On the wrong track: China’s new ghost towns

Friday, 19th September 14:00 HKT
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“All it takes is to expand a high-speed rail (HSR) station and voila, a new city is born.” said Southeast University Architecture Department Vice-President and Town Planning Research Institute Programme Chief Duan Jin.

China’s rapid HSR network expansion, who’s main purpose is to bring China’s far flung cities closer together, is now in the business of creating new cities inbetween. The well respected Southern Weekend last month reported there are already 36 new cities being built on China’s HSR network, with most congregating on the Shanghai-Beijing and Harbin-Dalian lines.

The problem is not only are these cities springing up in close proximity to each other, but they all appear the same. Without offering any unique selling points or specialising in certain areas, it’s feared China is building a new batch of ghost towns.

And they’re building them fast. All follow a similar pattern, grand announcement in year one, plans drawn up by year three, and a new city built by year five. Yet this slap dash approach, with scant attention given to proper planning and organisation, means many new cities are currently facing many difficulties.

Take for example Suzhou Ma’anshan Industrial Park, which covers 48 square km. It’s a quiet area where the avenues are broad, yet scarcely any cars. Local government officials declared that 100 businesses have already set-up shop in the industrial park. Yet apart from a few logistics firms, other businesses either have only a few people working there, have closed down, or have only built a perimeter wall, with the land inside covered in weeds, or growing crops such as soya beans.

A far cry from four years ago when HSR first arrived in Suzhou. At the time it was hailed by the local leaders as an example of Suzhou taking the lead in entering the HSR age. A year later in April 2011, the industrial park was already open for business, half a month before the Shanghai-Beijing HSR line was completed. Although the official name is ‘Suzhou Ma’anshan Modern Industrial Park’, yet the local leader’s name card reads ‘Suma High-Speed Rail New District’. Wang Jialin, the official in charge of attracting investment to the are states there are 40 businesses still being built, but admits development has slowed this year.

A worry for many is the sunken costs paid for by local governments. For example a similar new town being built in Changsha Hunan province, has already received 9 billion yuan of local government funds over four years. Another 10 billion yuan of investment is planned over the next three years. In many locations up and down the HSR network, many local media are pointing out these ‘ghost towns’, complaining also of the waste in land revenues.

Combine these sunk costs creating an oversupply of new towns, with the massive losses of HSR itself, and one wonders whether or not China’s economy will pay the price in the coming years?

(Article not to be copied or reproduced without permission or citation).

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