Growing Pains In China - What Happens When A City Booms Too Fast

Leiyang at a crossroads
Leiyang at a crossroads

LEIYANG - After working for many years in Foshan, a city in China's manufacturing heartland of Guangdong, Zi Xiaohu and his wife recently decided to move back to his hometown in the central province of Hunan.

The couple's child, who remained behind in the village while the parents worked, is about to start preschool. The couple were unable to find a good school close to their village, so they're thinking of buying an apartment in downtown Leiyang, in the hopes that this will make it easier for their child to get into a decent school.

After spending three days searching for an apartment, they discovered that this small county-level city was becoming more and more like a real city. Buildings over 20-stories tall are now spread throughout the city's crowded streets. Unfamiliar phrases like "CBD" and "central park," that were once only to be heard in large urban centers, now appear in real estate ads.

Leiyang is gradually transitioning from what urban planners define as a medium-sized city to a large city.

Twenty-five years ago, the urban area of Leiyang was only seven square kilometers and had a population under 80,000. Now the urban area has expanded to 46 square kilometers and is home to 460,000 people, making it one of the largest county-level cities in Hunan province.

Although its urban area has already developed into a medium-sized city, most of Leiyang's total population of 1.4 million still, on paper at least, live in rural areas.

At the end of the 1990s, Zi Xiaohu was still in high school. At that time, his school was considered to be on the outskirts of Leiyang's urban district, but now it's surrounded by tall buildings and commercial housing developments. The small city of the past, which you could walk around in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, is already long gone. It has been replaced by a strange new city that hopes one day to develop into a big city.

Most of Leiyang's total population of 1.4 million, in theory, still live in rural areas. The city's urbanization rate - the proportion of residents living in urban areas - is still below the national average. In 2012, China's urbanization rate was 52.6 percent, but Leiyang's was 47.31 percent.

That said, of the one million people in Leiyang who are formally registered as rural residents, fewer than 400,000 of them actually live in rural areas. Close to 400,000 of the city's registered inhabitants have gone to work in the Pearl River Delta and another 200,000 or more are working and living in Leiyang's urban areas.

In the past few years, as the pace of economic expansion in the Pearl River Delta eased, many migrants returned to Leiyang but settled in the urban areas of the county. Because of this new influx of returning migrant workers, further expansion of the city has been put on the agenda of the local government.

Just how fast?

Earlier this year, Hunan Province designated Leiyang as one of seven county-level cities which are to be developed into "large cities" over the next five years. Chinese urban planners define a large city as one with a population of between 500,000 and a million people.

In addition, Hunan officials also announced that 22 county-level cities have been earmarked for development into medium-sized cities, that is with a population of between 200,000 and 500,000 people.

This push to expand the size of smaller cities is taking place in many other parts of China. Aside from Hunan, Anhui and other many provinces have also announced similar plans to develop medium-sized and large cities as part of their recently released urbanization plans.

City planners want to develop Leiyang into a large regional center of southern Hunan. They aim to expand the size of the urban area of Leiyang to 60 square kilometers and lift the population to 600,000 by the end of 2017.

But Xu Huanjie, the former vice chairman of the city's political consultation body, isn't a supporter of what he describes as "great leap forward" expansion.

Xu told the EO that given the current situation in the city, blind expansion of the city should not be allowed to take place for at least the next ten years. Xu argued that it's better to limit the size of Leiyang's urban area to 40 square kilometers, noting that "industrial clusters haven't formed yet, which means it is hard to provide additional employment opportunities or increase the happiness index for people currently living in urban areas."

Xiao Jincheng, deputy director of the National Land Development and Regional Economy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told the EO that urbanization needs to take place in step with industrialization. The level of urbanization or the city's population doesn't depend on the size of the city, the key is whether you have industry and whether you have jobs.

Xu Huanjie seems to share this view. "If there is no industry, why do we need so many people and what will we do with them?"

Zi Xiaohua is still unsure whether he wants to buy a house in downtown Leiyang or not. Zi says he is "being urbanized" and that if there was a decent school in his village, he wouldn't need to buy a house in the city. But the hollowing out of education resources in Leiyang's rural areas has already taken place.

Traffic jams

The number of primary and secondary schools in rural areas has been declining and individual primary school classes in rural area now have as few as 30 to 40 pupils. The urban areas of Leiyang however are now having to deal with a huge increase in student numbers. The average size of a class in many schools is now in excess of 90 students.

A lack of teachers in urban areas led the city's education bureau to make the controversial decision in 2010 to transfer 167 teachers from rural to urban schools. This erupted into a widely-reported scandal after the deputy director of the city's education bureau was arrested for receiving bribes from teachers. Commentators also raised questions about what the decision meant for the quality of education in rural areas.

It's not only education resources that are being stretched by the city's expansion, residents also complain about power and water outages.

A worker at the Leiyang Water Company told the EO that the city had been running short of water from 2006. Until a second water treatment plant was opened in January 2012, the city relied on only one plant for its tap water. In 2009, that plant was capable of supplying about 30,000 tons of water a day, or enough to meet the demands of about 50,000 people. At that time the city had over 300,000 people. Most people had to rely on digging wells to get water.

Leiyang is also starting to experience its first traffic jams. There are a lack of parking places in the city center for the more than 100,000 vehicles on the city's roads and traffic jams are now common as cars have no choice but to park on the road. The city's public transport system is also very limited, with a total of 272 buses operating along 12 routes. The road to big-city status is messy indeed.

Translated by Zhu Na and Pang Lei

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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