Truman National Security Project

Correcting The Distorted China Narrative

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When the television program “60 Minutes” aired a report earlier this month about China’s real estate bubble—“the most populated nation on earth is building houses, districts, and cities with no one in them”—a trip to the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan immediately came to my mind. One afternoon five summers ago, after a two-hour bus and taxi ride from the Dongguan train station, I found myself wandering around a shopping center, built to be one of the world’s biggest, with its store fronts shut, windows boarded, and escalators running but escorting no one, all surrounded by miles of empty apartments and offices.

I had arrived in China in August 2008 after securing a contract to cover the Beijing Olympics for my hometown NBC affiliate in San Francisco. For three weeks, I traveled across China, documenting my journey with web essays and live reports on the morning show. I had come to explore a country, deep in traditions and profound in transformations, that was dazzling the world with its Olympics architecture and performances. I left wondering about the serious distortions in China’s economic growth, why so few observers cared to write about it, and how such gaps in our understanding of China’s development affected policy discussions at home.

Dongguan is one of those telling cities that captures the complexity and layers of China in the midst of rapid development and changes. It is only about a half-hour train ride from Hong Kong, and factories there produce much of the goods and products consumed by people around the world. For years, migrants from the rest of China have flooded in, leaving behind families in rural areas for the promise of urban opportunities. The local government, intoxicated with growth, has aimed to generate revenue by selling land to speculators with questionable investment projects, like the biggest malls, hoping for consumers in a land of migrant workers.

After reading about Dongguan, hearing about the mall, and persuading my editors that there was a story “there”—something more than just the usual China narrative that everyone was writing about that summer—I set off with my photographer Angilee Shah to figure out the oft-ignored part of the China story. Looking back, going off the beaten track was good for someone interested in China policy: to leave the trappings of the expat comfort zone, to discover places away from the wealth and the coast, to gauge a more complete picture of China’s development, to hear about the practical meanings of growth from the people who make up the rest of China.

So, on August 23, 2008, writing back to NBC in San Francisco, we filed.

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During a taxi ride to the mall, I had a brief conversation with the driver about the shopping and entertainment complex. “You’re from America?” the driver, Mr. Zeng, asked me. “Then you’ll be quite unhappy with the South China Mall.” Surprised, I asked him to elaborate.

“Mainland China is not Hong Kong, and people here don’t do things whole-heartedly,” he continued. “In Hong Kong, there’s Disneyland, and it’s done well. But at South China Mall, most store spaces are empty. They did not plan well. Now there’s no business, the developers have given up. We were surprised when they decided to put the mall here. It’s too far from everything.”

Indeed, the South China Mall is about 20 miles, a two-hour bus ride, from Dongguan’s train station, the city’s main transport hub. Zeng told me that some passengers have even requested that he turn back half-way; they complained that the trip simply took too long.

We continued. As he drove us to our destination, he pointed out row after row of new but mostly empty apartment buildings.

“The real estate folks who bought into the housing wave got burned,” Zeng said in Cantonese. “You see, not a whole lot of people live in these apartments. Many of the office flats are vacant as well. They built too much, too quickly. Are you on an investment trip?”

As soon as the cab pulled up to the mall, I understood what the driver had said. The front entrance the outdoor shopping walk has a few chains restaurants — a McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Kung Fu, the ubiquitous Chinese fast food chain. Off to the side, are a spa and a grocery store. But beyond that, though, there is literally nothing. The four stories of retail space above these stores are completely vacant — and that is only the front section of the mall.

Beyond the street-side shops is a vast expanse of unused commercial space, lined up along a faux Venice canal where gondolas carry no one other than the operators. A drop zone ride shoots up and down a tall tower without any riders. The only signs of excitement come from a few families standing below, occasionally shrieking at the unexpected drop of the ride above. The small amusement park of the mall, with its largely carnival rides, is the only place that shows any sign of consumer life in the mall.

“What’s going on here?” I asked one of the mothers who was watching her children play near the canal. “Oh, this section is not finished. Walk further down that way and you’ll see more.” I did, but found nothing but an electronics shop and a grocery store. Maybe she thought I was shopping for groceries, or maybe she was doing her part to make her neighborhood’s huge landmark seem a bit less desolate. Either way, I did not find anything resembling even remotely like the world’s biggest mall.

Of the approximately 1500 retail spaces, there are two or three small stores opened for business. Among them is the Polo of Britain store staffed by a sharp but friendly woman named Ms. Xia. Excited about seeing potential customers, she greeted me quickly while holding a baby.

“He’s not mine,” she said. “I’m just baby-sitting for a friend.”

I asked about the eerie silence in her section of the mall. Polo of Britain is surrounded on all sides by glass doors to empty spaces. Two escalators run up and down, escorting no one. “The developers have all failed miserably,” she said. “We just had a typhoon, so there are now fewer people, but not by much. There used to be a store down the hall, but that’s gone too.”

Later, when I returned to my hotel room in Guangzhou, about a thirty-minute ride from Dongguan’s train station, I searched on the Internet for some information to clear up my baffling visit to South China Mall. Two months ago Ms. Xia was interviewed by a journalist an Abu Dhabi-based e-paper called The National. It turns out, back in June, she was doing exactly the same thing—taking care of her friend’s baby and playing cards to pass time at the shop

After the hour-and-a-half visit, and after weeks of many Chinese meals, my traveling companion and I were looking forward to Italian dining at South China Mall’s Venice section. We settled for the closest thing available: chicken sandwiches at KFC before the long ride back to the train station.

The absurdity of the elaborate and empty mall hit home as we looked out the large windows of the bus. The shining but often empty apartment complexes and office buildings near the big mall quickly gave way to the factories, supply stores, and slums that still define the urban scene of Dongguan. Pass downtown and every block is lined with square factories and wholesalers for products like industrial-size knitting machines. At stops along the route, workers who probably make the clothes and products that fill so many malls around the world climbed in and out.

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Partly thanks to a distorted narrative of China that continues to color the discussion in the media and the policy realm, a sizable segment of the American population will likely continue to believe that the United States is on an irreversible road to decline and losing the economic race to China. And as such we will likely continue to see, during election cycles, unnecessarily paranoid political ads that are, at best, offensive and, at worst, a mockery of the values that define America.

History, however, teaches us that nothing man-made is inevitable—not a country’s greatness, nor the march toward it. An obsession with inevitability will only cloud the judgment and our ability to make appropriate policy responses. In the end, for journalists who shape public dialogue and policy makers who guide the country forward, bear in mind that an honest and realistic assessment of China’s internal challenges is crucial if we are to understand Beijing’s intentions and insecurity, its policies’ impact on the globalized economy, and, ultimately, what type of power it will be within the existing international system of governance.

Anka Lee is a Truman Security Fellow.