Centre for Urban Studies

China's most famous ghost city - by Adam Smith

Publication date 10-11-2015

Ordos is China's most famous ghost city. Redesignated as a prefecture-level city in 2001, by 2010 it was hitting media headlines all over the world for its emptiness: an emptiness that gave its few thousand residents access to all the wonderful things cities are able to offer within unprecedented amounts of space. Ordos is, in many ways, the antidote to the experience of living in most contemporary Chinese cities which are overwhelmed with people, cars and pollution. The city has built an abundant array of cultural institutions – libraries, art galleries, museums, theatres – yet lacks people to appreciate them.

The land of many palaces

The Land of Many Palaces

All this, though, is set to change. Ordos is being used as a case study by central government to promote the scheduled migration of 250 million rural people to new cities across the country over the next 20 years. An unparalleled relocation plan is underway to move the rural population of the region into the city – an effort to complete its modernisation, create a thriving city and then industrialise the agricultural land that surrounds it. But early results in Ordos are mixed. It is proving to be a difficult process – an incredible leap for farmers in terms of lifestyle change and rise in living standards. The transition has caused many unforeseen challenges for government on how to build a city of people who have almost no prior experience of urban life. 

Despite the rural populace being mostly willing to accept an apartment and money in exchange for their life working the land, there’s an unemployment problem among the new city dwellers. On an average day in the neighbourhood of Xinbei, one of several areas built to rehouse ex-farmers, many people, young and old, sit or amble around the streets with little to do. New residents complain about missing the skills to succeed in a job in the city, or even apply for one in the first place. And for some ex-farmers who secure employment, their daily tasks sweeping streets, cleaning, tree-panting and construction are less fulfilling than their farming once was. To try and tackle these problems, the local government has put together several education programs aimed at teaching both basic and complex skills needed to succeed in the city.

Ordos, and China at large, has proved it can build vast new urban areas and raise the material standard of living of its citizens overnight, in some cases. What is much harder to achieve is delivering purpose and meaning to the millions of new urban settlers, who have lost their identities as farmers. 

Adam James Smith

Adam James Smith is a Stanford-educated documentary filmmaker from England. His films focus on characters experiencing rapid change in their lives. In addition to making his own films, he has worked for TED, the Journal Sentinel, Rabbit Bandini Productions, Stanford’s Office of Public Affairs, the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, and the Chinese National Academy of Painting. 

Published by  CUS

3 February 2016