In the 1980s we looked at Shenzhen as a model for urban development, in the 1990s we looked at Shanghai, and it is my hope that in the coming twenty years when people look for a new model they will look at Ordos.1
One of the fastest developing urban environments in China is the Ordos Municipality, located in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Established only ten years ago, Ordos has become a widely debated example of an economic and urban development that attempts to leapfrog the progressive stages of modernization. Although growth is largely fueled by local extractive industries, official municipal discourse portrays Ordos’s long-term development strategies as a model to be fol-lowed, not only in terms of economic growth. Ordos’s leaders also claim to embrace development in terms of better education, hygiene, social welfare, more ardent institutions for culture and innovation, and environ-mental sustainability. Despite these pronouncements, the international press has branded Ordos as evidence of China’s real estate bubble and a construction culture gone into overdrive.
By drawing on both anthropological and architec-tural research conducted in the city on various trips between 2008 and 2011, the authors have opted to un-derstand Ordos through the perspective of the reigning car culture. Ordos’s local expression of car culture might shed light on more general trends emerging in China’s newly constructed cities, namely that they are the result of surplus investment and not intended for inhabitation. The aim of this article is not to formulate a general theory of Chinese car culture but rather to acknowledge it as a central issue receiving little aca-demic attention in attempts to unravel China’s urban dynamics. The authors conclude that the car is integral to how the urban environment is constructed, lived, and imagined in Ordos.
“Planning and design for Kangbashi have embraced prevailing tenets of contemporary urban planning in China: a mixture of large-scale territorial thinking and pseudo-poetic planning strategies.”
Birth of a Boom Town
A collection of mostly rural settlements called the Yeke-juu League made up one of Inner Mongolia’s poorest regions before it was assembled into a prefecture-level city under Chinese policy in 2001. The new city was named Ordos. As social anthropologist Uradyn E. Bulag points out, the change had many implications:
[Ordos] is ostensibly the revival of the more authentic tribal name of the local Mongols, a name associated with the shrines of [Genghis] Khan, replacing Yeke-juu, an administrative name imposed by the Qing dynasty and meaning Great Monastery. Transformed into a municipality … Ordos appears to be both authentically Mongol and modern.2
Bulag specifies that “modern” in this case refers to the reorganization of the region in a way that mirrors the “administrative homogeneity” of Chinese governing.3 The labeling of places as “cities” has been part of China’s means toward quickening urbanization and modernization processes throughout China. As Bulag observes, urbanization is not a result but a “goal” of China’s economic policies. Ordos seems to fit into this pattern, as its inauguration as a city coincided with a terrific increase in local wealth that brought the towers and infrastructure to fill out what had been named a city. In ten years’ time, Ordos’s residents have moved from getting by on meager infrastructure to experienc-ing internationally accepted standards of roads and development.
During the past decade, the economic growth of Ordos and the surrounding region has been staggering, largely because of vast reserves of fossil fuels that attract a wide variety of investments. Ordos has 149.6 billion tons of proven coal reserves, accounting for about half of Inner Mongolia’s proven reserves and about one-sixth of China’s.4 Within the last ten years, Ordos has increased coal production from 25 million tons to 433 million tons,5 an industrial leap alongside a surge in gross domestic production from $1.9 billion in 2000 to $40.6 billion in 2010, an annual average increase of 33.3 percent.6 Extractive industries have fueled rapid urban expansion schemes, leading to precarious real estate speculation that has elevated Ordos’s economic growth rate above even the better-known metropolises along China’s wealthy east coast. Over half of municipal revenue is derived from taxes and fees levied on coal mining firms alone. The most apparent result of this accumulation has been ambitious schemes for urbani-zation and the consequent real estate scenarios for private investment. Once a source of cheap labor for abroad, Ordos’s population now ranks among China’s wealthiest, and immigrants from abroad now arrive in Ordos to find work.
Today, Ordos exists as “one city, three districts”: Dongsheng District, Azhen District, and Kangbashi New District, the last of which functions as the local government’s headquarters. The city’s local Communist Party secretary has stated that the aim of Kangbashi New District is to “build a civilized way of life.”7 The district is a twenty-seven kilometer drive southwest of the earlier built Dongsheng District and was mostly desert land and a few scattered rural settlements less than ten years ago. Now plans are in place for a future population of approximately 300,000.8 Neighborhoods of European-style villas and private gardens reflect Kangbashi developers’ ambitions to create “ideal” living (and working) conditions, albeit for a higher-income bracket. Beyond the villas, residential towers, wide avenues, and monumental squares have charac-terized the district. On top of it all, Ordos’s leaders have prioritized sustainable energy solutions, promising that Kangbashi will be a “green city.”
Planning and design for Kangbashi have embraced prevailing tenets of contemporary urban planning in China: a mixture of large-scale territorial thinking and pseudo-poetic planning strategies. Conceived by D’Axis Planners and Consultants (under the auspices of the Singaporean firm CPG Consultants), the master plan employs a scheme of concentric circles. The new city center is described as a sun rising over a meadow and radiating outward. A central axis, 2.6 kilometers long and 200 meters wide, connects the government district to an entertainment area and then a financial district. The wide open Genghis Khan Square begins the axis in front of the government towers. Further along the axis are four large cultural buildings – a library, mu-seum, culture and art center, and minority culture theatre – all of which mostly remain empty and without programming.
Motivated by the region’s fossil fuel revenues, local government officials and real estate developers have propagated a growing new city, with little consid-eration of who might live there. Many spectators remain critical of the consequences of so much invested capital and construction and so little occupation. The district is populated today mostly by the migrant workers building the towers and the civil servants overseeing development schedules. Despite financial investments in Ordos’s real estate, there is a minimal presence of commercial interests to support residents’ supposedly urban existence. The Chinese press has focused on the potentially perilous economic relationship between Ordos’s construction and its people. One of the most recent developments is the establishment of private equity funds in Ordos, a region once known for more conservative investing.9 But as observations in Ordos show, many of the formal investment opportunities are overshadowed by the widespread market for private high-interest short-term loans. These loans flow between local networks with monthly interest rates between 3 and 5 percent. Locals estimate that a large majority of the Ordos population takes part in these illicit lending schemes, and that most of the cash flow ends up in real estate.10 11
International coverage of Ordos has focused on Kangbashi New District’s development, not because of a miraculous metropolitan boom like that of Shanghai or Shenzhen. Rather, news reporters have arrived in the city in their quest to position Kangbashi as a negative example, if not a warning, of the dangers of rapid urbanization in China. This district, so it seems, is condemned to receive journalists that marvel about and condemn its seemingly megalomaniac emptiness.12 “Kangbashibashers,” as the critics can be called, have portrayed Ordos’s ambitions as flawed, ridiculing Kangbashi New District as China’s exemplary ghost city.13 They have tried to answer the urban riddle with vivid imagery of Ordos, a city of “monumental, neo-Mongolian sculptures, empty plazas and hulking con-crete shells” while “cranes sit idle over unfinished skyscrapers and migrant workers are fleeing.”14 Google Sightseeing’s Alex Steinberger writes: “[Ordos] rises from the desert to proclaim the glory of mankind’s accomplishments. Its glittering high-rise buildings and grand government projects are skirted on all sides by smooth unblemished pavement and endless rows of modern street lamps. There’s only one problem … it’s practically uninhabited.”15 With towers of new apart-ments financed by speculating believers in Ordos’s future, the new city’s empty streets and vacant housing developments have become an easily photographed target to illustrate China’s runaway real estate bubble.
Though Kangbashi’s development has gained noto-riety as the moral of the story of global urban financing, economist Ting Lu from Bank of America Merrill Lynch added a bullish touch to the real estate riddle by hailing Ordos’s scarcely tenanted skyline as a “must-see for emerging market investors.”16 He reported that “we found a brand new but empty city, but reporters could easily distort the overall picture, exaggerate prob-lems, and overly generalize findings. In fact, Ordos is very unique – and it is quite misleading to assume what happens in Ordos could happen in other parts of China.”17 As 2008’s global financial crisis unfolded, a trip to Ordos revealed only empty streets among the ongoing construction of this desert district. Ordos’s backers argue that the city is still under construction, and people will eventually occupy the new housing and offices. Whether or not Kangbashi can or should exem-plify China’s real estate condition, emptiness is a reality in Kangbashi, as few of the hundreds of thousands of potential inhabitants have made the move from the old Dongsheng to Kangbashi New District.18
Cars and the City
To understand the forces shaping Ordos, one must also look beyond the empty towers built on debt and for speculation and consider the role of the automobile, both in terms of an industry and as an individual status symbol. Reliance upon, if not a society-wide obsession with the automobile determines how Ordos is construct-ed, lived, and imagined. Referring to observations and interviews with Ordos’s residents during several visits between 2008 and 2011, this essay considers the urban expansion of Ordos from the vantage point of its drivers.
No other means of transportation has had, in such a short timeframe, such a profound impact on the con-temporary city as the automobile. As a moving tool, the car is an effective disrupter of our understanding of time and space. We blame and bless it. We speed, search for space, and then find ourselves at a standstill. Automobiles are also pivotal to the development, pace, and form of cities. We characterize cities by their traffic counts (Beijing, one thousand new cars a day) or their average speed of traffic (Jakarta, about six kilometers per hour). The dissemination of the automobile has altered the way cities are manufactured. Its presence and the infrastructure it demands drive the horizon-talization (or sprawl) of our cities. The automobile industry itself has been an engine of urban develop-ment. Detroit (GM, Chrysler, Ford) and Wolfsburg (Volkswagen) are dependent on automobiles – not only in terms of economic development and employment opportunities, but also in how they have grown and been shaped.
“As much as the automobile brings people to this new Inner Mongolian city, it encourages them to appreciate and expect emptiness.”
China is a relative latecomer in the mass-scale acquisition of cars and the consequent reconfiguration of urban space. Chinese cities not originally designed for cars are now known for their daily gridlocks. New, car-oriented cities can increasingly be found in China. One example is Anting, a city not far from Shanghai that is dubbed “Motor City” because of its ties to the motor industry, especially Volkswagen and General Motors. Anting distinguishes itself with a special auto-mobile economic zone for manufacturing and assembly plants, an automobile trading center, and a technical research center. Ordos’s Kangbashi district profiles itself similarly, with car manufacturing and other automobile-related industries now present and continuously being courted. The Ordos International Circuit (OIC), with a racetrack in the shape of a sprinting animal, claims to be “the core project” of Kangbashi’s plan “to build [an] auto sports tourism culture.”19 An automobile theme park is also planned to solidify Ordos’s emblem-atic relationship with the automobile industry.2021
Ordos is dispersed, spacious, and large; its wide avenues invite, if not require, residents to own auto-mobiles. And residents have accepted the invitation quickly. According to Ordos Statistics Bureau, in 2000 the Ordos region had no high-speed public roads; by 2009 there were 658 kilometers of high-speed roads.22 Statistics gathered by the local police department indi-cate more than 500,000 registered cars for a population of 1,600,000, or more than 300 cars for every 1,000 persons.23 Based on a simple (though unlikely) calcu-lation, there would be one vehicle for every three-person household. In reality, the households that can afford an automobile are most likely to own more than one. National statistics reveal that there are 118 passenger cars for every 1,000 Chinese nationals.24 Ordos, then, is characterized by a statistic that seems to divorce the city from the rest of the country.
For Ordos, it has been a rough transition from actual to measured horsepower. Few residents seem to have much experience in driving, or riding in, auto-mobiles. Seat belts are rarely used. Some drivers acquire small plastic devices that they plug into the seat belt buckle to disengage the safety alarm without having to fasten up. The perils of driving quickly extend beyond the people inside the automobiles. During one writer’s departure from Kangbashi in a Toyota Land Cruiser, there was an unexpected traffic jam. Traffic jams on Kangbashi’s usually open roads often have one cause. An hour passed without headway before traffic began to move again. Along the roadside, the remains of a bicycle were spread out across a twenty-meter radius of the multi-lane highway. Blood was scattered over the road. While driving among the huge coal trucks on Kangbashi’s roads can be dangerous, walking along the forgotten road shoulders, used by low-wage com-muters on foot and bicycle, can be deadly.
“You are what you drive.”
Car frenzy in Ordos is inescapable. Not only does the automobile dominate the landscape and everyday discourse, but it also steers the development of local industries, influences business endeavors, and delivers personal gratification. One might refrain from judging the proverbial book by its cover, but in Ordos one rates a business contract based on the dealmakers’ cars. In-stilled with opportunity and agency, the automobile takes on human characteristics. This process of anthro-pomorphism has developed to the point that there is a “car culture,” which in turn becomes a way to analyze human decisions, from the personal to the urban scale. The city can be read through the car.
Car frenzy in Ordos is also contagious, as an inter-view with a young Christian missionary there suggests. Originally from the prefectural-level city of Bayan Nuur in Inner Mongolia, she was at first skeptical about the local obsession with cars. She considered it a banal indication of sudden wealth coupled with a lack of imagination. After living and working some time in Ordos, however, she found herself infected by the craze and now strives to earn enough money to buy a four-wheel drive. She acknowledged her shift in perspective but stressed her realization that a luxury car is more than branding. It is quality. As you come to learn more about cars through everyday interaction, their appeal becomes unavoidable, she said. With a monthly income of RMB 6,000 ($900) buying a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado VX priced at RMB 560,000 ($84,000) is a long-term engagement.
Beyond just a means of transportation, one’s ride reveals his or her status. More than an accessory, it is a prosthesis. Mr. Qiu, a local businessman operating in the widespread “gray” economic spheres of short-term high-interest loans, explains: “As a businessman you always have to look at what people drive. Land Rovers are showing off. Usually not too serious, some-times it’s daddy’s money (fuerdai). If somebody shows up to a meeting in something like an old van, or takes a taxi, forget it. Then you can be sure he’s a lightweight. If somebody turns up in a Porsche or a new Land Rover, you know he can afford to invest, that he is game.”25
Anthropologist Alfred Gell employs the term “vehicular animism,” which can characterize the role of the car in Ordos society. Think of the traveling sales-man, always tidy in appearance. His car matches his suit: neutral, neat, and exuding trust and reliability. Gell writes: “Just like a salesman confronts a potential client with his body (his good teeth and well-brushed hair, bodily indexes of business competence) so he confronts the buyer with his car (a Mondeo, late registration, black)” – the automobile becomes like a “detachable part of his body available for inspection and approval.”26
Conversely, automobiles can also provide anonymity in the city. A popular practice in Ordos is to drive a newly purchased car without license plates or insurance. While cruising through the center of Kang-bashi New District in his new Toyota Land Cruiser, a local government employee explained the reasoning. Some drivers of cars without plates want to hide their whereabouts from their spouses. Others ride plateless to escape speeding tickets. As license plates from Beijing can’t be fined within the Ordos region, purchasing a Beijing car is also an option.
As banks offer Ordos residents easy loans for vehicle purchases, the city seems only to encourage automobile ownership, providing at least one reason for why Ordos’s leaders are not generating a “green city.” At varying scales of Ordos’s urban landscape, automo-bile imagery dominates advertisements in all media forms, from compact elevators to billboards along sprawling highways. In a recent anthology about auto cultures, Daniel Miller notes how cars now transcend their functionality: “The car’s humanity lies not just in what people are able to achieve through it … but in the degree to which it has become an integral part of the cultural environment within which we see ourselves as human.”27 Miller’s point finds foothold in New Fashion, a regional advertisement magazine found in Ordos. One adverticle divides a man’s life into five-year vehicular stages. At twenty you are a small, cheap eco car. At twenty-five you are a genuine “Made in China” cheap minivan, also known as a bread box. Reaching thirty, you become a reliable family car (a Volkswagen); at thirty-five you are a potent German Mercedes. At forty you enter the American Chevrolet years of man-hood. Reaching forty-five you will have made a success-ful career for yourself and arrive at the Audi R8 stage, and so on. This could be considered editorial jest, but somehow, because of Ordos’s car-obsessed culture, prophecy trumps jest.
Champions of Ordos’s Kangbashi New District would argue that congestion and disrepair will push residents from the older Dongsheng District to the new district’s empty towers and vast roads. Occupation, they argue, is still a matter of time. Regardless of demo-graphic projections, however, this new district has emerged based not only on planning mechanisms but also on financial dreams of high-risk borrowing and speculation. Ordos’s new and empty district could be proof that a place can be built for profit, not people. Fated to partake in China’s housing bubble, Ordos exists as a paradoxical combination of ghost town and boom town, built on the extraction of coal.
While there has been much attention to Ordos’s immobile empty buildings, it is perhaps the automobile that more readily defines Ordos’s future. Understanding how a newly arriving citizenry interacts with the sprawl-ing city provides more insight about how Ordos oper-ates than contemplating its empty skyline. Kangbashi’s urban plan, articulated with wide streets and ample parking, ensures that car traffic will remain a part of daily life. For this reason, as opposed to any other that Ordos’s vice mayor might have implied in 2008 (see the introductory quotation), Ordos might very well be a “new model city” for China. As much as the automo-bile brings people to this new Inner Mongolian city, it encourages them to appreciate and expect emptiness. Experiencing Ordos’s construction at a car’s velocity delivers the message of how constructed emptiness can seem beyond control. The concern, therefore, is not that Ordos’s new district will become congested but rather that it will insist on remaining empty and large. Kangbashi New District could become a land-scape of vacant buildings to be experienced and taken in from the interior of a financed Land Cruiser. Each newly purchased apartment is not a step toward Ordos’s completion but illustrative of its unfulfilled and over-financed future.
1 Bao Chongming, Vice Mayor of Ordos in January, 2008, as quoted in Bert de Muynck, “Babel for billionaires,” MARK Magazine 15 (August/September 2008): 126.
2 Uradyn Bulag, “From Yeke-juu league to Ordos municipality: settler colonialism and alter/native urbanization in Inner Mongolia,” Provincial China (October 2002): 208.
3 Bulag, “Yeke-juu league,” 199.
4 Fang Rong and David G. Victor, “Coal liquefaction policy in China: explaining the policy reversal since 2006,” Energy Policy 39 (2011): 8, http://ilar.ucsd.edu/assets/001/503026.pdf.
5 Max D. Woodworth, “Frontier Boomtown Urbanism in Ordos, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region,” Cross-Currents E-Journal 1 (December 2011): 6, http://cross-currents.berkeley.edu /sites/default/files/e-journal/artic les/woodworth.pdf.
6 Rong and Victor, “Frontier Boomtown,” 8.
7 Michael Forsythe, “Going Green in China, Case by Case,” New York Times, November 17, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/world/asia/18iht-letter.html.
8 “China's Desert Ghost City Shows Property ‘Madness’ Persists,” Bloomberg News, June 23, 2010, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-06-23/china-s-de sert-ghost -city-shows-property-ma dness-as-buyers-pay-in-cash.html.
9 Li Xiang, “Behind Ordos’ Boom,” China Daily (Beijing), June 10, 2011, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/usa/business/2011-06/10/content_ 12672359.htm.
10 Michael Ulfstjerne, “Livet i Kinas tomme byer,” KINABLADET (Søborg, Denmark), April 2012.
11 Max Woodworth, “Ghosts in the Shell Game: Gaolidai and City Building in Ordos.” Paper presented at “Placing East Asia: A Graduate Student Conference on Urbanism and the Production of Space,” UC Berkeley, California, March 3, 2012.
12 For example, see Peter Hitchens, “This is a city built for a million people – but no one lives here: The Mongolian metropolis thrust into the 21st Century in a storm of steel and concrete,” Daily Mail (London), May 29, 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1391868/This-city-built-mill ion-people--lives-here.html.
13 For coverage of other Chinese developments similar to Ordos, see “The ghost towns of China: Amazing satellite images show cities meant to be home to millions lying deserted,” Mail Online, December 18, 2010, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1339536/Ghost-towns-Chin a-Sat ellite-images-cities-lying-com pletely-deserted.html#ixzz1oWyo pYOM.
14 Lucy Hornby and Langi Chiang, “China’s Ordos property bust offers warning sign,” Reuters, December 2, 2011, http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/12/02/china-property-bubble-idI NDEE7B10EL2 0111202.
15 Alex Steinberger, “Ordos: China’s Vacant City,” Google Sightseeing (blog), September 7, 2010, http://googlesightseeing.com/2010/09/ordos-chinas-vacant-city.
16 Melissa Chan, “Ordos: Boom town to ghost town,” Asia (blog), Al Jazeera, September 9, 2011, http://blogs.aljazeera.net/asia/2011/09/09/ordos-boom-town-ghos t-town.
17 Andrew Batson, “Revisiting China’s ‘Empty City’ of Ordos,” China Real Time Report (blog), Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2010, http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2010/05/12/revisiting-chinas-empty-city-of-ordos.
18 As of October 2010, the government had tallied 28,000 residents. See David Barboza, “Chinese City Has Many Buildings, but Few People,” New York Times, October 19, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/20/business/global/20ghost.html?pagewanted=all.
19 Website for Ordos International Circuit, accessed February 28, 2012, http://www.oic2010.cn/English/1_About_OIC.aspx.
20 Li Xiaoshu, “Motorsport Madness,” Global Times (Beijing), June 11, 2011, http://www.globaltimes.cn/DesktopModules/DnnForge%20-%20NewsArticles/Print.aspx?tabid=99&tabmoduleid=94&articleId=661032&moduleId=405&PortalID=0.
21 There is a particular reason why automobile-related industries might choose to be based in Ordos: “Unlike elsewhere in China, the Ordos coal is considered high quality due to its low levels of sulfur (0.35%~0.5%), low ash content (6%~8%), and low ash fusion point, plus its medium to high calorific value (lower calorific value: 5800~6200 kcal). This makes the Ordos coal suitable for a wide range of applications like power generation, metallurgical engineering, car manufacturing, and other energy-intensive industries.” See Chreod Ltd., “Erdos [sic] Urban Region Development Strategy – A Report to The Municipal People’s Government of Erdos,” March 30, 2005.
22 Statistic provided by the Ordos Statistical Bureau in exhibition about Ordos’s development since the Great Western Development Strategy (2000) at Ordos Bronze Museum, 2011.
23 Ordos Municipal Public Security Bureau Traffic Management, “Annual Report 2010,” December 31, 2010, http://www.ordosgajj.gov.cn/news_details.aspx?ID=71.
24 The World Bank, “Data Catalog: Urban Development,” accessed March 8, 2012, http://data.worldbank.org/topic/urban-development.
25 Author’s interview, conducted in Mr. Qui’s BMW, June 20, 2011.
26 Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 18.
27 Daniel Miller, “Driven Societies,” in Car Cultures, ed. Daniel Miller (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 18.