A couple of months ago, a lot of people were passing around the news about China’s plan to create a megacity that would be home to 42 million people, the so-called “Turn the Pearl Delta Into One” idea. The reporting was generally favorable, painting a picture of economic growth and opportunity — the narrative of a prosperous China, with a growing middle class, that has become commonplace in recent years. Unfortunately, the view of China’s urban planning strategies from the ground is less shiny. A riveting report from Dateline, an Australian TV show, reveals a disturbing pattern of development for development’s sake — the construction of gigantic infrastructure projects with no regard for human needs. Take the New South China Mall, in Dongguan. The Dateline crew took a tour of the place, which has been 99 percent vacant since it opened in 2005, and the result is one of the most depressing things I have ever watched. Six years after its creation, what is touted as the largest mall in the world sits almost empty. One of the very few stores that’s in business is a toy shop, where the wistful owner spends his days dusting children’s bikes that no child will ever ride. He is lucky if he makes one sale a day.
And it’s not just that mall that sits empty. There are rows of massive empty skyscraper apartment buildings and central business districts in new cities around the country. This is at least part of the reality behind the megacities the Chinese are creating. “All the shops in this mall are empty,” says reporter Adrian Brown, walking down an immaculate but deserted street in one of the new cities, this one in north-central China. “Not that that worries the government, because they’re simply more concerned with maintaining economic growth, and one way of achieving that is building cities like this one.” According to Hong Kong-based real estate analyst Gillem Tulloch, who is interviewed in the piece, the housing units are priced well above what an average Chinese person can afford. The result, he says, is a housing bubble that is terrifying in size, “a property bubble like which I don’t think we’ve ever seen,” he says. “It will make the United States pale in comparison. It’s said that there’s around 64 million empty apartments…. It’s essentially the modern equivalent of building pyramids. It doesn’t add to the betterment of people’s lives, all it does is it promotes GDP.” –Grist.org