A fancy, spacious new town where no one wants to live
It was a Sunday afternoon. I was standing in the middle of a tree-lined boulevard, counting the lanes. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven ... and that was only in one direction.
On the horizon were block after block of office towers decorated with gold-plated domes and red Chinese characters. 'Renmin [people] ... fanrong [prosperity] ...' said some of them.
I would have needed a telescope to read the rest. Between me and the buildings was another 14-lane boulevard and a brush-dotted square the size of 24 soccer fields.
I was not in Beijing, Shanghai nor any of the big mainland cities.
I was standing in Fengcheng - a county-grade city in central China with no more than 1.4 million people. That is where my parents came from.
During my home-coming tour over Easter, warm-hearted relatives were eager to show me the hometown's great achievement: the new town that had been built over the past several years, about a 10-minute drive from the existing city.
Having been a journalist for more than two decades, I have seen many white elephants on the mainland - but nothing like this.
We were the only moving objects in this grandiose place. All the trees were nicely cropped. Flowers were neatly placed. But not a single car, not a single soul, not even a piece of trash borne by the breeze passed by during my 15-minute visit.
A car ride to nearby office buildings showed they were all government departments.
Ten minutes down the road, there was another surprise - Feng Shui Lake Park, which was completed last November.
A willow-lined stone bridge curved over a mirror lake, leading towards a 13-storey pagoda, many more lakes and bridges. On the man-made lake was a sculpture of two swords - the city's symbol - about the size of two shipping containers. In a park the size of 80 soccer fields, nothing could seem too big.
The park was empty. In any other park in China on any weekend, you will run into families and lovebirds snapping pictures. Yet here, there were no more than a dozen people.
'Where are the people?' I asked.
'It rained this morning,' said my cousin.
'Impressed?' he asked.
'Very much. Have you bought a house here?'
'Of course not, who would want to live here? There is nothing,' he replied.
Indeed, all of my extended family chose to stay in the buzzing old town. So did Walmart, which recently decided to open a branch in the city.
Nearly 10 years after the new town project was launched, it remains a place filled with half-empty apartments, with many more to come.
So why did the city build these - a street that rivals Chang An Boulevard, a square that's a third the size of Tiananmen, and a park three times as big as the Summer Palace in Beijing? How much did it cost? Who paid for them?
Here is what I found. The new town project was planned by the then Fengcheng party chief, Ren Taoying, and mayor Leng Xinsheng in 2001.
Ren says she has no regrets. She has reportedly said: 'This is what I call grand. During the agricultural marathon, more than 10,000 people gathered in the square. Yet it remained spacious and comfortable. That's the class of a big city.'
What she did not mention is the jobs that the massive project has created, the sale of thousands of hectares of arable land to developers, the increase in gross domestic product and a piece to show off whenever superiors call.
The full cost was never made public. But there are some telling figures. Construction of the park began in late 2007, and the budget was 330 million yuan (HK$375.11 million), a quarter of the city government's income that year.
The boulevards and square would have cost a lot more. Back in 2003, the Fengcheng government made no more than 500 million yuan.
The government has correctly called these moves 'courageous'. It would be almost impossible for it to have funded them from its operating income.
While the locals were reportedly forced to chip in 100 million yuan in 2003, the rest of the financing remains a mystery. Is a bank loan involved? If so, how are those empty boulevards and parks going to help repay it? Nobody knows.
What outsiders have seen is the city government's aggressive if not barbaric approach to the sale and clearance of land (yes, in that order).
Instead of hiring developers, government officials did the job of forcing people out. To make space for a Walmart-cum-hotel complex, the local authorities reportedly stopping paying some of their officials until they had 'lobbied' their family members to move out of the affected area.
None of the above has been kept in the dark. In fact, the extravagant new town project and the barbaric clearing of land have all been widely reported by various state media, including Xinhua news agency.
In 2004, in an article titled 'Fengcheng's image project: playing cat and mouse with state policy', the China Youth Daily lambasted the plan for the new town. The paper accused the city government of confiscating 7,000 hectares of arable land and breach of state agricultural land policy.
It quoted Ren as saying: 'If we had not pushed for the development, front-run the government policy and grabbed the land before the state banned it ...we would not have today's speedy growth.'
As for Leng, the report said he slammed the local branch of the People's Bank of China for being uncooperative, saying 'the branch should not drink Fengcheng's water yet send wheat to outsiders'.
One would imagine the two officials would have had a tough time after the media reports.
Well, Leng was made Fengcheng's No 1 official. As the new party chief, he spearheaded the construction of the Feng Shui Park. Recently, he pledged to raise the city's GDP from 20 billion yuan to 50 billion in five years.
Ren, his ex-boss, was promoted as well. She's now the deputy party chief of Fengcheng's supervising city. She is building three squares there.