The Empty City

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Building it doesn't always mean they will come. In 2003, officials in Kunming, the capital of southern China's Yunnan province, decided they needed more space to expand. So they started work on the district of Chenggong, a roughly 41 square-mile plot of land 11 miles south of the city. Chenggong, which means to "submit tribute," features a Central Business District dotted with dozens of office towers, a massive government compound, and 15 university campuses. Ten-lane highways crisscross the city, rolling over previously tilled fields, while farmers living in surrounding areas face eviction. Perhaps the only thing Chenggong lacks, as I saw on a trip to the city in February, is people. The municipal government claims that the population reached 350,000 in 2012, and expects one million inhabitants by 2020. Considering that the city features rows upon rows of empty buildings, that seems unlikely.

Chenggong, in short, is a ghost city. Like the better-known Kangbashi district of Ordos in Inner Mongolia, it was built in response to supposed macro trends in urbanization that would drive demand for housing and services. Beijing hopes that roughly 850 million Chinese will be urbanites by 2020, and plans to spend $6.5 trillion to encourage it. Indeed, Chinese cities will continue to grow -- but Chenggong may remain empty.

Finding a taxi to Chenggong was almost impossible; I eventually had to hire one for the day. After spending some time in the district, I understood why: The streets are devoid of pedestrians, even in the Central Business District, and the driver wouldn't have been able to find passengers for the return trip back to Kunming.

Matthew
Niederhauser

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Seen from certain angles, Chenggong looks like a regular Chinese city.

Matthew Niederhauser

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But on the ground, like at this municipal government complex, there are few signs of life.

Matthew
Niederhauser

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Empty luxury villa developments line the hills surrounding Chenggong.

Matthew
Niederhauser

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A pile of trash sits in front of one of the distict's unopened subway stations. Most members of the party bureaucracy manning the empty city still commute to Chenggong by car, despite official encouragement to begin living in the new city center.

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The most pleasant areas to stroll are the small parks within the government compound itself -- the authoritarian structures slip in and out of view amid the well-manicured lawns and pools.

Matthew Niederhauser
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The district hosts 15 university campuses, including Yunnan Nationalities University, Kunming University of Technology and Science, and Yunnan University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I felt like I was wandering around a film set.

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Still, there was something almost stately about the buildings. Here, a herd of cows graze in the shadow of a tower on Yunnan University's campus, on the district's southern edge.

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A pedestrian walks in front of Yunnan University's law school building.

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A swimming complex in the university district.

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The campus for Yunnan Ethnic Minorities University.

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Perhaps the loneliest tract of land I found was a massive park  between the Central Business District and the gleaming new government compound. Small pavilions and public art installations collect dust in the tidy but desolate landscape. Every once in a while, I would come across a group of groundskeepers taking a nap or playing cards in the shade.

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Foundations continue to be laid for new high-rises.

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The sign on this billboard reads "Remember this location will soon be born."

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Slogans boasting of the future success of Chenggong appear on construction sites throughout the district.

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A seemingly empty megablock complex, built on the edge of Chenggong.

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Megablock complexes stretch into the hills.

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Goats wander across the streets near an empty megablock complex.

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Despite the vacancies, construction continues. A pedestrian inspects a construction pit for a multi-use complex next to the Central Business District.

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The signs next to the construction site read, "Safety is the foundation of happiness" and "Violating regulations is the source of pain."

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In Chenggong, farming plots abut new construction. On a few occasions, I spotted cows meandering through surrounding construction sites, grazing on freshly seeded lawn beds.

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Here, a farmer gathers cabbage.

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A proprietor sits in front of his store in one of Chenggong's few remaining farming villages.

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Many local villagers work on construction sites that will soon displace them.

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A child stands against a wall in a farming village.

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Rows of empty residential buildings encroach on farming villages.

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A farming village sitting in front of the new municipal government complex interrupts an unfinished 10-lane thoroughfare.

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A highway looms on the edge of a separate farming village near the new Central Business District. One building owner told me that the residents are supposed to vacate their homes within the next three years.

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The empty highways of Chenggong.

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