Photographs Of The "Surreal, Uncanny" Emptiness Of China's Ghost Cities

Tyler Durden's picture

When one week ago we presented the latest Chinese ghost city being built on the edge of Nanning, immediately thousands of readers flocked to observe its sterile, pointless, yet very curious existence. The reason, perhaps, is that there is something oddly morbid, grotesque and yet fascinating about the clinical emptiness of China's relentless attempts to artificially boost its GDP by creating "larger than life" Lego sets meant for human existence, yet which remain devoid of virtually any civilization.

That is what drew Chicago photographer Kai Caemmerer to them.

Take the Kangbashi District of Ordos, China is a marvel of urban planning, 137-square miles of shining towers, futuristic architecture and pristine parks carved out of the grassland of Inner Mongolia. It is a thoroughly modern city, but for one thing: No one lives there. Kai Caemmerer visited Kangbashi and two other cities for his ongoing series Unborn Cities. According to Wired, the photos capture the eerie sensation of standing on a silent street surrounded by empty skyscrapers and public spaces devoid of life. "These cities felt slightly surreal and almost uncanny," Caemmerer says, "which I think is a product of both the newness of these places and the relative lack of people within them."

It is well-known that China has built hundreds of new cities over the last three decades as it reshapes itself into an urbanized nation with a plan to move 250 million rural inhabitants—more than six times the population of California—into cities by 2026. The newly minted cities help showcase the political accomplishments of local government officials, who reason that real estate and urban development is a safe, high-return investment that can help fuel economic growth.

The problem is that this attempt at recreating SimCity in the real world never works: most people don’t want to live somewhere that feels dead, and these new cities sometimes lack the jobs and commerce needed to support those who would live there. In Kangbashi, the government used some administrative tricks to address this, relocating bureaucratic buildings and schools, then trying to convince people in surrounding villages to move in. It had minor success. Today, a city designed for at least 500,000 has around 100,000 inhabitants.

Others are less lucky.

It was their designation as "modern ghost towns" that initially drew Caemmerer to them. Fascinated, he decided to visit China and see them himself. He spent almost three months exploring three cities during two trips last spring and fall. He was not disappointed.

As Wired writes, his first stop was the Yujiapu Financial District in the Binhai New Area, just outside Tainjin. Construction on the 1.5-square mile replica of Manhattan—complete with a Rockefeller center and twin towers—started in 2008 and will cost an estimated $30.4 billion. The immensity astonished Caemmerer. “There was a sense of vastness that surprised me,” he says.

From there he traveled south to Meixi Lake City. The development covers 4.3 square miles, encircles a man-made lake and is designed to one day house more than 180,000 people. The lake is lined with tidy paths and benches, and soft music emanates from speakers at all hours. Caemmerer saw many skyscrapers under construction, their skeletons wrapped in green scrim. Real estate agents scurried about, busily selling apartments in buildings soon to be completed. “I felt like I was walking into the future,” he says.

He wanted his photographs to reflect that. He’d wander the cities in the dim and eerie light before sunrise and after sunset, taking long exposures with his 4×5 film camera. In the final images, the buildings are so enormous that the edges of the photograph can’t contain them. They rise as strange concrete specters, displaced in time and lacking any sense of history. For now, the fate of most of them remains unknown. “I find that the images make me ponder the future,” Caemmerer says. “which, to me, is interesting because photographs are so commonly read as fragments of moments past.”

Here are some the photos he took which make up his "Unborn Cities" collection.

Near Yujiapu Financial District, Binhai New Area, Tianjin

A design rendering at a construction zone near Meixi Lake Development, Chengsha

Yujiapu Financial District, Binhai Nre Rea, Tianjin

Near Kangbashi New Area, Ordos, Inner Mongolia

LCD screens on a building glow near Kangbashi New Area, Ordos, Inner Mongolia

A portion of Yujiapu Financial District's skyline in the hazy light of day. The district is part of Binhai New Area, Tianjin

Construction continues on a pavilion outside of Ordos, Inner-Mongolia

Uncompleted residential buildings in the Meixi Lake Development, near Changsha

An abstract sculpture frames a construction project near Meixi Lake Development, Changsha, Hunan province

Palm trees surround a construction area near Yujiapu Financial District, Binhai New Area, Tianjin


Office buildings glow in the early morning darkness of the Yujiapu Financial District, Binhai New Area, Tianjin

A residential high-rise nears completion near Meixi Lake Development, Changsha

Residential buildings in the Meixi Lake Development, near Changsha

Ordos 100 is a construction project curated by Al Weiwei and architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron near Ordos, Inner-Mongolia

Construction near Changsha, Hunan province

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The Juggernaut's picture

China's real estate? Or metaphor for western banks from NIRP.  Both.

Dolar in a vortex's picture

The greatest Potemkin villages evar!

Chris Dakota's picture
Chris Dakota (not verified) Dolar in a vortex Feb 19, 2016 10:17 PM

the Chinese are empty robotic people, their souls sucked out of them by godless communism.

they have only one holiday, Chinese New Year.

Their only friend is money.

No wonder Jews like to marry them, they have that in common.

TwoShortPlanks's picture

Hi All,

I haven’t been on ZH for nearly a year now. Some members asked me to drop a shameless update when the project advances sufficiently, so here it is. If you're not interested, stop reading and don't bitch.

The project, called Responder Express (REX), is now in Beta Trial. It’s a global mapping and tracking product for Fire & Emergency Services, Police and Military. For Police and Military the App is embedded and not visible (hot-keys enable visibility).

The app, login, and back end are currently in MVP with Version 1 only a few weeks away. Development of the drone (RPAS) payload, and telemetry package is a few months away. Basically, third party drones will be able to transmit telemetry into REX. REX then merges its respondent tracking data with the drone’s ‘Target Tracking’ data. So, even though a suspect isn’t in the drone’s field of view it still knows the general area where the target is (cellular dependant). This gives drone operators and incident commanders unprecedented situational awareness.

For those who are keen on seeing where it’s currently at, go here:

PS. Don’t be fooled by the simplistic front end, the smarts are all in the back. Minimal front end for speed and accuracy. Users need only press a button or two and REX does everything else.

Squid-puppets a-go-go's picture

dude. i remember you. wheresyabeenz?

TwoShortPlanks's picture

Squid, I've been head down arse up in this thing...and some other stuff.

Decided that once you have your phiz position you have to look further afield for investments....and fires are becoming a boon industry.

Hope you people have been well.

847328_3527's picture

That's what Calgary may look like by 2020 if this "Robust Recovery" continues.

KesselRunin12Parsecs's picture
KesselRunin12Parsecs (not verified) 847328_3527 Feb 19, 2016 11:09 PM

IMO, they're VERY 'canny'

OrangeJews's picture

O/T Tylers, can you please do a story on Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Palladium? I'm interested to know if adding the latter two would be worth it.

NoDebt's picture

The Chinese haven't just built bridges to nowhere, they've literally built NOWHERE to go along with the bridge.

Future anthropologists are going to be pulling their fucking hair out trying to figure out why all this shit ever existed in the first place.  They'll turn to the usual stuff that explains empty cities- famine, disease, war.... but some future ZH tinfoil hat-wearing sharpie will be screaming "Nobody ever lived in these places!  They were economic mausoleums!"  He will be shunned, ridiculed and mocked, of course.

hobopants's picture

I think it will make for some great photography in a few years once the urban decay sets in. The photos of Detroit are nothing short of modern art... 

Seek_Truth's picture
In the world I see you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Towers. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying stripes of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighways.
hobopants's picture

Amen. Someday we'll all be residents of paper street. Sooner the better in my opinion. This country needs a major kick in the ass to lend it some perspective into what matters and what doesn't.

Miles Ahead's picture

The Chinese should have asked all the urban planning, infrastructure investment, and otherwise financial quants on here what to do in a world of extreme excess liquidity coupled with the need to find ever growing amounts of GDP goosing projects that would attract all that dumb, and cheap Western capital while the punch bowl was still the life of the world party. But they didn't.  Oh my... big mistake I see.

Seems to me they killed two birds with one stone as even the geniuses here have to see that some day soon those cities will have to be populated by an 1 bil. strong rural community already caught in the wake of a fast changing, technologically advancing world. So that part is done; the attraction of Western investment and free money is done.

And when it all comes crashing down it will be financially and socially, but buildings don't riot.  And it was always going to hit them hard no matter what.  Damned if they do and damned it they didn't. The bricks and mortar things will be the last men standing.

Perhaps it was smart to get it done while the music was still playing.  While those living in such well planned urban bastions such as NY, LA, SF, Chi, much of TX and CA. will be facing infrastructure problems as well as malinvestment consequences every bit as painful but of a different character.

After all, it's not like the Chinese have been ignoring other areas of investment and advancement.  If you think so pull out your IPhone or other gadget. Check out the Universities. Or try sailing your boats past the Spratleys...


Element's picture

What happens when a grand vision of the future does not mesh well with much of anything.


Still waiting for the moon shot ...  /popcorn

Motasaurus's picture

Say you were aware of a plan to depopulate the world by 95%. Say you were also aware that this depopulation was going to be largely brought about by a full scale nuclear war. 

Would you rather be in a country where major infrastructure is falling down around you, major cities are already in ruins and there is no technological, logistical or engineering expertise to rebuild from the cataclism; or would you rather be in a country where there are turnkey ready cities already pre-built for survivors to move into, factories ready to be started up for employment and systems already in place? 

For a site that has a lot of preppers, the "ghost cities" China has been building all over the world sure don't seem to get much love as sound preparatory investments. 

Element's picture

Conspiracy theories can be fun, for sure. Alternatively, it was a bunch of corrupt commie asshats doing dumb shit to people who were too mind-fucked by decades of State fantasies to realize they were being led off a social, mental, economic financial and environmental cliff?

Either way, it's not got a happy ending.

Bendromeda Strain's picture

Yeah, it really sucks that those commie malinvestment asshats just happen to have something to fall back to after a conflagration. Don't they know that the proper investment is bunker cities for the elites? For cryin out loud, if they wanted to waste money the should have been building the huge eco-arks of 2012. Either way, I'm sure there is a General out there arguing that these empty cities need to be on the target grid.

Element's picture

I would have invested in the counter thesis, bunker busters.

remain calm's picture

Hey Krugman, how you like your keysenian economy now? You dumb fuck, pathetic execuse of a human being. You are fucking WRONG. Really? Fuck off and die.

Durrmockracy's picture
Durrmockracy (not verified) Element Feb 20, 2016 9:45 AM

I didn't take the time to read all of your bullshit comments above but I did junk you.

(Not you Hobopants you're okay).

Element's picture

haha!  You seem bitter?

Member for
6 weeks 1 day
GeorgeHayduke's picture

Those cities will make nice sets for futuristic science fiction movies about people trying to get by in post greed, post squandered resources plots. That is, if most everyone else in cities isn't already living in that reality soon enough.

ZD1's picture



Those empty Chinese cities would be perfect solution now to house the Muslim refugee hordes.

shovelhead's picture

Modern day pyramids.

Jewish labor brokers made a killing.

"Oy Pharaoh, you want your name up in lights, right? Ok, here's the plan..."

saveUSsavers's picture

As that teapot sculpture signifies, they have architectural design UP THEIR ASS ! Monuments to ugliness everywhere.

And your going to buy fish from there? OMFG no!

Southern Analyst's picture

I agree with you No Debt, the anthropologists will go nuts over this of the ghost cities.

It did occur to me though... that Nobody lives in them YET.

They could turn out to be very useful indeed for civilian relocations if anything occurred which made any of the currently inhabited cities unviable. Most probably an NBC militarized attack on a population center, though industrial accidents and conventional warfare (Dresden, Tokyo, Stalingrad... still within living memory) are possible too.

Another perspective is that these might be used as vast FEMA camps. Like the Warsaw Ghetto, but more numerous and larger. (Gulag Archipelago, Manzanar)

As a human, I sincerely hope neither outcome occurs. But hope is not a strategy either..

Most people really just want to earn a living to provide for their familes with access to decent food and health care and to live with reasonably sincere conviction that they are able to positively influence their future comforts and safety.

Its what the others do that I am concerned about.

CheapBastard's picture

Ghost cities will get much ghostlier, gloomier, doomier and finally crumble in the dust of time.

Consumer demand has completely collapsed in the west thanks to the misguided policies of "Change you can believe in" --- in America the Everyday Peeples are broke donkeys, and in Europe peeples are afraid to go out their door for fear of being attacked by a rampaging gang of Merkul's rapefugees.


The only people actually "shopping" are gubmint employees who continued to be handed 4-5% salary hikes in the midst of this private sector depression and the other group of FSA who still recieve their FS no matter what.


I'll agree with Bill gross, Faber, etc who have a very bleak prediction for western economies over the next decade unless leadership corrects its course ... alot!

remain calm's picture

Some liberal mentally deranged anthropologist will theorize they were built for the refugees for humanitarian purposes, but they couldnot make it because of WWW3. 

FreedomGuy's picture

I just returned from Northern Chna. The problem is not just ghost cities. They also have ghost-developments in virtually every city. The government in partnership with developers decides where developments will go. They often tear down the old ugly dirty concrete structures of the Mao-Hard line Commie era and build something new in it's place. They give people rather generous buyouts so they can fund a newer and better place.

The problem is that they build enormous amounts of empty developments around the edges of current cities. They put them rather far out and may connect them by light rail or bus but there are no real businesses, no demands for housing and no connection to current commerce. They are virtually empty and lifeless. They are usually very attractively designed. To add to the problem, they really do not care to builid anything short of 20 stories tall. Occasionally you will see shorter buildings but the dwellings tend to be 20+ stories and businesses at least half that.

The landscape is littered with these along with often empty industrial parks.

In my Austrian Economic mind I have to think about the number of electricians, concrete guys, electricians and skilled trades that have been misdirected. It also created millions of tons of unneeded concrete, steel, ashpalt and wiring. In the short term, it boosted the GDP numbers but in reality it is all smoke and mirrors.

The Chinese people I know do not seem overly worried but all those projects are financed and returning zero value and zero income as they now stand. It is a huge problem and should implode the entire economy. This is what happens when you give government unlimited power, unlimited money and half-assed economic theories.


roddy6667's picture

Maybe you didn't know that China is in the early years of a 20 year plan to move 300 million rural citizens to urban areas. Where do you think they will live? 200 million are already living in temporary, barracks-like structures in every city in China. They are the "migrant workers" from the countryside that are building China's infrastructure and perform a lot of trades. They would love to have a permanent manufacturing job and a home in the city and be able to have their wife and children join them.In their villages they don't have luxuries like indoor bathrooms, central heat, good schools and medical care.

I am a retired American living in Qingdao. I own a home that was built on the edge of the city where there were still farms and shantytown villages. Now it is becoming the new financial center. Buslines, new streets,  and the new subway have connected it to the rest of the city. Since 2007, hundreds of thousands of people have moved here.

It is all part of a plan. If you step back and look at it with a longer point of view and stop looking at it like it's in America, it all makes sense.

FreedomGuy's picture

Good beer there. It is not that everything is wrong. It is that they cannot know the effects or if you put buildings were people need or want to live. No doubt it works in some places. I have seen those. However, I am sure it is failing in as many more. I have also seen those.

There is a time element, as well. It cannot take ten years after completion for these communities to become viable.

This is not an American view, it is an economic view and the laws are the same in Qingdao, Singapore or London.

Handful of Dust's picture

It's paradoxical; they can build an ultramodern high rise in no time, but their faucet water is still unsafe to drink and people still shit in a hole in the floor.

NoPension's picture

If there are any engineers or builders here, they will mostly agree, you can't let buildings sit idle and expect them to survive. As soon as anything is made, it starts to degrade.
Imagine, the lubricant in the elevator motors runs to the bottom. A light coating of rust coats evertything made of steel. Cables and pulleys, for example. Stuff not painted or stainless. Without full time climate control, nature takes a toll. Rubber dries. Spiders and other insects take up shop. If they are finished, and most are probably bare inside, well, stuff degrades when it sits.
If you put a brand new car in storage for 10 years ( and some of this stuff is ten years old) it would be not wise to take it out without a thorough ck. Ozone degrades rubber. Fluids absorb moisture, etc.
Add to this.....these cities would require massive water, wastewater and power generation plants. If they exist, in the size and quantity required,
( and they probably don't, a story unto itself) they cannot sit idle or underutilized at all. They really require use to function properly.

Then, the biggest of all. Forever, China has been a mostly rural population of subsistence farmers. Tough life, and poor....but it was their life. There were families, communities and work to do. Simple life, but it kept them down on the farm.
Then, with modern farming, machinery, fertilizers,etc., you produce twice as much food, and put 750 million peasants out of a job. They rush to the urban areas, looking for survival. And we wonder why we are competing against a billion people willing to work for $10 a day.

We are already fucked. These " jobs" and manufacturing are NEVER coming back. ( maybe in 200 years, when we are the peasants). And the system hasn't even gotten to India yet. Wait until that happens.

So the problem is....what do WE do to keep our economy spinning? Seems like half the people here work for government, and the other half are on the dole. Extreme statement, but you get the point. We educate kids for $200,000 for a tech degree....and give the job to an Indian. Our honest labor work ( construction and maintenance) are given away to Hispanic invaders, LET in by our government.
It doesn't look good.

FredFlintstone's picture

For sure, buildings need to be buttoned up from the elements and being "mothballed" is hard on them. I was looking at those concrete high-rises and luckily they are at a lattitude where there will not be freeze/thaw cycles or they would be laying in a pile of dust and rubble.

Paveway IV's picture

Ordos has freeze/thaw cycles. It's below freezing there right now. Dry winters, humid summers.

Bendromeda Strain's picture

True, but everything is a matter of scale. How much needs fixed - all, most, or some?

saveUSsavers's picture

housing has once again TOPPED and fking labor from Mexico has been going back for a while, HYDROPONIC INDOOR AGRICULTURE is coming to migrant farmphukers IN A BIG WAY , entire lettuce produce, from seed to harvest ALL ROBOTIC


Rikky's picture

>> We educate kids for $200,000 for a tech degree....and give the job to an Indian. Our honest labor work ( construction and maintenance) are given away to Hispanic invaders, LET in by our government.


well said.  and our handlers wonder why people like trump and sanders are gaining in popularity.

CheapBastard's picture

Everyone is angry even the FSA that receives tons of benefits is angry?! However, the reasons are very different, yes. Sanders wants more FSA, and a much bigger gubmint and legalizing the 14 million plus illegals while hiking the tax on th emiddle class workers to pay for it.


Trump is much different and wants to rid gubmint of waste and incompetence; as he said, he'd fire half of the VA admin instead of bonusing them as Obama did despite their incompetence.Trump will block or seriously screen the millions of migrants Soweto and Hillery and Sanders want to allow into our nation.

Trump is a private sector person who values hard work, merit and competency and wants to make America great again by restroing cherished values.

Sanders is a gubmint parasite who values FSA, welfare, easy citizenship and more migrants.

People need to get out an dvote for whatever the above they believe in. Interestingly, old-timer Indianna Congressman Luger was on the radio yesterday and he implied he supported Trump as the best person to restore Amercian competitiveness and values.

fockewulf190's picture

Well, looks like there are plenty of cities available to film a chinese remake of Night Of The Comet.

Freddie's picture

So you make police state spy shit with drones?

Try making something for humanity like a drone jammer to make that shit fall from the sky.

TwoShortPlanks's picture

I'm making niche technology for markets with high growth potential. Fires and crime are high growth....and so is paranoia it seems.

Miles Ahead's picture

And you deem it to be entirely appropriate and in our interests to do your business self-promotion here - on ZeroHedge comment board - because... a couple of "members" asked you to after missing you for a year?  We rest must have missed that unless of course it was private correspondence in which case the reply should have been too.

Dr. Spin's picture

Hey TwoShort,

[I'm making niche technology for markets with high growth potential. Fires and crime are high growth....and so is paranoia it seems.]

What?  Is that some kind of euphemism for "spy stuff"? 

Let me make this perfectly clear:  If you ain't part of the solution, then yous is part of the problem.  Pandering to tyrants is not the way to make friends on ZH...

Just sayin'

shovelhead's picture

You gotta be shitting me, right?

This place is loaded with tyrants and psychopaths.

They just lack opportunity, as they say. Look around here and tell me how many people you would trust with the "nuke football"?