3,000 villas, but no one’s home: Inside the Jing Jin ghost city

Planners scale back goal for Tianjin satellite after Jing Jin area becomes another 'ghost city'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 6:59pm

About an hour's drive from Beijing, beside an exit on the Jinji Highway in Tianjin, stands a triple-arched gate of mixed European and Chinese styles that welcomes visitors to Jing Jin City.

The Kai Xuan Men, named after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, opens onto an area about five times the size of Hong Kong's Wan Chai district - home to no less than 3,000 villas, a five-star hotel, hot springs resort, golf course, museum, temple, two colleges, entertainment facilities and a large undeveloped lot. All that's missing, it seems, are the people.

One resident, Guo Huaxu , who is in his 60s, said there were nearly 400 villas where he lived, but only eight to 10 houses were occupied in autumn and winter. "It's a bit better in spring and summer, but still no more than 20 houses are occupied," he said.

Tianjin's Baodi district government, together with Hong Kong-listed property developer Hopson Development began construction of the project in 2002. Four years later, the State Council approved Jing Jin City as one of 11 satellite cities for the metropolis - an eco-friendly town offering leisure activities that was close to Beijing and Tianjin.

A representative for Hopson portrayed the community as a work in progress, saying many of the villa owners were wealthy executives who rarely had time to visit, and the occupancy rate was climbing. The project would take time, said Zhao Yuting, Hopson's regional general manager for Tianjin, arguing it takes more time to build a city than a mere development.

But experts say that in such "new" cities - Ordos in Inner Mongolia and Shenmu in Shaanxi for example - infrastructure and economic opportunities fall behind the pace of property development, making it difficult to attract residents.

Wandering along the main street is a lonely affair. Most of the shops leading to the city centre are mere shells. A woman who rents one as her temporary home said she started working as a gardener four years ago, but had never seen a shop stay in business for long.

"There was a pet shop, but it soon closed," she said.

Outside the gates of the village communities sit empty shops with large, broken signs - some read hair salon or gym. Zhang Jun , a cleaner, said they were put there to make the area look more lived-in.

A few minutes walk past the Kai Xuan Men lies the sprawling, 800-room Hyatt Regency hotel. Towering like a drab castle in the sunset, the hotel was almost deserted apart from a dozen or so staff and a few guests making preparations for a product fair.

Two hotel employees said there were usually 100 to 200 guests at any one time, and the number could double at weekends.

Zhao Zongsheng , who operates an unregistered taxi outside the colleges, said the city was almost dead because there were no amenities, and the commute to Beijing or Tianjin was too far. "It only suits those who have retired, but are not too old," Zhao said.

At the projects sales centre, staff said most of the villas had been sold, but owners rarely visited. Half of the 53 square kilometres the project occupies had yet to be developed, and there were plans for 4,000 additional villas, said salesman Yang Kang . Most owners bought the homes for retirement, holidays or as an investment, Yang said.

In a blaze of publicity in the first years after the city was approved by the State Council, the Baodi government announced its plan for a city eventually stretching 258 square kilometres - the same size as central Tianjin.

Hopson Development has invested more than 20 billion yuan in the project, according to Time Weekly . Zhao said at least 1,000 villas had been sold, and the average occupancy rate had grown by 10 to 15 per cent in the past year. But most of the owners were government officials or senior executives, who seldom had time to visit, which lowered the occupancy rate.

Zhao said the company was looking at a plan to establish a street dedicated to bringing in new businesses.

"We are talking with international chain stores such as KFC and McDonald's, as well as other famous brands including the Tang Polo Club," he said.

"We are not just building houses, but a city instead. It's not that we can create a city within 10 years," Zhao said. The company said there were plans for more facilities, including the Tianjin Municipal Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

In a revised plan released late last year, the Baodi government omitted its earlier figure of 258 square kilometres, saying only that 53 square kilometres were planned. About 300,000 people were expected to live in the city by 2020, it said.

Fu Wei , a research director with Shanghai-based Hanyu Property, said Jing Jin City was one of many examples of large developments that had sprung up in the wake of projects like Shanghai's Pudong New Area.

"They copied these successful models, but ended up finding their own conditions, including attracting industry and people, did not match the model," he said.

A survey of 12 provinces and autonomous regions by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) found that each city-level government had erected at least one such project, the People's Daily reported last month.

Compared with thriving districts in China's great cities, these lifeless urban areas had no established industries, and people were unwilling to move there given the lack of job opportunities and poor infrastructure.

Qiao Runling , deputy director of the NDRC's China Centre for Urban Development, said governments should be wary about projects like Jing Jin City for two reasons: they occupy large tracts of farmland, and local governments are facing high financial risks because of huge construction costs.

"In many new cities, the homes have been sold but lie idle," he said. "It's totally different from what we imagine a real city should be."