Remko Tanis • 16 November 2018

Earlier this week I mentioned walking around the ghost casino of Campione d’Italia, which closed its doors close to four months ago. Standing in front of such a huge building where absolutely nothing happens and no one else is around reminded me of a visit to the New South China Mall in Dongguan, north of Hong Kong.

Emptiness all around at the New South China Mall in Dongguan, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

The mall is listed as the world’s largest. With 892,000 square meters of space available it is over 2.5 times the size of the already massive Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport. Yet when I visited in 2010, after it had already been open for five years, there was hardly anyone around.

The New South China Mall was built for over two thousand stores and 100,000 daily visitors. It managed to attract only twenty lessors. And although Dongguan is a city of 10 million people, hardly anyone bothered to visit the mega mall. The handful who did only went to see the curiosity of a giant empty, useless building.

Not even the Teletubbies amusement park, the world’s first, managed to attract anyone - making it all the more unsettling.

It’s a bit like how people nowadays visit the new Brandenburg airport in Berlin as disaster tourists, as it has been just sitting there, unused, and might never open.

The piece I wrote on the New South China Mall is here. And an update, from 2015, here. It seems that after a decade, the shopping center had enough of its fame as ‘ghost mall’. A renovation and relaunch has finally brought stores and shoppers.

China is famously littered with construction projects that end up spending at least the first few years of existence as ghost towns. Construction has long been a quick fix for local governments to beef up their economic growth numbers.

The country is currently exporting the construction craze under its Belt and Road initiative - massive investments abroad creating new rail lines, ports and other infrastructure while intensifying ties between China and the Belt and Road recipient nations.

Chenggong, a largely empty district of Kunming, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

After five years however, the downsides of this key initiative of Chinese leader Xi Jinping are starting to show with some countries deciding to cancel. Pakistan has accepted billions in loans from China for infrastructure projects, but now needs an emergency bailout.

Sri Lanka got stuck with a port that was never viable to begin with. It saw itself forced to sign over the port to Beijing, after being unable to repay the Chinese loan used to build the useless port.

Meanwhile, the Australian state of Victoria went ahead and jumped on the Belt and Road train nonetheless, completely blindsiding the national government. Let’s see what how Melbourne will handle the Chinese billions.