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The empty “zombie cities” of China’s stillborn rustbelt

China’s explosive growth as the world’s factory powerhouse is almost impossible to overstate: the largest migration in human history took place when 80 million young women left the provinces to come to the Pearl River Delta for the new manufacturing jobs, and China began building new megacities across its landmass to serve as the hubs for new factories and industries, consuming as much cement between 2011 and 2013 as the whole US used during the whole 20th century.

But many of those cities were never inhabited and remain uninhabited still. They aren’t "ghost towns" — boomtowns that collapsed. They are "zombie cities" — boom-towns still waiting for their boom, ready to house millions, with wide boulevards and soaring apartment blocks that have never been occupied.

In a stereotypically heavy-handed Chinese bureaucratic move, the authorities are slowly populating some of these zombie cities by using eminent domain to evict people from their homes in other parts of the country and giving them vouchers they can redeem for housing in the zombie cities.

But the zombie cities are a drag on the national economy. Public and private firms borrowed billions to build them, and now operate their factories with skeleton crews in order to generate the cash-flow to service those debt payments. The zombie cities can be spotted with network maps, as the internet giant Baidu has, by looking at placed where there was a lot of network infrastructure built, but which generate no network traffic.

The BBC is hosting a gallery of photos of zombie cities by Raphael Olivier and Kai Caemmerer, photographers who have extensively (and gorgeously) documented them.

Rather, some of these places are built in anticipation of a need that has not yet arisen. The buildings are finished but they may not be filled with people for another 15 years. “I see them as unborn cities," says Caemmerer.

In fact, an enormous relocation could soon be underway. The Chinese government has said it intends to move 100 million people from rural parts of the country into cities by 2020. This coordinated migration could fill at least some of the vacant cities.

For example, Ordos has been trying to fill its empty buildings using “housing exchange certificates”, which are given to people whose property elsewhere in the country is requisitioned by the government. Those holding a certificate – or fangpiao – can redeem it for a property in Kangbashi.

(Image Kai Caemmerer)