More Hyperbole on Ghost Cities in China

The so-called Chinese "Ghost Cities" have been the subject of a number of articles in recent months. There appears to be some truth in the reports, such as in the building of a near empty new city in Inner Mongolia (Ordos). There is also a good deal of hyperbole.

A recent article ran in the Business Insider, entitled "New Satellite Pictures of China's Ghost Cities," which relied principally on satellite images, some quite old. Somewhat more proximate (as on-the-ground")  pictures are provided and linked in this article. They show that at least two of the Ghosts have risen from the dead (or they may never have been dead at all).

Changsha, Hunan: Changsha is the rapidly growing capital of Hunan province, adding nearly 50 percent to its urban districts between 2000 and 2010 (even greater growth than in the US growth leaders, Las Vegas and Raleigh). The Business Insider article displays a satellite image showing huge areas of construction both to the northeast and to the west of the urban area.

When planning a 2009 trip to China, I chose to visit Changsha because of the extensive construction shown in this very same satellite image. In my continuing satellite image research on urban areas, especially relating to  Demographia World Urban Areas, I noted that this appeared to be the most extensive construction in the nation. A number of photographs are included inour Changsha Rental Car Tour,  which were taken in September 2009.

On a rainy and quiet Sunday afternoon I took a tour of the northeast construction area and found that much of the construction had been finished. Moreover it was obvious from both the traffic and the open shopping centers and shops that this was anything but a "ghost city" (see photograph, above).

The next day I took a similar trip to the western construction area. As in the northeast, much of the construction was complete and the communities were alive.

Zhengzhou, Henan: Zhengzhou is also rapidly growing even faster than Changsha (over 60 percent in 10 years) and is the capital of Henan province. The article displays multiple satellite images of the Zhengzhou New Area. Because of a previous article in the Daily Mail, I took the opportunity on a recent trip to visit the Zhengzhou New Area and file a report. The Zhengzhou New Area is alive.

The Business Insider also indicates an unfamiliarity with Chinese geography.

Outside Jiangsu? A couple of the photographs referred to empty developments as being "outside Jiangsu," as a Westerner might describe a development as being outside Phoenix or Omaha. However Jiangsu is not an urban area or city, it is a province. Thus, to refer to a development as being outside Jiangsu is akin to referring to a development as being outside Arizona or Nebraska.

Changsha Already Twice as Large as Los Angeles? The Business Insider also advises us that Changsha is already twice as big as Los Angeles. In fact, there are no comparable geographies between Los Angeles and Changsha that could make such a statement even close to accurate. Regrettably, many writers and much of the press make comparisons between China and other nations without the remotest idea of the meaning of the geographical terms they are using. Here are a couple of ways that Los Angeles and Changsha can be compared.

1. Central municipality: The central municipality or core city of the Los Angeles area is the city of Los Angeles. It has a population of approximately 3.8 million people, but accounts for less than one third of the population of either the metropolitan area (functional area or labor market area) or the urban area (physical area or area of continuous development). Strictly speaking, there are no central municipalities in China, because the regions or prefectures are themselves municipalities. It is as if the city of Los Angeles comprised both Los Angeles and Orange counties. Chinese municipalities are divided into districts and if a comparison were to be made at the central municipality level, Changsha's central district would have to be used. This would be the district (qu) of Furong, which has a population of 500,000 people, about 1/8 that of the city of Los Angeles.

Core city comparisons are fraught with difficulties. This is illustrated by Melbourne, which had little more than 70,000 people in the last Australian census, approximately two percent of the metropolitan population. The 2010 US Census showed Melbourne, Florida to be larger.

2. Urban Area: The one level at which they valid comparison could be made is the urban area, or the area of continuous urban development. The latest data for Los Angeles (2000) indicates an urban area population of 11.7 million people. The 2010 US Census counts for the Los Angeles area suggest that the urban area total, once released will be little higher than the 2000 figure.

Based upon the 2010 census data, the next edition of Demographia World Urban Areas will estimate the Changsha urban area at approximately 3,000,000 people. Thus, by the urban area metric, Changsha has a population approximately one-quarter that of Los Angeles.

It is possible that Business Insider like others, compared the population of the central city of Los Angeles (3.8 million), which is only part of the urban area to that of the Changsha municipality (7 million), which has more than double the population of the Changsha urban area and covers at least 25 times as much land area (virtually all it rural). They are not the same thing.


Photograph: In the northwestern Changsha "ghost city:" September 2009 (by author)

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