.

The hotel looked like something out of Las Vegas, and the reception when we arrived was oddly enthusiastic. The staff almost seemed surprised to see people wander through the door. It was as if they’d been all dressed up waiting for a very long time for someone to show up, and didn’t quite know what to do now that they had. 

The lobby bar lights were quickly turned on and the piano started playing. By itself. There was no pianist in sight, just a computer program with a playlist that must have been set to "generic hotel lobby."

Ghost cities, it seems, even have ghost pianists.

Daybreak shed an even stranger light on the city. Have you ever been in the computer simulation known as Second Life, where avatars fly around and through empty cities and buildings? Minus the flying part, Ordos is pretty much Second Life.

There are lovingly designed, but barren, museums and galleries. There are ambitious malls and wide boulevards, all largely deserted.

The most common human sighting during our visit was of men and women in high-visibility jackets chipping the ice and snow off the unused highways with small shovels. They were either smoothing the way for traffic that is not coming, or taking part in a make-work project.

Perhaps both.

Extreme urban planning

It is fact that China builds entire communities first and then fills them. The strategy is about job creation and stimulus programs, but also planning for the future.

Clothes hang on a railing in an empty shop overlooking the city of Ordos. (Lysanne Louter/CBC)

And the appetite to build is voracious. Last year, China built twice as much square footage as it sold.

Many Chinese families now invest in second homes and just hang onto them, unoccupied, as investments. It has to be better than the stock market here, which has performed appallingly.

By those metrics alone, the general emptiness of Ordos might not seem like anything to blink at. But something else is happening here.  According to the economic projections it should have been busier by now. A lot busier.

'I hope it will get better next year and more people will come in.'—Ordos resident Guo Jianjun

At one point we ducked into an unfinished apartment complex. The buildings looked largely complete, but the grounds amounted to a frozen pile of dirt and construction materials in what clearly was supposed to one day be a courtyard.  From the outside the units looked dark except for perhaps three per building in a 10-building compound.

On the fourth floor of one of the buildings we found Guo Jianjun, his wife and son. The floors were polished white stone, and the sunlight was streaming in through the windows and taking the chill off the Mongolian desert cold. But that seems to be where the joy ends for this family.

Guo says he sold his farm and bought the apartment so that his son could go to one of the schools nearby. He thought he would have work by now, but he doesn’t. Worse, he doesn’t have many neighbours or friends.

"To be honest, I feel quite lonely here" he told us. "I hope it will get better next year and more people will come in."

He says the developer promised him the complex would be full — or at least finished — long ago, but the money doesn’t seem to be there now to complete it.

Residential homes line a deserted street in Ordos. As seen in this May 2011 photo, some buildings have been finished but others in the city are in varying stages of completion. (David Gray/Reuters)

Or fill it. Unit prices are going down, but people still don’t seem to be buying.

Maybe this is partly because Ordos relies heavily on coal production at a time when the industry has been hurt. So perhaps some will rush to call Ordos an aberration.

The thing is, it’s not just Ordos.

There are other ghost cities in China that are as, or even more, ambitious — and just as empty. In each case, the reasons for their slow population growth are different. Each one can explain it rationally, but put together it’s a curious pattern.

Deconstructing the hows and whys and ultimate consequences of the signs of slowing growth seems almost a parlour game for economists with constantly conflicting views. What they agree on is the need to look at official growth projections with a healthy dose of cynicism.

Sitting in a ghost hotel in a ghost city and listening to a ghost pianist, you get a sense of why.

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Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.