Urban Desert: Empty homes in Ordos

No need to look both ways here. Few people have moved into Ordos's new city, which is built to house the population the size of Pittsburgh's.

Read the first part of this series and see a slideshow.


STEVE CHIOTAKIS: China started conducting its census this week. And economists are interested in how many properties sit empty. It's a problem in the northwest city of Ordos, in Inner Mongolia province, where parts of the city are completely vacant. Because of its geographic blessings, Ordos has the highest per capita GDP in China. And that's led to a couple of theories about all the empty houses.

Marketplace China bureau chief Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ: This is the soundtrack to Ordos:

Banging noises

There's so much construction here, you feel out of place without a hardhat. Fueling it all is a wealth of coal and natural gas underneath this region. Above ground, they're celebrating.


A fireworks display signals another place open for business. But what happens when you build a city and nobody comes? That's the dilemma behind Kangbashi, an entirely new city being built by the government of Ordos to house 300,000 people. Ninety percent of the homes here are empty. The international press has called it a ghost town, but architect Mike Tunkey, who has worked on projects in the city, is optimistic for a couple of reasons.

MIKE TUNKEY: The first is they have wealth, so they have resources to make some changes. The second is that there will be people in the northwest who will be looking for a city like that if it offers them opportunities which are better than what they have.

China is in the early stages of the biggest rural-to-urban migration the world has ever seen. This northwestern region of the country lacks a strong economic center. With all its revenue, Ordos is making a calculated risk to fill that gap, says Tunkey.

Economist Ting Lu agrees. He says as long as China needs fossil fuels, this region will be OK, but there is a potential problem on the horizon.

TING LU: In many other parts of China and in other parts of the world, resource-rich regions, the big problem is an outflow of capital.

So Ordos is investing billions of dollars on itself instead of letting that money migrate elsewhere. But what about the quarter of a million empty homes in the new city just waiting for people to move-in? Ting admits Ordos probably went too far with some of its development. Even so, when you're the main coal supplier for a country as vast as China, you've got more than enough money to cover yourself.

In Ordos, inner Mongolia, I'm Rob Schmitz, for Marketplace.

CHIOTAKIS: See Rob's photos of Inner Mongolia.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent, based in Shanghai.


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