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Ghost Town

04-12 13:51 Caijing
‘Phantom’ structures litter Beijing. What went wrong, we wonder.

On the outskirts of north-west Beijing, off the Badaling Expressway, lies a kingdom without a king. Over a field of mud looms a skeleton of concrete spires and medieval towers. This is Wonderland, a planned 100-acre amusement park once touted as the largest in Asia, but now, left to the elements, something else – a Neverland, a potent symbol of China’s real-estate headache.

Opposite is a ragged line of ‘black’ cabs, near a decaying Olympics sign. Here, visitors can pick their way behind Wonderland’s faded pastel fa?ade. We’d heard security was non-existent – a sure sign of abandonment – but were intercepted by a red detachment of sunflower seed-cracking women, whose tanned complexions and accents suggested farmers’ wives.

Besides warning they wouldn’t pay for any harm that befell us, our new farming friends clued us in to whether the ‘Wonderland Luxury Brand Outlet Mall and Eco-Resort’ would ever be completed (‘Maybe… it all depends’) and why it stalled. The land was leased in the mid-90s by Huabin – aka Reignwood Group – who estimated Wonderland would generate 3 million visitors and 6 billion RMB a year (Reignwood’s Pine Valley, a 1,055-acre golf resort nearby, costs a mere 330,000USD to join). But the plans collapsed after Chen Xitong, the Beijing Party Secretary who oversaw a decade-long planning boom and was tipped to replace Deng Xiaoping, was jailed for corruption in 1998. ‘Chen spearheaded the project... the next mayor didn’t want to support it,’ a farmer explains.

According to Beijing Sci-Tech Report, poor city management accounts for much wasted real estate.‘Projects change according to who’s in office,’ top engineer Gao Zeng explained. ‘Uncompleted projects launched by former leaders are demolished during the tenure of the new leader.’

It’s believed that historic area Gulou, threatened in 2010 by a multi-million yuan ‘Beijing Time Cultural City’ redevelopment, was only saved by a last-minute shift in upper-level city management that realigned the necessary guanxi.

Huabin wouldn’t verify Chen’s involvement, but way out west in Yuquanlu, behind auto-part shops, lies the ‘Romance of the Heart Park’, another Chen project, now a crumbling set of chalets and Buddhist pagodas, strewn with weeds and stray dogs – more entertaining, arguably, than had it been finished.

Wonderland is still paying its debts. ‘This land was never purchased,’ our woman says. ‘The farmers live across the road and every year Huabin pays [them] rent.’ In 1998, 30 million RMB was agreed to be paid over ten years to the five villages who claim the land. Displaced farmers would receive resettlement fees worth 2,000RMB for every mu lost – but many have ‘yet to receive a fen’.

It took 20 years to agree a proper Disneyland (though ‘distinctly Chinese’, in accordance with its host’s wishes) for Shanghai in 2016. Rip-offs like state-owned Shijingshan – which marketed itself, winningly, as ‘Disneyland is too far’ – and Wonderland are more concerned with getting locals to accept foreign-style price points and attractions; Huabin planned a 200RMB entrance fee.

According to a Chinese report, Huabin decided to resume construction to capitalise on the Olympics, only to run into bureaucratic difficulties: plans, introduced in 2005, to build a new Changping City which effectively designated much of Wonderland public green space, and hence reduced their usable area from 303 to 37 acres.

Wonderland won’t be the last of its kind. Real estate accounts for 10 percent of China’s GDP, and governments depend on land deals for revenue. The endless cycle of construction and demolition bolsters a facade of progress and growth. But with land a finite resource, new builds or half-finished projects are often torn down or abandoned as minds, personnel or policies change.

According to a 2005 study by the National Audit Office on ten state-owned enterprises, losses to taxpayers from corruption, at 1.6 billion RMB, are officially dwarfed by poor decision-making, at 14.5 billion RMB. Building an amateur theme park on disputed property frozen six months of the year can probably be included in the latter.

Meanwhile, a short bus ride from Wonderland, in Long Wutai village, lies another ghost project – complete with decrepit Greek-style columns and deserted amphitheatre. According to officials, this Macau-style ‘Asian city that never sleeps’ has languished there ‘over 20 years’. In its place, a new Beijing City University campus was approved some years ago. Tellingly, though, construction has yet to begin.

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