China postscript: Ghost town, pop. 13 million

Paul Wells on the oddity that is Guangzhou’s Central Business District


After we post my Harper-in-China wrap, which will appear in issues of the magazine that begin hitting newsstands on Thursday, I’ll get off the Harper/Energy/China kick that has preoccupied me for most of the year to date. But I haven’t told you too much about what China was like, or at least the sliver of it that we saw on the press tour, just as a place to visit. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that in many ways it’s an unpleasant place.

It’s particularly unpleasant for Tibetan monks, six of whom set fire to themselves during (but for reasons not particularly related to) the Prime Minister’s visit, as Andrew Cohen points out in a very good column. For Western VIPs and their consensus-media tormentors, it is the lap of luxury. There’s no comparison between the way we were treated and the fate that awaits dissidents. But even the lap of luxury was unnerving, and dispiriting, in subtle ways. Nowhere more so than in the Zhujiang New Town of Guangzhou, which we visited last Friday.

This is Guangzhou’s Central Business District, tossed up quickly at unimaginable expense to serve as a very Western-themed showcase for China’s amazing wealth. There’s one like it in most big Chinese cities, I’m told, and they’ve all sprung up in the last half-decade. We stayed at a hotel there and ate lamb chops and caprese salad as if it were the Westin Ottawa. Well, the Westin Ottawa on LSD.

The only thing missing was people. Let’s begin with the Guangzhou Friendship Store, a high-end retail outlet in the new town district. Souvenir photos:


See what’s missing, at 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in mid-winter? That’s right. Anyone to buy anything. There are sales clerks, though — fleets of them, eager young men and women in snappy uniforms who converged on me in clusters of four and five whenever I hovered within three feet of a display case. Eager to help. Desperate to help, as if a chance to interact with a visitor was their only shot at escaping the monotony of the day.

It was the same at our hotel, which looks nice in the website photos but which is poorly designed: to get to your room you need to take an elevator to the 22nd-floor lobby, walk to another bank of elevators, and then descend to whatever floor your room is on. It would take two hotel clerks to explain this to a visitor. The Guangzhou Hyatt laid on at least a dozen, each pointing the next six feet of your trail, each delighted for a visitor to break up the afternoon with a little distracting make-work.

A colleague who’s based in China says it’s like this in the part of every large city that welcomes foreigners: an astonishing opulence for which there is no local market and not much of a tourist market. A highly local profligacy with resources, material and human, that is out of all proportion to the way ordinary Chinese live their lives only a few kilometres away.

The last stop on our tour is the Guangzhou Opera House, designed by the Iranian starchitect Zaha Hadid, built for $200 million, opened 11 months ago and subject to fawning international coverage. I’m lucky I saw it when I did, because it may not last much longer. It’s falling apart, which is actually not that big a problem because it is essentially abandoned in any case. The hall’s website lists no events for the rest of February, nine for all of March, five for April, five for May and one for June. That’s an average of four nights’ use a month. Edmonton’s Francis Winspear Centre is busy about half the time; Ottawa’s National Arts Centre is almost never dark.

It’s a fake opera house across the park from a fake shopping mall next to a fake hotel in a fake neighbourhood designed to snow gullible foreigners, not 100 km from villages whose residents live in grinding poverty. A rich command economy is still a command economy, and it commands its subjects to live in ways that steal hope. There was much more to like about other parts of other cities we visited — Chongqing is wild, bustling, dirty and vital — but after less than a day I was eager to put Guangzhou behind my back. And grateful for the right to do so.

Filed under:

China postscript: Ghost town, pop. 13 million

  1. Well, if you go prepared to dislike a place, and you did….you will dislike it no matter what.

    But like or dislike…they are eating us for lunch.

    Get used to it gweilo

    • What was it like when you went?

      • Ha ha.

      •  Rule 7 of the internet: Don’t feed the trolls

        • Who would that be?

          • You must be an idiot if you don`t know that OriginalEmily1 is the resident troll here.

          • You have no idea what a troll even is, or you wouldn’t say such silly things.

            The topic here is China…not me.

          • She’s not a troll — like many here, she’s opinionated. Here’s a definition for ya:

            In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory,[2] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.[4] The noun troll may refer to the provocative message itself, as in: “That was an excellent troll you posted”. 

          • Yup, that pretty well sums her up.

          • @4a64130278c80432e4d05477e5ee5a66:disqus 

            Opinionated is not a crime…..nor do I put  ‘inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community’

            YOU are the one doing that.

            ‘with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response’

            I really doubt you had an emotional response to my remark about China.  LOL

            I don’t throw in remarks about abortion, gays, racism or anything else into a topic either….we have people who do that, but I’m not one of them

            So get a grip on yourself.

          • @Gtrplyr055:disqus 

            Thank you.

          • You’re welcome.

      • Bustling, friendly, lots of nice people. Welcomed everywhere.

        I’ve done business with the Chinese for close to 20 years, and have some very dear friends there.

          • Or maybe Emily’s family are Celtic….7 generations in Canada, and now citizens of the world.

            And maybe you’re a paranoid bigot who should go home.

  2. It seems to have the Enron trading floor feel to it. 

  3. This article sucks. Can you fly into any place in the world for two seconds and understand its heartbeat? I’ll come and review Ottawa in the same style and see what you think.

    – An Aussie living in Zhujiang New Town 

    • what is life like where you are? How long have you lived in China? What disservice do you feel Mr.Wells is doing with his description of his impressions? I am really interested.

    • An Aussie with Chinese name. Right. Panda hugger ?That aside, having been here in Guangzhou since -92 I could say few things about Guangzhou’s “heartbeat”. It’s the 7th most polluted city on earth and a brutal place to live in many ways. One emergency and stay in a local hospital will surely open your eyes. Just make sure you have money or valid credit cards for that when you have one. To like it or love takes a lot of effort. I can’t say I do either. (I would love to live in Australia or New Zealand instead). This article says very well how a visitor (majority of them) feel when they come here. I have countless stories like this to share. I would say it’s spot on.

    • Indeed. Because the article opened up with the line… “This is China in it’s totality, the whole place is like this:”

      Thanks for showing off your functional illiteracy though.

  4. Australia produced a documentary on China’s ghost cities.  China invests 60% of its GDP building massive cities nobody lives in. Malls nobody shops in.  Office towers nobody works in.  It’s the bubble to end all bubbles.  Definitely worth a look. The vast majority of Chinese, whose average annual income is $6,000 cannot afford the prices of these new developments, which average $300,000, nor can they manage the absurd mortgage rules. A buyer has to put 50% down and pay the rest off in a few years.  Even the educated class can’t afford these places. But beyond that, they’re simply empty. There is nothing going on in any of them. An estimated 64 million apartments are empty.

    • Yes, this is a very good documentary !!

    • Thanks for link, have not watched it before. 

    • And how is this different from the half-empty half-foreclosed upon and half-finished subdivisions in the United States?

      • Probably because the U.S’s GDP is 7 times larger for starters. 

  5. Wells – was the entire town empty or just areas within city? 

    For the past couple of years, I have been following news about China’s ghost towns and new areas within old cities. China is building, but so far many people are refusing to move. I find it utterly fascinating because it must discombobulating to grow up as poor peasants who live in hovels with their pigs and eats insects for nutrition and then expected to move and live in new suburban home and do your shopping in shiny Western style mall. 

    Overstaffing is part of social contract, it was explained to me, because there are few government welfare programs. People are paid less individually so more people can be hired – department store in Canada has 3/4 people working each floor while in China/Korea they have 20 people per floor. I don’t know for certain, but I doubt there is minimum wage or it is very low if there is one. 

    Web Urbanist ~ Empty City Of Ordos:

    It’s been called the Dubai of northern China, showered with wealth, packed with public infrastructure and located near to precious natural resources in a region plagued by water-supply troubles. But the urban center of Ordos City, known as ‘Kangbashi New Area’, has been mostly deserted for five years. Kangbashi isn’t a ghost town due to economic issues, contamination or any other common cause of such abandonment – the government simply can’t convince people to move there.

    Built for 1 million people and currently inhabited by just a few thousand (despite a government claim of 28,000 residents, who are more likely just commuting workers), Kangbashi is filled with brand new buildings. One apartment building after another perches on the edge of streets that rarely see traffic, skyscrapers stand empty and over $5 billion worth of public buildings are unused and unstaffed.

    • I suspect most of the city was bustling. Chongqing sure is; Beijing is. It’s perfectly fair to say I didn’t see all or even much of Guangzhou. But what I saw was perhaps 80 city blocks, less than half a decade old and operating at perhaps 1% capacity. 

      • “But what I saw was perhaps 80 city blocks, less than half a decade old and operating at perhaps 1% capacity.”

        I am jealous, so want to see one of these ghost town/areas but I have asked twice when I’ve been in Shanghai for auto show and they have not taken me yet. I was wondering if the authorities did not want foreigners to see these overbuilt areas but I guess not if they are taking Canadian press on tour.

  6. “It’s a fake opera house across the park from a fake shopping mall next
    to a fake hotel in a fake neighbourhood designed to snow gullible
    foreigners, not 100 km from villages whose residents live in grinding
    poverty. ”

    Did Steve sell them the plans for a fake lake?

  7. @24af5b1d25b5b6727d76c67a609844d9:disqus “Bide” is Peter in Chinese. You see Chinese pollution. While I see coal dust that my home state (Queensland) dug out of the ground, shipped out and bought back as a $2 goods from China – in Guangzhou’s air. Yeah, I miss blue skies and stars, but I know by the time I return home, the koala in  is unlikely to be living in viable populations in the wild in SE Queensland. 
    Laggards, Australia signed the Kyoto protocol late (did Canada stay in it ?) and now OZ has an emissions trading scheme – & Guangdong has announce one too. As you’ll know, the Asian Games has cleaned up heavy industry, laid down new metro lines that went straight to full capacity, busways and bus electrification, and cleaned up the creeks. I’m not saying it perfect, but have you ever met a Chinese climate denier?What did you learn about Cantonese culture while you have been here? Not a Canto-phile? @twitter-15616667:disqus Good video, I saw it when it came out. Dongguan’s ‘Mall of the World’ wasn’t thought out. Zhujiang New Town is different due to the planning (central greenway, wide avenues, iconic architecture, metro, across the river from the Canton Fair etc).@809fba9ed3d56f5b9d15d50b31a55f4f:disqus Zhujiang New Town is still being built. I live in the village that gave up its rice paddy fields for the New Town to be built. All the villagers (and me) moved into brand new apartment complexes looking at the world’s third tallest (I think) superstructure, the Canton Tower. Lots of construction means a lot of noise, Zhujiang is filling out from the first built bits first – its simply a massive construction site and people are waiting for it to be less noisy. What’s happening in China is humanity’s largest migration of Chinese rural people becoming urbanites. Last year it was the first time China had 50% of its population in cities.@twitter-100842674:disqus Mate, this state media article is more like it, as they caused a traffic jam at the original mall in Taojin: I know a shop owner that leases a department front in the Friendship Store and they are making a mint with China’s nouveau riche. It’s not for Westerns to look at, it is for the Chinese. You’re just in awe of dynamic economic growth. China’s like the 80s in the West, where everyone wants a Nike tshirt and nobody has read Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo.’ After wearing a Mao suit, wouldn’t you want a brand too?A more poignant question may have been is how can they fill out all the office space? I suspect the answer is with Chinese companies that will enter the top companies of the world, that we just haven’t heard of yet. The latest economic data just out is that China now has 50% production that is domestic. As exports to the West slow, the rise of the Chinese consumer is upon us. 

    • I feel, smell and taste the pollution. It is horrible and it is morbid for the local population (just check with the doctors who dare to open their mouths about it). It is not only to air but the acid rains. Rivers and land is polluted completely. The same doctors tell me that these effects can be seen already in the hospitals (in those who can afford to go) but pollution kills slowly. Local government and state is trying to hide behind the “fog” and what not instead of informing public until lately when the pressure was growing. Asian games cleaned the air ? I do not believe that. Just take a trip to Foshan were all the ceramic factories are on full swing again. Not only that but the traffic increases all the time and no announced trading scheme will clear it anytime soon. Just go to enjoy the clean air on the Huanshi Dong Road while the electric busses drive by :) Canto-phile ? No. I am and will stay European. What I have learned here about the culture is that money is above everything else – nothing else matters. Doing business here is nothing short of ruthless and it is very much gambling like. You can meet very few business people here who did not encounter some kind of problem in a major scale. I can also testify that I have been asked to spy and transfer technology for military. Culture (what they try now to force on people) is non existent. Regarding the mall – I walk through the La Perle almost daily. Did not see many shoppers… Maybe wrong timing but I do not believe any of the “Happy Daily” stories anyways. I see these shoppers en masse in Hong Kong because no matter what the “Happy Daily” says, they believe getting real stuff – not fakes – in Hong Kong. There are a lot more for the government to consider if they want to stay in power than the few luxury clothes, jewelry, and bags for a few corrupt government official and their relatives & minions to purchase (just check the license plates on the cars parked around that mall..).

      If you were one of the villagers I assume you were one of the regulars at the Red Ants when it was the place to be and to be seen…
      Yes, you’re most right that Chinese companies are bribing their way to the top. Not a pretty sight. I visited just now Australia and New Zealand and the Chinese companies  (government backed with cheap loans from the state) were purchasing land, resources left and right. The locals were not happy at all about that. Interesting to see what will happen after they have cleaned up everything. Africa will be the first example.

      Interesting times.

      Oh, ever got stuck in the elevator at the “superstructure” ? Highly recommended experience.

  8. The Chinese are doing exactly what killed the American market, simply on scales so massive it almost boggles the mind – I too have seen the video of the Chinese ghost towns/buildings (some being demolished because of their lack of use) and they’re building housing for exorbitant prices, most of which (according to documentaries) are being sold to people who hope to ‘flip’ the condo for a better price…

    The only thing keeping this bubble from bursting is an authoritarian government which keeps applying more air and suds to keep the whole thing from going.

  9. Considering your concern for Tibetan monks, when are you going to do a piece on Obama’s National Defense Authorization Act which essentially allows him to do whatever he wants to any person in the world (execution, indefinite detention, “disappearing”, “enhanced interrogation”) by decree without consequence, even to Americans.  

  10. I guess the kind of waste where too much is being produced is not as bad as the kind of situation where not enough is produced.

    However, it seems that these empty sprawling complexes are evidence of the distinctions between a purer form of capitalism in the west, and the government-based controlled capitalist-like economy of China.

    The stores and hotels themselves operate somewhat like their western counterparts.  But then there are the differences: the economics that go into whether they should exist at all, whether the resources they consume are outweighed by the services they provide, and whether they are the outputs of citizens’ initiatives as opposed to government fiat, and so on. 

    What you witnessed may be evidence of all those distinctions.

  11. Anyone interested in the cities of the world…and we all should be since the majority of the world now lives in cities….should read  ‘Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World’ by Doug Saunders.

    So-called ’empty cities’ in China are an attempt to fix the problem….the idea is that people should ‘move up’ to better accomodations….but of course humans are often stubborn and don’t act in their own best interests.

    Many of them can easily afford to….China has millionaires and billionaires, not to mention a huge ‘well-off’ middle class.

    • Specially now when the prices are coming down:

      Home prices on the mainland dropped for a fifth month in January under the government’s tightening measures, with Beijing, Guangzhou and Wuhan recording the largest falls of the country’s 10 biggest cities. Average home prices nationwide slid by 0.18 per cent last month from December to 8,793 yuan (HK$10,816) per square metre, according to a study released yesterday by China Real Estate Index System, a unit of online property news agency SouFun Holdings. The figure was 1.7 per cent higher than a year earlier, the slowest pace of growth since August 2011.

      Of all the 100 cities covered in the study, 60 saw home prices decline, the same as in December.
      It’s funny how these millionaires and billionaires still want to live in shacks outside of the city together with pigs, chicken and other animals.

      • Well, people have communities….in China established over centuries, staying together through war and Mao and famine….not easy to leave for the ‘sterility’ of a new place.

        In ‘Arrival City’….it’s amazing how people can’t wait to get back ‘home’… matter how much of a hovel or primitive lifestyle it is….rather than remain in the city….even if eventually they have to return to survive.

        We were probably spared that by the Atlantic sitting between us and ‘home’

        • Luckily I do not have any sea between me and my home (and I do not need to write ‘home’). I can walk out from here if need to and I have a feeling the time to leave is soon. Shit is about to hit the fan here – that is my gut feeling. Maybe I’m wrong but I can take that. When the locals do not have enough food to eat (due to pollution) all the hell break loose. The nice new cities and buildings will not save them. Chinese missing breakfast, lunch or dinner ? That will cause a mayhem in a grand scale. I have seen people bursting into tears and crying for being too late for lunch. Yes, memories from the famine. Not only they will have a problem with food but with water too:

          Currently two-thirds of Chinese cities are water-needy, while nearly 300-million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water.

  12. Brave new world eh! The place scares the heck out of me – it seems so out of scale, yet it’s undoubtedly fascinating and we ignore it at our peril; question is, do we also feed it at our peril?

    Good piece.

    ‘Sell it to China, fuelling an unsavory regime, and your oil is as unethical as that which comes from the Saudis and other authoritarians”

    Oh Ezra where art thou? He might have realized this too if he wasn’t, as Potter memorably said, a political prostitute selling his intellectual wares to the lowest bidder.

  13. So our Prime Minister travelled to this place together with a group of corporate executives with the collective objective to cut a deal with the government of China described in this article, to sell Canadian energy resources in what the PM describes as an imperative economic national project based on the following model:

    (1) Chinese government owned corporations will buy up interests in Alberta tar sands as well as conventional and non-conventional oil production, enjoying the Alberta government’s royalty regime that is recognized in the energy industry as the most generous on the globe for producers. 

    (2)  Chinese government owned corporations will invest in the transportation infrastructure to get the bitumen and crude oil to tidewater in BC.  Although the venture is dominated by foreign investment, foreign contributions to comment on the undesirable impact from the infrastructure will be forbidden.  There is little reason to believe that aboriginal opponents to this infrastructure will be treated much differently than the people of Tibet. 

    (3)  Chinese government owned corporations will bring tankers to Canada’s shores where they will purchase the crude oil and bitumen, making them the seller, the conveyor and the buyer in this transaction. 

    (4)  The crude oil and bitumen will be taken to China where Chinese government owned corporations will refine the crude oil and bitumen, some of which will undoubtedly be returned to Canada for marketing. 

    The folks in Alberta seem ready to swallow this model. 

    It seems to me that Paul Wells must have quite a bit more to write about before he gets “off the Harper/Energy/China kick that has preoccupied me for most of the year to date” 

  14.  No matter ,   ” How bad ” is  Guangzhou from your eye.   But Guangzhou Local people enjoy zhu jiang new town. ,it full of people in the evening ,  Guangzhou people work hard,  they have no time stroll in the mall on daytime. ( they are work) .  when you go to the mall on weekend,  it is over crowded. 

    No matter ,  How much you dislike Guangzhou.  But those Guangzhou local people are happy. ( it is happy city ) and they have long life. ( avarage is about 78  ys ) . Guangzhou people like the City. 

    ( sorry for those Tibetan monks that you mentiened. they should go to get a real job and work.  not just pray . god help them )

    • Yes, what else you can say. The “happy index” says so. However, where are the smiling and happy people ? Did not meet many on Guangzhou streets. Maybe because I did not see through the smoke screen… (Sulfur dioxide levels, according to the most recent WHO data, were second only to Beijing. As industrial production and traffic within Guangzhou continue to increase, more people are suffering from shortness of breath, coughing, dizziness, weakness and nausea. Not exactly an environment to be happy and grow kids that suffer from asthma)

      At least the monks can breath fresh air – unless they lit themselves up to protest the occupation – then it’s a little fiery.
      Oh, and go back to work, this is an outrage to spend time here on this forum instead of working :) !!

  15. I am an American who lives about 2km from the Frienship Store in the Pearl River New Town
    (Zhujiangxincheng District) and this is a terrible story. That mall is brand new and in a brand new developing part of town so of course it lack customers. It will take time but it wll get busy once all those office towers fill up.

    I went to the Zheng Jia Mall ( 7th largest in the world) when it opened in 2004 with my wife and it too was empty. You can hardly get in the door now on a Friday, Sat, or Sunday.
    The Hyatt is an American hotel no? The lobby on the upper floor reminds me of the Times Sq Mariott in NYC, so how can you trash that ? Again, a very odd story.

    The comments of the Opera House are true however, and it is falling apart as it was built hastily and with unskilled migrant labor. A problem for all of China for that matter.

    I grew up in Boston and I didn’t have to drive 100km to find “grinding poverty” but no more than 5-7 km to go to Roxbury section of Boston to see it, same as any other big city in any other big  country. So, why is China and Guangzhou getting pounded for this?

    • No offense but I gotta ask you why are you upset about empty shopping mall in your neighborhood in a country that is not yours and someone writing an article about it ? I wouldn’t lose my sleep over it.

      There are other countries in the world, not only US and China. In some of those countries you can drive to search for poverty and not to find it. However, like in Scandinavia where I come from, we are being too “socialistic” – or that’s what the US media says – to have things in order for our people (with few exceptions). I guess free (nothing is free, of course we pay for that in somewhat high taxes) healthcare, schools and kindergartens are the horror… I think China and Guangzhou can get / deserve to be pounded to get their priorities right. Same goes for Boston :) Let’s say constructive criticism instead of pounding.

    • Good stuff sir,you have to discount anything this guy wells says. He is first off an idiot and second he is a major basher of anything conservative. I have been to China many times and have never experienced any of the drivel he speaks of or any of the stuff that other commie writers from Canada usually of his liberal persuasion. I have traveled extensively through out China and found the people friendly hardworking and mostly honest unlike all the union people here and the USA. I read this article by accident and my recommendation is to not read this crummy rag mag unless you want a lowlife liberal point of view.

      • ‘Commie writers’ criticizing a communist country?  Conservatives defending it.  It’s a crazy world, isn’t it?

        • I was wondering exactly the same thing… It is a crazy world indeed.

  16. Harper traded Albertas Oil and BC’s Fishery for a 10yr lease on a couple panda bears.
    A majority of the country didn’t vote for him yet he thinks he is free to play Captain Fascist trampling our rights while stealing and giving away our resources.
    #TellVicEverything #FakeOaths #EcoTerroristOliver #clownshow