China's White Elephants: Ghost Cities, Lonely Airports, Desolate Factories : Parallels China's economic growth is slowing and misallocation of resources is making things worse. In one city in recession, the new airport is mostly empty and plans for a giant liquor factory have stalled.
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China's White Elephants: Ghost Cities, Lonely Airports, Desolate Factories

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China's White Elephants: Ghost Cities, Lonely Airports, Desolate Factories

China's White Elephants: Ghost Cities, Lonely Airports, Desolate Factories

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The news is visible in Jerusalem's physical landscape, the concrete barricades, the soldiers on the streets. The news is just as visible in the physical landscape of China.


Chinese authorities have built roads, bridges and airports more quickly than any country. What's really notable now, as China's economy sags, is that much of the new infrastructure is barely used.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Frank Langfitt drove around the Chinese city of Luliang.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: We're on the road to the airport. And I've got to say, it's the best traffic in all of China 'cause there is nothing on the road here except stray dogs. In the other lane, there is a farmer in a three-wheeled little flatbed truck. And he's driving in the wrong direction, but it doesn't matter because there's no oncoming traffic.

I'm heading into the terminal. Seven check-in counters, and there's absolutely nobody here. It's empty. There's nobody manning any of the desks. It is kind of a ghost airport.

A woman eventually appears at a counter. She sells tickets for a shuttle bus that takes passengers into town.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) The airport opened on January 26, 2014. At most, there are five flights a day. The fewest number of flights a day are three.

LANGFITT: I spot an elderly woman in a quilted peasant's jacket. She's not here to catch a flight. Her grandson, Wu Youfu, explains.

WU YOUFU: (Through interpreter) I brought my grandmother over to have a look. She's lived for so many years, but she's never seen an airport or an airplane.

LANGFITT: Wu, his 78-year-old grandma, and his uncle, Dexi, are local farmers. They grow corn and tomatoes in this poor, mountainous corner of central China. And they've come to marvel at the $160 million airport. But Dexi says plane tickets are beyond the reach of most people here.

DEXI: (Through interpreter) Because this place is economically backward, the flow of passengers is small. People's income is too low. They can't afford this.

ANNE STEVENSON-YANG: Anne Stevenson-Yang is my name. I work for J Capital Research.

LANGFITT: Stevenson-Yang studies China's economy. She says the country has many low-use airports like Luliang's, including one outside Beijing in a place called Jiangbei.

STEVENSON-YANG: It's like an impoverished county that - and they built the airport in order to increase the revenue of the county, but nobody ever agreed to land there.

LANGFITT: So this is an airport that has no airplanes.

STEVENSON-YANG: That's right.

LANGFITT: Stevenson-Yang says local officials have green-lighted lots of infrastructure projects just to boost GDP. Now, she says, some are having the opposite effect. They're dragging down growth.

STEVENSON-YANG: This is why, as fast as China rose economically, this is as fast as it will decline - because during the rise, all of these things were accelerating GDP, and now they're sitting around as cost.

LANGFITT: Though not necessarily forever. Despite all the bad news you've heard recently, China's economy is still growing. And projects that sit empty one year can rumble to life the next. Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities Of China." Recently, he took a Russian TV crew to see one of the country's deserted new cities.

WADE SHEPARD: We get into the streets. We're walking around. And oh, no, all of a sudden, you know, I see cars. There's people. Within the 10 months since the last time I've been there, people started flooding into this area. It just shows, like, how quickly these things can change.

LANGFITT: One project unlikely to change anytime soon, though, is Luliang's new Liquor City. It's astonishing, a gigantic complex of ancient-style Chinese pavilions the size of several pro-football stadiums surrounded by a life-sized replica of the Great Wall. Inside, factories were supposed to pump out tons of high-priced white liquor called baijiu, for which the region's famous. Today though, Liquor City looks like an abandoned movie set. Why? The project's planners failed to anticipate the government's anti-corruption drive, the biggest in modern Chinese history.

LU CUIE: (Through interpreter) Now things are bad. High-end liquors don't sell at all. Officials don't buy. No one buys.

LANGFITT: Lu Cuie runs one of the scores of white liquor stores in town. Before the crackdown, she could sell more than $14,000 worth the alcohol for a single event. That's big money in this coal town of more than 3 million, which has been in recession for nearly two years.

CUIE: (Through interpreter) On average, when an official held a wedding banquet or a birthday party, the banquets used to last three to four days. Now it's simply impossible. It only lasts one day, and the scale is much smaller.

LANGFITT: Fenjiu, the state-owned company that's building Liquor City, refused to discuss the project. Lu says the company's struggling and relies on bank loans to pay employees. When I ran into some managers outside Liquor City's unfinished gates, I asked when it planned to open. They shook their heads wearily and laughed. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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