Ghost town

Not all Chinese cities are growing. Yumen is worse off than Detroit

Ghost town

Workers say farewell to Shougang

After Mao’s Eighth Route army finally marched into Beijing in January 1949, the city’s new rulers were determined the capital would become a symbol of all things modern. Those ambitions meant the city needed to be not only the political and cultural capital – but an economic and industrial one too.

One consequence of that policy: the country’s largest steel mill, Shougang, was allowed to go on polluting the Beijing air for decades.

That those different roles can contradict has grown increasingly apparent to the capital’s policymakers, and to just about every Beijinger too.

So it was with a sigh of relief that the city watched the Shougang mill finally shut down earlier this month and move 220km east to the coast. Although a blow for Shougang’s 200,000 employees in Beijing, it is a much more welcome move as far as the rest of city residents are concerned.

Cities must change with the times, of course, and although few will question Beijing’s promising future, other locations look less assured. Detroit, for instance, doesn’t look like having the same longevity, having become a cautionary tale of what can happen when a primary business goes into reverse.

Five decades ago, half of the world’s cars were being built in the Motor City. But decline has been such that the population has since halved, with 70% of buildings now said to be vacant in parts of its downtown area. The challenge, TIME magazine reported in November, is that Detroit must change in ways that contradict the “expansive vision” it was built on.

TIME argues in its article “How to shrink a city” that it now needs to become smaller.

Similar concerns would seem unlikely in China, where urbanisation is proving to be one of the country’s most resonant economic trends. Close to half of the population already live in towns and cities, and 400 million more are expected to leave the countryside for urban life by 2030, says China Daily.

Still, there are always exceptions to the general picture, and Yumen, a town in Gansu province, finds itself as a rather unfortunate outlier.

Yumen’s name means ‘Jade Gate’ and derives from a nearby Silk Road frontier post. The caravans stopped calling hundreds of years ago, leaving the town to a sparse population of herdsmen who made their living from the surrounding grasslands.

Yumen’s fortunes changed for the better once oil was struck in 1939. Limited local water supply or farmed agricultural land saw Soviet advisors argue against further development in such a remote location. But their recommendations fell on deaf ears, and they were asked to leave in 1962.

Ignoring counsel seems to have become a habit for city elders. In 1959, during the Great Leap Forward, experts warned that pumping oil too fast from Yumen’s wells would permanently reduce pressure. They were branded ‘rightists’ and sacked.

So while the city grew (eventually reaching 188,000 pepple), the seeds of an early decline were already sown. “During the ‘gold-rush’ no one planned for the city’s future or thought about how it should be built,” Lu Hai, a petroleum engineer who arrived in Yumen in 1967, told China Weekly. “We didn’t even think about [Yumen] as a city, but only as a drilling area.”

Production had been falling in Yumen since 1995 and supply has now dried up. “Why did we spend so much money developing the city?” asks Zheng Gaojun, a local teacher, “We should have been preparing for depopulation step by step.”

Sounds a little familiar to news from Detroit? “Demolition is the most flourishing business” laments Lu Hai, another of Yumen’s early migrants. “Now the size of the city is less than half of the original.”

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