Tag Archives: Market

Ghost Stories

The media loves China’s ghost cities!

September 21, 2013: China’s Ghost Cities… Are Multiplying

September 24, 2013: China’s Ghost Cities May Not Be So Spooky

September 25, 2013: China’s Ghost Cities Not So Ghostly After All?

May 16, 2014 China’s Ghost Cities to Get Spookier

May 18, 2014 Who’s Afraid of China’s Ghost Towns?

June 10, 2014 China’s Most Famous Ghost City Got Even Worse in the Last Four Years

…although people seem a bit confused about exactly how, er, spooky they are. If you’ve been to one of them, the answer is easy: very spooky. Walking around a giant new development, full of fresh concrete but devoid of traffic and people, is strangely unsettling. But this is one instance in which your gut instinct that something is very wrong, might be wrong.

Aerial of Kangbashi district, Ordos 鄂尔多斯市康巴什新区鸟瞰图(Google maps, 2014)
Aerial of Kangbashi district, Ordos 鄂尔多斯市康巴什新区鸟瞰图  You can see that while it may not be the ghost city it was (compare photo from 2009 at top of post), it’s not exactly bustling. (Google maps, 2014)

These places definitely exist. The question is, how many ghost cities are just new areas that will gradually fill in and take on life, and how many are colossal monuments to waste and fraud? The good news is that two recent studies have added a new level of rigor to the reporting, which previously has tended to be a more or less informed version of, “Wow, there are no people here!” The bad news is that even with the new data, it’s still not clear how big a problem ghost cities really are for China’s economy.

The two reports provide badly needed primary research on the conundrum of China’s real estate markets. The first, from real estate brokers CLSA in Hong Kong, looked at over 800,000 units in 12 cities. I haven’t been able to find the original report, but CNBC reports:

It estimates China’s vacancy rate at around 15 percent of property completed in the past five years… Among housing over five years old, units smaller than 90 square meters (968 square feet) and tier-one housing, the occupancy rate exceeds 88 percent, CLSA said…

While China’s vacancy rates may appear high compared with international standards, such as the average 10 percent rate in the U.S., oversupply is uneven, CLSA said. Tier-one cities’ vacancy rate is just 10 percent, while the rate is around 16 percent or higher in tier-three cities, it noted.

These results are further evidence that the Tier 1  markets of Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta are in a completely different situation from smaller cities. CLSA’s Nicole Wong was quoted in other articles above saying that they see the primary danger of “ghost cities” as coming from tier three cities with much weaker overall demand. The overall picture it paints is that the ghost cities problem is real, but confined to specific smaller city markets.

Unfortunately the China Household Finance Survey at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics is not nearly as reassuring. In a June 10 speech in Beijing Survey leader Li Gan estimated that the survey, which canvassed 8,400 households from 2011-2013, found much higher vacancy rates: 22.4% for all urban housing, and very troubling 23.3% for affordable housing. If so, there are serious problems in the housing development industry which can’t be explained away by focusing on particular sub-markets.

Like everyone else, I’d like to know which of these two pictures is the right one. Is China is wasting billions of yuan in investments that nobody can use, and amassing huge levels of debt in the process? Or will the additional 10 million new urban residents expected by 2020 make all of this moot? Or both?

China Smart City Development: the Article

My article, “Smart City Development in China” is in the China Business Review this week. It is in some sense a condensed and updated version of what I learned about China researching the “Smart Cities: Asia Pacific” report late last year. There is also more discussion of the challenges that international (especially American) technology firms face in the Chinese market, an issue which keeps returning with every flareup in the China-US relationship. After writing the article, here are the main ongoing  questions I was left with:

  • To what extent is China’s smart city investment push a real attempt to solve urban problems, and to what extent is it just another way to package infrastructure investment and support GDP growth? I suspect the answer is that it depends on who you ask — The policy managers in Beijing are really looking to the benefits of the technology and the industry, and local leaders often are just packaging the investment they want in terms they think are most palatable to the center.
  • Can Chinese smart city projects move beyond a relatively simple “informatization” of systems to create really transformative connections between them? For example, putting sensors on buses to show arrival times is useful. But connecting the bus sensors to traffic prediction analytics, electric grid balancing systems, public safety cameras, and so forth will really change the way cities work. This question applies around the world, but I think especially in China, where officials are moving fast to implement simple projects without (so far as I have seen) much thought about larger systems. On the other hand, you could argue that getting simple systems in place as building blocks for more comprehensive ones is actually better than trying to design something that nobody yet really understands.
  • Will China’s extremely young open data and civic hacking movements be able to develop a healthy counterbalance to the collection of civic data (including personal data) in official hands? Feng Gao, the Open Knowledge ambassador for China, is a great person to follow on this question.


Virtual worlds are birthed by real cities

How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained)

I just read this very long and absolutely brilliant article (from which the above photo is lifted) on the housing crisis in San Francisco, in TechCrunch of all places. It’s completely worth it from the housing policy, governance, or simply good journalism angles, but it also had this very interesting bit to say about the intersection of tech and cities:

But the big wave [of Silicon Valley activity] of the last decade has been social networking. And every notable consumer web or mobile product of this wave has been seeded through critical mass in the “analog” world. Facebook had university campuses. Snapchat had Southern California high schools. Foursquare had Lower Manhattan. Twitter had San Francisco. These products favor social density.

An even newer generation of startups addresses distinctly urban questions. Airbnb exists because in 2007, San Francisco didn’t have enough hotel capacity to house visitors in town for an industrial design conference. Uber exists because the city’s taxi market was under-supplied with drivers and smartphones offered a new way of summoning transportation on demand. Then there are very young startups like Campus, which is like a venture-backed communal living movementLeap Transit, which is trying to shake up scheduled transport, or any of the companies out of Tumml, an urban ventures incubator.

People have been trying to figure out the connection between the virtual and physical worlds since at least Bill Mitchell’s 1996 book City of Bits, and this link between particular social media and particular physical environments is one I haven’t seen before. We already know great cities can be tremendously different – Paris and Seattle? Tokyo and Edinburgh? – but it’s interesting to think about how different kinds of cities might birth different kinds of social media. Perhaps physical places leave shadows on the web, after all.