China’s top mayors locked in bizarre battle developing extravagant vanity projects

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There is a mixture of extremes when it comes to grand building projects in China. On the one hand, there is Soviet-style functionality, but in the other extreme, there are outlandish efforts that push most forcibly against the boundaries of good taste. One example, is the mayor of the central Chinese city of Datong, called Geng Yanbo, who bulldozed 200,000 homes in 2015 for his dream to reconstruct the 14th century Ming Dynasty walls of the Old City.

In the throat-burning air and the pea-soup skies of the central coal-mining city of Datong the mayor’s ambitions went unchecked until he was reappointed to the city of Taiyuan.

Philip Enquist, who heads the urban planning group at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill told the Chicago Tribune: “In China, they go all one way or all the other way, there is no middle ground.”

There is a combination of bitter party infighting, competitiveness, spare industrial capacity and underused labour force that create the conditions for a boom in some eccentric building projects.

Other examples of these projects include a replica of the US White House in Jiangsu province and a town of peculiar Edwardian houses outside of Shanghai.

The world’s most populous country has also seen a re-creation of the Great Sphinx that was demolished in 2016 after a complaint from the Egyptian government, only for it to be rebuilt two years later in the same spot.

In Hunan province, the mayor has transformed the town of Shazhou into a “red museum”.

The official spent a small fortune transforming the village of Shazhou into an open-air museum dedicated to the Chinese Communist Party.

But few tourists have come to peer at the inscription at the foot of Mao’s statue, or take selfies in front of the heroes of the revolution.

The “red tourism” project was the brainchild of the former Communist Party chief of the local county, Rucheng, and cost 300 million yuan, £33 million.

The “red tourism” project has yet to produce a profit, just like the string of public gardens, town squares and office buildings that the county has built in recent years.

Now the clock is ticking as Rucheng, among China’s poorest counties, and with a population of just 420,400 people, is under pressure to resolve the massive debt, following a decade of credit-fuelled vanity projects.

To raise funds and conserve cash, Rucheng, which doesn’t have a train station or an airport, has been slashing public investment in infrastructure projects and increasing government land sales to generate revenue.

Another bizarre building project can be seen in the town of Tianducheng in Zhejiang Province has as its central feature a 108-metre-tall (354-foot) replica of the Eiffel Tower.

Surrounding this are 12 square miles of Parisian style architecture, fountains, and landscaping.

Beijing has since tried to curtail direct borrowing by local governments for such projects, but officials have found ways around the curbs.

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White elephant projects built by local governments have proliferated across China and left many ghost towns and follies in their wake.

The Chinese government has pledged to impose tougher regulations on planning permission to curb the extravagance.

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