Essays from the Far East: Construction Concerns

I’ve noticed something about the cities in China which I’d like to briefly explore here, which is rather hard to explain. Each city we’ve visited has had ongoing construction of large living quarters—usually apartments—which seem to be built alongside or near similar, empty living quarters. This kind of construction is not necessarily ubiquitous throughout the entirety of each city, but it’s common enough to have nearly left no skyline untouched by giant, still cranes.

I find this notable because of the economic disparity which is very visible throughout all the parts of China that we have visited. Firstly, I struggle to wrap my mind around a justifiable rationale for this all-permeating construction of living quarters. That is, in each city we’ve visited, there are a handful of fully built, unoccupied buildings which look as though no one has touched them since construction ceased. My question: Why build more if you can’t fill the ones already existing? But, further, the aforementioned economic disparity is manifest usually within sight of rather nice/new/upscale areas in the cities. For instance, I perused the entirety of an expensive walking street in Chengdu, with five-star restaurants featuring wine cellars at the entrance, only to turn around the last building into slums with roofs caving in. It seems that a lot of construction here, then, serves to cover up the unattractive parts of the cities. I can’t help but feel for these people living in, essentially, poverty. It’s worsened by the fact that there are available buildings with plumbing, electricity, space, etc. to move into right around the corner.

It also stresses me out that these buildings are being thrown up seemingly everywhere because of what I plan on studying in my masters program: Environmental Ethics. In short, it costs quite a bit to the planet’s resources and local air quality to build skyscraper after skyscraper. In the long term, it is indeed better to stack people in tighter and higher, rather than rip down hectare after hectare for a suburban sprawl. I would feel less anxious about all these buildings if they were actually used. But they aren’t. Or at least they give every indication of being unused.

There are two potential explanations I have synthesized in thinking about this is: (1) China wants to give the appearance of being impressively developed, modern, and booming with city life, and (2) China is preparing for a continued increase in their population in the cities. The first explanation seems more likely to be the case than the second, mostly because China’s one-child policy would theoretically result in a stabilized population. China is trying to/succeeding in overtaking the United States as the world’s most dominant economic power. If and when China overtakes the US entirely, it is plausible to posit that more people would seek to live in China’s cities. But why build them now? Surely it can’t be profitable for companies to erect costly buildings, only to abandon their potential return on investment. Maybe capitalism is bleeding through me here, but I can’t wrap my head around an upright business model which justifies the inflation of needless construction. Even if it were the case that companies bottomed out because no one filled their expensive constructions, then it would seem to follow that there would be a negative economic incentive to keep doing this. But that isn’t the case, apparently. I have counted easily a dozen of these enormous, empty structures since arriving in China, many of which are still under development.

I’m not satisfied with any of the conclusions of my speculation, but I certainly am fascinated by this anomaly. Allegedly, entire cities in China are ghosts towns; it’s not just a peppering of empty buildings in a city. And yet I see so much land being developed at seemingly no real profit or demand from the people. This has confused me more than most things in China, this summer.

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