China has at least 65 million empty homes — enough to house the population of France. It offers a glimpse into the country’s massive housing-market problem.
If you drive an hour or two outside Shanghai or Beijing, you’ll find something odd. The cities are still tall, and they’re still modern. They’re also, generally, in good condition. But unlike their bustling, Tier 1-city counterparts, they’re basically empty.
These are China’s ghost cities.
Their existence has been well-documented. In one prominent example, CBS’ “60 Minutes” ran a 2013 segment on China’s ghost towns that opened with the correspondent Lesley Stahl on a major road at rush hour with barely a car in sight.
But as China’s real-estate market has risen to the forefront of the global conversation with Evergrande’s $300 billion debt looming large, so, too, have ghost cities become a renewed source of interest. While they’re a testament to China’s reliance on real estate as a driver of economic growth and in its belief in the sector as a safe investment, their exact quantity is hard to define.
Li Gan is a professor of economics at Texas A&M University and the director of the Survey and Research Center for China Household Finance at Chengdu’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics. He’s also considered one of the top experts on China’s housing market. When I asked him how many ghost towns there were in China, he didn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know if there’s any definition of ‘ghost town,'” he said. “So I don’t know if there’s any number.”