In his 2001 book, River Town, Peter Hessler writes of his visit to Xinjiang, and the city of Hami, where he finds an entire new city recently built by a state-owned oil company:
It was literally a city – schools, hospitals, shops, apartment buildings; everything was neatly laid out on well-planned streets that had been desert wasteland but four years ago. There were fifty thousand employees who worked there, all of them Han Chinese who had been shipped in from Gansu province. When I went to the market, people mistook me for a Uighur, because they had seen so few of the locals. The Chinese rarely left the complex; everything they needed was provided by their oil-built oasis in the desert. And yet the city was a mirage. There wasn’t much oil in Hami… All of it was a mystery – why had they built the city here in the desert? Why had all of these people been transferred out to this desolate place? What were they looking for? In five hundred years, wouldn’t it be like the Great Wall, money and work buried in the sand? What was it about the Chinese that made them come slightly unhinged in the border regions – what inspired them to build walls, forts, cities; why did they construct Ozymandian monstrosities in the far reaches of their country? And what prevented them from actually talking with the people who lived there?
An extension of this theme is offered in a couple reports by Al Jazeera’s China correspondent Melissa Chan. In 2009 she visited the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos – built in just 5 years with the intent of housing some one million new residents – and filed this report:
Chan’s report offers some compelling answers to the questions raised in the passage by Hessler above. Recently, she returned to Ordos and found that despite the fact that few people had actually moved to Ordos, the building continues: