IT was a scheme as bold and eccentric as any to emerge from China’s 21st-century sprint towards urbanisation: to build and populate a dazzling metropolis of one million inhabitants deep in the country’s barren western hinterlands.In their bid to make this Fitzcarraldo-esque dream a reality there is little Chinese authorities have not tried. Hundreds of mountains and village after village have been bulldozed since construction of Gansu province’s Lanzhou New Area began in 2012.
A free trade zone has been created, an artificial lake carved into the arid soil, and more than 400 miles of road and scores of high-rise towers built. English-language billboards sing the praises of one of China’s newest cities in a chorus of giant multi-coloured adjectives: “Outstanding! Bustling! New World!”
But the Communist party’s urban planners have not stopped there. Desperate to lure outsiders to this far-flung, sparsely populated region, officials have ordered the construction of a replica of the Great Sphinx of Egypt, the Parthenon, Beijing’s Summer Palace and Forbidden City, and even of a stretch of the Great Wall of China.
Last but not least, they threw in the Dinosaur Kingdom, a sprawling Triassic theme park where Chinese tourists will soon be able to gaze at super-sized models of flesh-eating theropods.
“It’s like a mini-Disneyland,” gushed Xu Haike, a local hotelier who recently moved to the city and is among those banking on its success.
Lanzhou New Area was conceived as part of a broader government push to develop China’s west that kicked off near the turn of the century.
It is located about 40 miles north of Gansu’s gritty capital, Lanzhou – a smog-choked industrial hub carved in two by the meandering Yellow river. The old city has about 3.6 million residents; 160,000 of whom are members of the Hui Muslim minority. The region has long been known for its contaminated air, water and soil, although recent years have seen authorities attempting to clean up, with some success.
The so-called “Go West” initiative – a bid to bring a touch of China’s prosperous eastern coast to its underdeveloped interior – called for less-developed provinces such as Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu to be given a dramatic facelift.
As well as building tens of thousands of miles of road and railway, plans were also unveiled for a series of new urban hubs scattered across the country’s south and north-west.
Wade Shepard, an American writer who has spent more than a decade chronicling the fortunes of these new areas, said the campaign sparked a construction frenzy across inland China that peaked after the 2008 financial crisis, as Beijing hurled vast sums at infrastructure projects in a bid to shore up growth.
“It was kind of a free for all. Government officials were basically told to go out and increase GDP to comply with this national urbanisation movement, and pretty much every level of government had the authority to build new cities. So they went out and they built and they built and they built,” he said.
There was, however, a catch.
In many cases, the masses did not immediately flock to these new cities and so a notorious generation of Chinese “ghost cities” was born: hollow urban shells that were apparently home to more cranes than humans.
“When they were just being built it was otherworldly. You are walking through these massive new cities – some of them the size of Manhattan or even bigger – and you can’t really believe what you are seeing,” said Shepard, who charts the rise of such cities in his book Ghost Cities of China.
“It’s all these huge, massive buildings and everything that you would attribute to a city: malls, banks and government offices. But there are no people. It’s kind of like you are in a dream or this Twilight Zone episode where you suddenly wake up and everyone else is gone and you are the last man on earth.”
Lanzhou New Area was one of the last such state-level new areas to be given the green light before Xi Jinping, the president, came to power in late 2012. Apparently alarmed by the soaring levels of local debt, he started to rein in such mega-projects as the country sought a more sustainable urbanisation model.
When the city was approved by Beijing just months before Xi’s presidency, authorities announced a series of staggering targets for their city in the sands. By 2020, Lanzhou New Area was to have five hospitals, 75 schools and creches, and a GDP of 100bn yuan (£11.8bn). By 2030 it would be home to one million full-time residents and its GDP would have almost tripled, to 270bn yuan.
The project, which involved levelling hundreds of barren hills, was called “the greatest mountain-moving project on earth” with a stirring soundtrack offered a dynamic, neon-lit glimpse of the city’s future. It was a place of economic prowess and leisure and hi-tech industry, where happy residents strolled through verdant parks or raced across the city’s lake in speedboats.
An English-language website promised potential investors that Lanzhou New Area would witness “massive economic build-up”.
Reality took a while to catch up with the dream. When I first visited in 2013, as villagers came to terms with the destruction of their once-remote rural homes, an eerie hush gripped the city’s almost completely empty streets. The relentless din of car horns – a trademark of urban China – was completely absent. Dozens of tower blocks were under construction but, aside from builders, there was hardly a soul to be seen. Both Chinese and foreign journalists who flocked to the city came away convinced it was a flop.
Returning four years later, however, I found this sleeping western giant appears to be slowly awakening as housing projects begin to fill up and pioneers start to move in.
“People are buying property and moving in,” insists Shepard, who has visited the city twice. “As improbable as it sounds, it’s kind of coming to life. The place is almost like a mirage out in the middle of the desert. You see it glimmer on the horizon. You see it but you don’t really believe it is there – and then all of a sudden you are in the middle of it.”
City officials declined to be interviewed by the Guardian about their progress in luring humans to the region’s lunar landscape. But during a government propaganda tour last year, Xu Dawu, Lanzhou New Area’s deputy Communist party secretary, claimed it had already attracted 150,000 permanent residents as well as 40,000 construction workers who were temporarily living there.
Those numbers seem wildly inflated with huge swaths of the city still completely vacant.
“The project is ongoing,” Li Zhenjiang, an estate agent, explained sheepishly as he took a break inside an otherwise completely derelict, dust-covered shopping mall that appeared to have been abandoned for months, if not years.
A report by state broadcaster CCTV last year claimed the actual number of residents was closer to 40,000, many of them local farmers who were relocated to tower blocks in the city after their homes were razed, or the employees of state-owned companies who had been ordered to relocate there. A more modest figure of 80,000 permanents can now be found on the city’s website. Whatever the real figure, pockets of life are now springing up across town as people trickle into the city in search of a better future.
“I came here last August,” said Zhang Yongshuai, a shopkeeper who moved here from the provincial capital, Lanzhou, with his two young boys. Zhang said he had been drawn to this urbanisation frontier by the lower rents and the prospect of a new life. He rented a ground-floor shop in a sprawling but still virtually empty residential complex of high-rises and luxury villas called the Greenland Intelligent Financial Town.
“The best thing is the infrastructure, the roads, the squares. The living environment is better than Lanzhou,” said the 23-year-old.
Zhang admitted the city had not lived up to all of his expectations. “The biggest problem is there aren’t any people,” he said with a chuckle. “But I think they will come. If there were no people here then it would all have been a big waste, wouldn’t it?”
A few blocks away, one of Zhang’s few neighbours, Zhou Fei, said he also felt good about the city’s future. “It’s getting busier,” said Zhou, who was born and raised in Dongshuitang, one of the rural communities that was destroyed to make way for the new city, and bought a flat here with the compensation handed to his family by the government.
Zhou’s wife, Bao Shan, said she was still unimpressed with the sluggish pace of life and of change. Only about 20 families were currently living in the community of high-rises they now called home.
“I don’t like the quietness,” she said. “Business isn’t great.”
But Zhou was convinced a less ghostly future lay ahead – and in any case there was now no turning back. “There’s nothing left [of our village]. It’s all demolished,” he explained.
Another immigrant hoping the city will take off is Xu Haike, who moved to Lanzhou New Area last May to help manage the city’s only luxury guesthouse, the Binhu International Garden hotel.
Xu said the city’s portrayal as a ghost town was still half accurate, but insisted business at his 76-room hotel was steadily improving.
The average occupancy rate was now about 70 percent, Xu said during an interview in the hotel’s deathly quiet lobby, although on the day of the Guardian’s visit he said only 30% of rooms were occupied.
The city, too, was gradually filling up, although at night the dearth of switched-on lights suggested it still had a way to go. “It’s like we have built the house but the furniture hasn’t arrived yet,” Xu joked.
One of the city’s liveliest corners is the 20,000-strong Rainbow Town estate, a concrete jungle of high-rise flats thrown up for displaced villagers whose homes were bulldozed, and migrant workers helping to build the rest of the city around them.
On a recent afternoon dozens of children could be seen racing past a multicoloured government creche towards a bustling main square.
Lanzhou New Area’s pioneers are banking on that evaluation proving correct.
The city’s inclusion in a major economic development drive unveiled by Xi during his first year in office –the so-called Silk Road economic belt – has raised hopes that the local economy will, eventually, lift off.
“Now it is a national-level project so that means it will be successful,” said Shepard. “There is no other option. It’s too big to fail.”
Zhou, the shopkeeper, said he believed his new home might even one day rival the provincial capital after which it is named. “In five to eight years the New Area will be more developed. It will feel just like Lanzhou,” he predicted.
Xu, the hotel owner, scoffed at that idea. “It is not the political centre of [Gansu province], nor is it the economic centre.” But he said he had faith that things were on the up.
“I’m optimistic about the future.” And as cities such as Lanzhou New Area slowly find their feet, Shepard said the world would need to find a new way of referring to China’s increasingly lively ghost cities. “I guess now you would just call them cities.”—The Guardian