“They are building stuff that nobody really wants or needs… and there will be a day of reckoning” sums up yet another mega ghost city project under development in China. As NBC News reports, China’s $50-billion knock-off of the Big Apple – near the port city of Tianjin, some 120 miles from Beijing – complete with its own Rockefeller Center and Twin Towers has been billed as the world’s largest financial center in the making. But this Manhattan still has a long way to go…
Ian Williams explains nothing has improved in China since we last highlighted the ghost city phenomenon…
China’s $50-billion knock-off of the Big Apple sits on a river bend — much like its namesake — near the port city of Tianjin, some 120 miles from Beijing. Complete with its own Rockefeller Center and Twin Towers, it’s been billed as the world’s largest financial center in the making. But this Manhattan still has a long way to go.
A recent visit shows that construction that began in 2008 on the back of a massive credit boom unleashed in China after the global financial crisis appears to have ground to a halt. While the stunted version of “Rockefeller Center” and its Twin Towers appeared to be complete — both were empty and fenced off.
“It’s the financial crisis. The impact is big,” said one man on the site who preferred not to be identified but said he worked for a transportation company. “I think there are still working on a building over there,” he added, pointing down a wide and empty highway, strewn with litter.
It was scheduled for completion in 2019, offering 164 million square feet of office space over an area larger than Manhattan’s financial district in a bid to stimulate development of vast residential districts nearby.
“They are building stuff that nobody really wants or needs — and there will come a day of reckoning,” explained Gillem Tulloch, a Hong Kong-based analyst and managing director of GMT Research who has studied the growth of China’s “ghost cities” across the country.
“Our leading economists in the West were lauding the Soviet-style system from the 1950s up until the 1980s,” he said. “They were all wrong. I think it’s the same with China.”
* * *
Who can forget China’s ghost city of Ordos: back in late 2009, when the hollow shell behind China’s torrid growth was first revealed to the world, the city near China’s Mongolia border was cooler talk for weeks. Fast forward five years later, and Ordos is all but forgotten, having been eclipsed by a veritable army of much bigger “ghosts” that make up the “ghost town network” – a list of cities created by the China Investment Network, a business newspaper in Beijing, to determine which cities were the most ghostly.
As Caixin reports, the newspaper devised its index using a government standard that says cities should have 10,000 people per square kilometer. The editors at China Investment Network determined that if a city’s ratio of people to area was 0.5 – that is, it was half full – then it is a ghost town. To take the example a step further, if a city had a ratio of .10, then it had one-tenth the population the government thought it deserved. Based on this approach, at least 50 Chinese cities fit the description of “ghost town.” The large city of Weihai, in the eastern province of Shandong, and the tourist destination of Sanya, in the south’s Hainan Province, were among China’s emptiest.
And here is how a Goldman analyst recount his “on the ground” visit around some of the more prominent Chinese ghost cities. From Goldman’s Kenneth Ho:
In August, the GS Asia Credit Strategy team spent four days in China, visiting a number of property development projects as well as a couple of well-publicized “ghost towns.” While this brief trip to a limited number of developments is unlikely to provide a full picture of the real estate market in China, it does offer a first-hand look at some of the most widely cited concerns about China’s housing build-up. Kenneth Ho offers his takeaways (and pictures) below.
Less ghostly than expected, but still spooky
The couple of “ghost towns” we visited, while less desolate than some press reports would suggest, were indeed very quiet. We did not prearrange the visits, and we went to the sales offices as well as seeing the properties. Both towns we saw have been in development for about a decade. Tianducheng, or Sky City, on the outskirts of Hangzhou has been reported by the press as deserted (e.g., by Reuters). Although the development was relatively quiet, there were a fair number of occupants in the residential buildings, and we got the sense that tenants were slowly moving in. The staff at the sales office told us that the occupancy rate is around 60% for the completed and sold units. There is further development in Tianducheng, and we did see more construction work taking place – but it was not the desolate town portrayed by the press.
A second well-publicized “ghost town” (e.g., by the South China Morning Post) we visited was Jingjin New Town, on the outskirts of Tianjin. This development is mostly comprised of villas and separated into ten phases. According to the staff at the sales office, phases 1 to 4 have been mostly sold, and phase 5 may be released later this year, though there were no plans at that moment to release phases 6 to 10. We believe that half of the development (phases 1 to 5) have already been built, with the other half (phases 6 to 10) yet to be constructed. Despite most of the completed villas having been sold, from what we saw, the occupancy level is very low, and some unsold villas are not in the best shape. The sales office told us that the project targeted retirees or second/holiday homebuyers working in Beijing and Tianjin (hence the low occupancy), and that it is busier during public holidays and weekends. We cannot verify this statement, and it is difficult to assess which factors are driving the low occupancy rate. Projects of this type have not been attracting much demand, and the town was very quiet overall. That said, we did not see a significant amount of uncompleted constructions. As in Sky City, however, it appeared that more development was coming through.
Construction still dominates the landscape
We visited other projects in Tianjin, Hangzhou, and Hohhot, as they are tier 2 and 3 cities with meaningful excess supply. In Tianjin and Hangzhou, we saw developments on the outskirts as well as some closer to the city center. Although it appeared that YTD sales had been satisfactory, we saw significant amount of construction activity; most projects were targeting improved sales in 2H14, with new launches to come. In Hohhot, a provincial capital reported as having some of the most significant overbuild, centrally located developments targeting the mass market appeared to be seeing demand, though less so for the higher-end projects. But we did see signs of overbuilding, which raises questions about whether newer properties, particularly on the outskirts, will find sufficient demand.