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.