Inside the world's largest ghost mall, America finds schadenfreude and comfort for its fears of a Chinese century

It's hard to say what's more interesting about this video in which a CNN reporter tours the New South China Mall, the largest mall in the world when it was built five years ago, now a deserted ghost-mall. On the one had, there's the "eerie urban landscape" of the mall itself, and on the other, there's the comforting, sinophobic narrative of the clip: "China's economy is huge and growing, America's is contracting, but look, it's all smoke and mirrors! The Chinese growth is just an illusion!"

The New South China Mall was once promoted as the world's biggest mall, but it's now pretty much deserted.


  1. I lived in Beijing for six months in 2007, and at that time there more big shopping centers in Beijing per capita than anywhere else in the world — more than New York, more than Paris.  I didn’t live in a particularly fancy part of town, but there were three giant department store style  complexes within walking distance of my apartment.  All three were mostly empty.

    There’s a lot of logrolling in the Chinese economy, and from what I heard, their construction was heavily subsidized.  The contractors moved on — perhaps to build more malls elsewhere — and the grand structures they built failed to attract enough tenants to survive.

    I don’t know what became of those three places — any one of them would’ve been the most impressive shopping spot in most midsize american cities had they been full — and I don’t know how representative this is of the rest of China’s economy.

    It’s an interesting story, though, and I’m not sure why it’s being tarred as Sinophobic.  There’s a lot of corruption related bullshit in China, and it’s worth pointing out.

    1. A nontrivial fraction of bigots people on the internet are apparently incapable of distinguishing between peoples and their governments. I guess if they had to treat other cultures as faces with names and lives, it would cut into the high they get tilting at the pretend mythical dragons of pre-school geography where each a every race and civilization is composed of a single unvaried mind and will.

      1.  Sure, there’s bigots everywhere.

        But government subsidized overbuilding in China is a real story, and one that hasn’t gotten much play in the west.  There was a really good Al Jazeera story on a whole city that was built from nothing and is now pretty much a ghost town.  (The correspondent was subsequently deported after subsequently doing a piece on off the record jails.)

        If linking isn’t allowed I apologize and please remove it, but here’s the Al Jazeera piece on the brand new ghost city:

        1. Oh, I agree. I was criticizing confusing criticism of the PRC’s economic policies with sinophobia. Or, for that matter, describing America (or any other multifaceted culture) as having fears or schadenfreude. Some Americans have fears about Chinese growth. Some Chinese have unsustainable economic visions that become PRC policy. Neither America nor China have either.

          And frankly, that’s the sort of broad-brush constructed narrative that I expect the Charles Kane’s of the corporate media to paint with, not Cory, who I expect to be less careless and more incisive. So when I see Cory conflating criticism of China’s economic policies with sinophobia, I say something, because I fully believe Cory is receptive to honest criticism, that he is, in fact, not a bigot, and that he can distinguish between peoples and their governments. All I am asking is that he does so when writing his headlines and blog entries.

          1.  It’s hard to resolve liking a place so much in the full knowledge that it is responsible for so many horrible and ridiculous things. Lashing out at America from time to time is just a mechanism for coping with this internal contradiction.

          2. Who said anything about liking? I think you may be missing my point. If I say America is afraid or China is ambitious or France is tired, it wouldn’t mean a damn thing. But that rarely stops pundits and journalists from that sort of lazy anthropomorphization, and it’s that kind of nameless, faceless Us and Them erasure of complexity which leads to many of the horrible and ridiculous things done in the name of nations and their peoples by their governments. Blogger or not, Cory is a journalist and one I respect, and I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to expect him to not reduce entire civilizations to caricatures, American or otherwise.

          3.  I meant Cory likes a lot about America, but feels compelled to trash it from time to time.

          4. Oh. I really only mentioned that as an aside. I was considerably more disturbed by his equating criticism of PRC economic policy with sinophobia, as it suggests that China is the Communist Party and not the billion Chinese citizens and their culture. I saw a parallel between the tendency to conflate other countries with their governments, something I see many of my fellow Americans do regularly, often for the same reason I suspect Cory did…not thinking it through. I assume zero malice on his part and generally like to give people the benefit of the doubt, despite my argumentative nature.

        2. This was covered in the US too – the NYT did a piece similar to Al Jazeera’s and there were others as well. That’s not to say it was “well covered” but it wasn’t completely unnoticed.

          It’s an interesting story, not so much for the waste and corruption (which certainly is worth noting) but for the way the China managed to stave off recession through a stimulus package that was about twice the size of that of the US (by % of GDP). That’s the part I don’t think gets enough attention in the news, especially now that we’re in this “sequester” that nobody seems to care about unless their plane gets delayed. If the US stimulus had spent at the same level as China, maybe our recession wouldn’t have been nearly so bad, and maybe our infrastructure would actually be sufficiently rebuilt to actually drive growth in the future.

          1.  At least we HAD a stimulus unlike the poor bastards in the eurozone.  I’m kind of surprised that I haven’t seen any kind of news covering serious analysis of a comparison of spending as % of GDP compared to economic performance during the great recession. 

            It seems that Keynesian nay-sayers, from the World Bank on down are trying to backtrack without being called out.

          2. Yes, the US is not free of waste or corruption – we have our own bridges-to-nowhere and other pork projects, but it’s not nearly as bad as it is in China. And given how bad our infrastructure is, I’m sure there are plenty of projects that we could have funded that would have made both the economy and our country stronger and more capable.

      1. But how many chain stores does it have in extremely close proximity to each other? I go to NYC about once a year, which is infrequent enough to make the mallification of most parts of Manhattan really obvious.

  2. It is kind of an illusion though?

    But our meager growth is also an illusion, in the sense that it was built on real wage stagnation and the disappearance of the concept of skilled work down the memory hole.

  3. It’s a bit bogus for CNN to send a reporter out there for a fluff piece on a decrepit mall, but anytime you build the world’s biggest anything, it’s going to attract attention. The piece leaned towards patronizing, but sinophobic is pretty hyperbolic. American industry and consumer brands are driving most of their present growth from the emerging markets, empty malls would normally be something to worry about … except this was a mall built where there was no demand and no supporting demographic. It was just so over all poorly planned that it kind of stinks of some kind of underhandedness that it got built at all. Also, who the hell wants a bigger mall? It’s so damn tedious…

  4. We have some pretty spooky ghost malls in the US as well but their circumstances for having been built is where the real difference is.  
    The PRC Government subsidized so much and now much has been abandoned and wasted.  How much more could have been achieved if they had not subsidized so many millionaires and billionaires in the PRC by building projects like this mall!?

  5. Maybe, and I’m just spitballing here, maybe the success of an entire country’s economy cannot be extrapolated from how crowded one shopping mall is.

    1. Detroit? You mean where they built untold million vehicles, as well as acted as the arsenal of democracy? That one?

      Yes. Essentially the same as a never-been-used mall built with subsidies where there was no demand.

      How about meanwhile, Las Vegas.

  6. 1st, there’s nothing sinophobic about the vid. Second, it is a valid question to ask whether growth for its own sake can be a rational or worthwhile expectation.

  7. Obviously, the real story here is how much more advanced our smoke-and-mirrors technology is compared to their smoke and mirrors technology!

    While the backwards Chinese are soiling their hands by ‘building things’ in order to create unsustainable and destructive illusory growth, our sophisticated financial-services economy was able to produce a nigh-catastrophic amount of unsustainable and destructive illusory growth with a relatively small number of sophisticated knowledge workers!

  8. At least mall walkers have a place to get in some serious exercise without running into those pesky shoppers.

  9. Nothing new here. In the 1970s G.U.M. was the world’s largest store. It was located in the Soviet Union. State run retail doesn’t have to be concerned with efficient use of space, so have at it!

  10. I’m really confused by this whole “Communist” China thing. So, they’re communists who trade with the capitalist world and are focused on boundless economic growth?

    1. Allowing some people to become rich and allowing people to buy products from out of the country, doesn’t really change the degree to which the entire Chinese economy is under direct control of the government.

      1. Right, but not all state-controlled economies are communist in nature. It’s clearly not a “worker’s state” as the state-communists put it, and it has a state, so it’s clearly not anarcho-communist. It’s also not based on worker’s control of production and distribution.

        What I’m trying to get at here is that this is state capitalism and in no way communism, no matter what they call themselves.

  11. I’d consider this mall’s failure evidence for Chinese culture’s relatively more robust resistance to consumerism, and therefore evidence FOR a coming Chinese century. 

    1. Vastly untrue.  China is _extremely_ consumer oriented, especially in the South (where this report was filed).  The cause of this is fairly straightforward: land speculation was rampant because of artificially low interest rates and availability of capital to the connected companies.  For many years, the path to riches was easy: get land, build a mall.

      This ghost mall isn’t so much an indicator of the decline of the Chinese economy, it’s just a point that shows Chinese like good locations and don’t like bad locations.  As cars become more available and the subways penetrate Guangdong, there will be winners and losers.  This one is a loser.

    1. The GDP rate is a little suspect: if you add up the regions, they don’t match the national statistics.  Moreover, other indicators such as electricity usage, coal imports, and steel don’t match up with the reported GDP.

      CNN missed the larger more complex point: this isn’t just schadenfreude over an empty mall (I reject that), it’s actually a datum that shows the corruption and inefficient land allocation in the system (as others have pointed out).

  12. The amusement park outside seems to be thriving though, making it all kind of odd.

  13. One thing I admire about the massive growth in China is that they’re planning for the future, in a big way. That does mean over-building, and in some cases in the wrong place – but population growth is not going to stop, at least not anytime soon.

    And they won’t have the growing pains of US and European cities – important new infrastructure that takes years to get built up to capacity and is immediately outdated, endless compromises due to preexisting developments and infrastructure that can’t be bulldozed, etc. Everything in the US is overcrowded and inefficient, even small towns, and with our political climate that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

    In China, they smartly understand that their future – with their immense population – is going to be even more of a total clusterfuck than ours if they don’t take drastic actions right now, especially as their standard of living gradually rises. That means bulldozing old stuff (as much as I wish that didn’t have to happen), extreme feats of engineering, amazing amounts of infrastructure, and, yes, plenty of misfires along the way. 

    And, assuming the owners don’t let buildings like this decay and fall apart (a big assumption, perhaps), they will see use in the future as the surrounding area grows. If not as a huge shopping area again, some ghost malls in the US are being converted into apartment buildings, for example. Or, in China it’s more likely that these buildings will eventually be indiscriminately bulldozed to put something more useful in its place when the space is needed, wasteful as it may be. 

    1. One thing I admire about the massive growth in China is that they’re planning for the future, in a big way. That does mean over-building…

      You know that there’s this wee problem with low construction standards, bribery and corruption that make it questionable that a five or ten year-old building will be fit for occupancy?

      1.  Minute! We should actually celebrate a government for once preparing for the future rather then playing politic and buying votes.

        maybe the communists were right after all…

        besides.. if you want to fire a shot across the bows; lay off the corruption and building code flaunting and take a look at the cultural repression and hidden jails. :P

  14. It’d be a shame to turn that into an office park. I look at that and think ‘That would be an incredible movie set. At that size, you could film multiple movies at once AND have them look completely different.’

  15. I visited this mall 2 years ago when it had about a dozen shops open (out of 2350 spaces).  This was not a government-sponsored development but a private venture by an instant-noodle billionaire with no real estate development experience.  With construction starting in 2003, this is an example of a society which at that time was still trying to learn capitalism, thereby making colossal mistakes like this along the way.

    More details at .

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