If you were to find yourself walking through the Chinese city of Kangbashi Ordos, something might quickly become apparent. In spite of the grandeur and careful design of your surroundings, things would likely feel a little off. That’s because the place would be quiet. Far too quiet, in fact.
Kangbashi Ordos is situated within China’s province of Inner Mongolia, which is found to the north of the country. The wider Ordos area to which Kangbashi belongs has a varied history stretching back millennia, but Kangbashi itself didn’t garner global attention until 2009. That was the year that media outlets around the world first started to describe the place as a “ghost town.”
Journalists from various Western publications wrote articles that focused on Kangbashi’s remarkably low population. As a consequence, the area came to be recognized as something of a symbol for economic mismanagement in China. But was this an accurate portrayal of what was really going on there?
When reports of this nature first emerged back in 2009, it was indeed true that Kangbashi had a low population. The city was supposedly capable of holding 300,000 residents, but the number of individuals really living there was much smaller. Yet some believed that this wasn’t necessarily the disaster that it had been painted as.
In order to fathom what precisely has been going on at Kangbashi, it’s necessary to take a look at its history. After all, one needs to understand why such a city was constructed in the first place. And on top of that, its developments needs to be assessed in the context of other urban regions in modern China.
At the heart of the reason for Kangbashi’s low populace is the fact that it’s so new. In fact, its development only really got underway at the beginning of the new millennium. So with that in mind, the city was less than a decade old when the media started to write about it.
Kangbashi is actually a sub-district of the larger Ordos area, which is classified as a prefecture-level city by the Chinese authorities. This means that it isn’t quite defined as a province of China, but it’s more significant than a county. The region was reportedly once quite wealthy, in fact – but it nonetheless faced some significant problems.
For one, Ordos is situated within a desert. Here, the land is generally unfit for growing crops – and water is also in short supply. So when the area’s government observed that the desert was expanding, it decided to act.
As a result, in 2003 plans for a brand new city in Ordos were announced. This settlement was to be constructed just 15 or so miles away from Dongsheng, an existing urban center. At the time, Dongsheng was pivotal to Ordos – but the proposed new city was going to take over many of its functions.
It was envisaged that government departments and major medical centers would make the move from Dongsheng to Kangbashi, for example. Schools would also relocate to the new city, ideally encouraging Dongsheng’s wealthier inhabitants to follow suit. So, it could be said that the plans for Kangbashi were initially grandiose in their scale.
But these early visions of the city never really came to fruition. At first, Kangbashi was projected to house one million inhabitants within roughly 20 years. But after work commenced, this number was quickly cut in half. Then, an economic downturn brought the predicted population down even further to just 300,000.
Nonetheless, construction work continued. And soon, the city had started to take shape. After half a decade, some eye-catching buildings had been completed – with the highlight perhaps being a library whose shape resembled a line of books. In addition, government facilities, an opera house and a museum had also been finished. And that’s to say nothing of the extensive housing.
While the design of the city was no longer attempting to account for a million residents, the newer figure of 300,000 nonetheless required the construction of many properties. Yet even though these homes had been built, people still seemed to be reluctant to move into the new city. As a result, the population of Kangbashi remained low.
Identified only by the name Wang, a resident of Ordos spoke to Forbes in April 2016 about Kangbashi’s early years. “At the beginning, almost nobody moved to Kangbashi since there were just places to work and no communal facilities,” Wang recalled. “So people went back and forth between Kangbashi and Dongsheng every workday.”
It was around this time that reports in the Western media describing Kangbashi as a “ghost town” first started to appear. Back then, the population was said to be far lower than the 300,000 inhabitants for which it had been built. Furthermore, the design of the city seemed to exacerbate this desolate ambience.
Kangbashi is an immense city, laid out and constructed in such a way as to seemingly accentuate its grand size. Streets are more than 130 feet in width, for example, with junctions situated significant distances from one another. And at the center of the city lies a huge square that’s almost the same size as Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
According to one architectural expert, Kangbashi’s planners seemed to purposely keep China’s capital in mind when designing their new city. “They had the crazy idea to be as big as Beijing,” Carla Hajjar told Forbes in 2016. “To look like Beijing and to have as wide of streets that Beijing has.”
At the time she spoke to Forbes, Hajjar was undertaking research for her master’s degree at Shanghai’s Tongji University. As part of that work, she paid particular attention to the idea of so-called “ghost towns” situated around the world. Naturally enough, this led her to take a look at Kangbashi.
As Hajjar sees it, Kangbashi appears to have been inspired by urban centers found in the former Soviet Union. There, she elaborated, “citizens have to feel really small compared to the city, they have to be afraid of the city. The place of the pedestrian is not that important. It’s the importance of the city and of the power of the city [that matter].”
This is an idea that appears to be reflected in the grandiose layout of Kangbashi. Supposedly, it’s a city that’s been designed to inspire a sense of wonder within the people who find themselves there. As Hajjar put it to Forbes, “It’s more urban painting than urban planning.”
One negative side effect of Kangbashi’s immense scale is that people might be reluctant to walk around the place. Instead, they seem likely to be inclined to hop behind the wheel of a car. And if one considers how difficult even everyday tasks can become in such a huge space, it’s easy to see why.
“If you are in an apartment and you want to buy milk, you have to put on your coat, put on your shoes, go down, take your car, drive two blocks or three blocks and then come back,” Hajjar explained. So with people getting from one point to another by automobile, the streets are often devoid of pedestrians. And the resulting air of desolation is only compounded by the huge size of the place.
Xing Su is a student of urban planning who’s originally from Ordos. He explained to Forbes that he, too, has apprehensions about the state of Kangbashi. “The quality of urban life may be jeopardized by a lack of consideration of street life, just as many cities in North America,” Su said.
The notion that people are forced to drive around Kangbashi is a particular issue for Su. “My biggest concern about the design plan of Kangbashi is the vastness of the public space, which seems to me may lose the walkability and comfort of these spaces,” he continued. “Most people still have to drive to these plazas.”
With very few pedestrians walking about in Kangbashi, it might be said that the place does indeed have a ghostly feel to it. Indeed, aside from a few cars creeping around, many of the streets are often empty. Businesses are open for trade, though – but they appear to suffer from a distinct lack of customers.
A few years ago, a photographer by the name of Raphael Oliver felt compelled to visit Kangbashi. He took some pictures while he was there, of course, later compiling them in a project called “Ordos – A Failed Utopia.” And in a piece published on the Deezen website in 2016, he described how it had felt to be in the city.
In his piece, Oliver wrote of “empty streets, deserted residential compounds, decaying monuments, abandoned museums, half-finished stadiums.” He also explained that many of the hastily constructed buildings were now unsound. All in all, as he put it, “The whole place feels like a post-apocalyptic space station from a science-fiction movie.”
So, numerous witness accounts and the photographic evidence all seem to suggest that Kangbashi is a desolate place, conspicuously lacking in inhabitants. Nonetheless, there are those who claim that things are actually a little more complicated than they might appear on the surface. After all, people do live in Kangbashi – and the population even appears to be on the rise.
In 2016 it was reported that Kangbashi had around 100,000 people going about their business during a typical day. However, apparently only a little over three-quarters of these individuals lived within the city itself. The rest, it was suggested, traveled there each day from nearby Dongsheng to work.
These figures show that in 2016 the population of Kangbashi was still well short of the projected 300,000, though. In fact, only a third of the city was actually lived in, with many residences left uninhabited. But according to Forbes, this was a situation that was being replicated in other urban centers throughout China.
Nonetheless, despite the implications of those Western media reports, there is in fact a populace inside Kangbashi. And this is something that Carla Hajjar was taken aback by when she visited the city. “I was really surprised because there are people,” she told Forbes. “And those people are really friendly and welcoming. They don’t look at you like you’re a stranger.”
Over the course of the early 2010s, a good number of people reportedly moved to Kangbashi. And while this slowly rising population wasn’t exactly something to make the headlines, it nonetheless represented progress of sorts. But who were these people making the supposed ghost town their home?
According to Hajjar, many of these individuals were originally from other parts of Ordos. Having gone further afield for their studies, they were now returning to their native lands. “These people, they grew up here, then they went away to university,” Hajjar told Forbes. “Some went abroad for two or three years, then they come back to be close to their parents.”
“There is a new generation that is coming back from their studies,” Hajjar continued. “They speak English well, they are motivated. And they really want to improve the quality of life in their city.” In addition to setting up in Kangbashi for the sake of family, there were also other attractions.
The government initially encouraged people to move to Kangbashi by offering tax incentives and complimentary usage of public transport. Residences were also put on the market at reduced prices, and attempts were made to lure businesses to the city. In addition, a good school was opened there in the hope of attracting those with children.
Yet despite such attempts to entice inhabitants, Kangbashi nonetheless remained unfilled. As the local resident named Wang told Forbes in 2016, “Kangbashi still looks like a ghost city even now, with 100,000 people here. It’s still a quiet town, since there are few places for people to hang out. Most [residents] choose to stay at home after work.”
The people who do actually live in Kangbashi apparently feel that it’s a pleasant place to be. Nonetheless, according to Forbes, many are also quick to concede that there aren’t a large number of options when it comes to recreation. Indeed, many locals simply to travel to nearby Dongsheng when they want a night out.
Such a lack of recreational choices means that Kangbashi is also coming up short in terms of its appeal to tourists. But by 2016 the city’s officials had reportedly put forward plans to overcome this problem. These proposals included designs for a huge new stadium and for a Formula One racecourse.
Hajjar believes that such plans seem promising. “The government is putting a lot of money into it,” she told Forbes. “There’s green space, there are a lot of flowers, trees and gardens. There are traffic lights that are working, there are people. For me, this city is trying to wake up, and that is a process.”
Critics of Kangbashi maintain, however, that the desolate city is symptomatic of a wider problem in China. In fact, the development is apparently just one of several so-called ghost towns throughout the country. And as photographer Raphael Oliver put it in his Dezeen article, “This phenomenon is a real problem and a serious threat to the Chinese economy.”