China’s ‘ghost city’ frighteningly unsustainable

Kangbashi, China's "ghost city"

The final resting place of Genghis Khan is an utter wasteland—befitting, perhaps, of a ruthless conqueror who laid waste to so much of the world.

It is located about 70 kilometres south of Dongsheng, the capital of the prefecture of Ordos in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Once dominated by Mongol nomads, the prefecture, with a population of 1.5 million, is now 88 percent Han Chinese. So many Chinese farmers have colonized so much of Inner Mongolia’s natural grasslands that most sandstorms in Beijing, some six hundred kilometres to the east, occur during March and April, when farmers till their chalky fields for the spring planting.

I visited both Genghis Khan’s mausoleum and Dongsheng while researching my book in 2006. The area has come to symbolize the dark side of China’ industrial development, what I’ve dubbed “The Soot Road.” (See Chapter 18: The Soot Road)

Although agriculture is in severe decline here, Ordos has recently become China’s coal capital, producing 150 million tons each year. The prefecture’s proven coal reserves of 168 billion tons account for one-sixth of China’s total. Its annual GDP growth has topped 40 percent in recent years.

I recently came across an article in the financial news service Bloomberg about Kangbashi, China’s “ghost city.”

Designed for 300,000 people, Kangbashi, the new government center of Ordos 20 kilometres south of Dongsheng, has only 28,000 residents. It’s been called “the Dubai of northern China” for its vacant skyscrapers and more than 1.1 trillion yuan ($161 billion) worth of new public buildings and local wealth, according to Bloomsbury. The new city and its architecture is fantastical, like a vacant amusement park after hours.

Satellite photo from Google Earth shows Kangbashi during its early development stage.

Kangbashi, which is so new that its name doesn’t appear on Google Maps, has come to symbolize the real estate bubble in China. “The future of Kangbashi is bright,” a local businessman told Bloomsbury. “Government offices have moved here so the economy will develop well. Prices will rise.” Investors, apparently, are stockpiling empty apartments because there are few alternative investments, undermining government efforts to deflate a property bubble, Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University, told Bloomsbury.

I unwittingly travelled by local bus through a nascent Kangbashi in 2006. At the time, I saw only a few apartment buildings and new streets, which seemed unusually broad considering the sparse population and desolate terrain. I saw nothing but undulating niggardly landscape. The future could be bright here, if only the sun could penetrate the horrendous smog and sand squalls that blanket the region.

Given the shockingly high rate of growth in Ordos, it is no surprise the local government has been able to bankroll such a quixotic real estate venture. But if there is a poster child of development gone wrong, Kangbashi is it. China’s “ghost city” is unsustainable, a frightful site whose foundation is built on a century of colonization, environmental degradation, corrupt officials, carbon-spewing power plants and coal mines. Welcome to the sooty dark side of China’s development.