- Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World's Most Populated Country by Wade Shepard
In Ghost Cities of China, American journalist Wade Shepard takes readers on a tour of a China whose society, economy, and culture have been drastically transformed during the past two decades by processes of urbanization. The tour highlights the emergence of the so-called ghost cities, or newly constructed urban places that are found to be having "drastically fewer people and business than there is available space for" (40). The book's nine chapters are organized around the central message that urbanization is a project that the Chinese state is determined to accomplish, even if it means using unorthodox measures such as actively populating a place if needed. By following such an argument, the book interprets China's ghost cities as a phase of the country's urbanization process that will eventually be followed by a fuller realization of urban potential.
Ghost Cities of China is part of Zed Books'"Asian Arguments" series: short books about contemporary Asia that will highlight, in the publisher's own words, "community involvement from the ground up in issues of the day usually discussed by authors in terms of top-down government policy" (French n.d.). Shepard is a media contributor (to such major news outlets as Forbes, the South China Morning Post, and The Diplomat) who has been reporting on China since the mid-2000s. The book is written in a language that is accessible to general readers, and its length is moderate. As such, Ghost Cities of China would be an ideal resource for learning and teaching about China's post-Mao urbanization.
Shepard's main objective in this book is to dispute the critique of the emerging ghost city phenomenon in China. Such critiques take Chinese ghost cities as signs of developmental failure and argue that China's property boom is unsustainable, if not fake. Shepard's response is that the alleged ghost cities are in fact a bit of a misnomer. The book shows that, once built, a newly urbanized area often stays unpopulated for a couple of years because it would be expensive for investors to properly fit out and rent out their flats, so they sit on them until the government starts to induce businesses to move to the area. In the best chapter of the book, titled "When Construction Ends and the Building Begins," Shepard vividly describes how Chinese officials make the [End Page 471] alleged ghost cities come alive. The government's populating strategy often starts with the opening of a new campus of a university or the extension of a metro line to an alleged ghost city. Such capstone investments are then followed by various relocation incentives such as free transport and rent discounts (or even a couple of rent-free years), which, according to Shepard, are usually effective. For Shepard, then, critiques of Chinese ghost cities are way too impatient to see how new city-building projects eventually play out. In his version of the story, Chinese officials have too much at stake in such projects and will not easily let new cities just stand idle forever.
In offering a fresh perspective on the alleged ghost city phenomenon, Ghost Cities of China has provided a valuable account of the major and profound shift in China's post-Mao political economy that is the urbanization of the Chinese state. In short, this process began in the early 1990s amid dissatisfaction with the previous reform initiatives by Deng Xiaoping that had culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Since then, urbanism has risen to become a major paradigm of growth in China, with municipalities rushing to construct new cities and to rebuild old urban cores. In this respect, two of the book's earlier chapters, "Clearing the Land" and "Of New Cities and Ghost Cities," very helpfully tease out the driving forces behind this particular urbanization process, namely the...