The rows of towering buildings crowding the banks of the Gan River are a testament to the real estate boom that transformed Nanchang in eastern China from a gritty manufacturing hub to a modern urban center.
Now those skyscrapers are evidence of something very different: China’s real estate market in crisis, reeling after years of overbuilding.
As China’s economy prospered the last two decades, Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, erected sweeping apartment complexes and gleaming office towers to meet the increasing demand for homes and workplaces. It pursued urban expansion with a motto that underscored its growth-at-all-costs approach: “Advance eastward, extend southward, expand westward, integrate northward, and prosper in the middle.”
But the country’s prolonged real estate slump has exposed cracks in cities, like Nanchang, where years of nonstop building have created too much supply. By one measure, nearly 20% of homes in Nanchang sit vacant — the highest rate among 28 large and midsize Chinese cities.
Nanchang illustrates the enormous challenges policymakers face in trying to revive China’s economy. During past downturns, Beijing turned to real estate and infrastructure spending to jump-start the economy. But this time, it won’t be an easy fix. Developers are saddled with debt, cities are teeming with empty dwellings, and local government finances are depleted from years of paying for COVID testing.
Many of Nanchang’s newest apartments remain empty because developers ran out of money and did not finish building already-sold units. Some homeowners are refusing to pay mortgages until their apartments are finished, a nationwide act of dissent that has rattled the Chinese Communist Party.
Over the last year, Beijing and local governments have unleashed incentives to lure home buyers back, urging banks to lend liberally and rolling back curbs that were put in place prepandemic to cool an overheated housing market.
New-home prices in China’s 70 biggest cities rose in each of the first four months of the year, reversing a yearlong slide during the height of COVID restrictions. But the nascent rebound is losing steam. Growth in housing prices slowed in April.
And the recovery has not been evenly dispersed. Prices have roared back in bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai. In second-tier cities, like Nanchang, the rebound has been more muted, and even nonexistent in smaller cities.
China’s housing problems are more pronounced outside the top cities because overbuilding has been more pervasive in smaller cities, according to a paper from Kenneth Rogoff, an economics professor at Harvard, and Yuanchen Yang, an economist at the International Monetary Fund.
Rogoff said that China’s housing boom was predicated on “fast growth forever,” but that in many smaller cities, the economy had not kept pace with the housing build-out.
“China has been building real estate and supporting infrastructure at a breakneck pace for decades,” he said. “Eventually you run into diminishing returns.”
China’s housing boom started in the late 1990s in the biggest cities before spreading to smaller urban areas like Nanchang in the 2000s. In 2000, China built around 2 million apartments. By the mid 2010s, it was building more than 7 million apartments a year. Real estate quickly became the backbone of China’s economy, accounting for around a quarter of all activity.
The sector created jobs, supported the finances of local governments that rented land rights for new buildings and provided one of the few reliable investment options for ordinary Chinese people looking to accumulate wealth. As the economy became more reliant on real estate, Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, cracked down on debt-laden developers and declared that “homes are for living in, not speculation.”
In places like Nanchang, there was more construction than population growth alone could sustain. In the decade before 2021, the annual amount of housing construction in the city roughly doubled while the population increased 25%.
Kuang Wei, a real estate agent for existing homes in Nanchang, said prices in the more remote part of the city where he works had declined steadily, down 25% since 2019.
He expects prices to fall further because so many people are trying to sell. Some are looking to upgrade to newer apartments, while others want to unload investment properties before an expected property tax is enacted. Kuang said around 80% of his clients still refused to cut prices, hoping that the market will rebound.
“The market now is not like what it was many years ago,” he said.
Nanchang’s 20% residential vacancy rate was higher than the 12% average among a nationwide sample, according to an August report by China’s Beike Research Institute. Soaring vacancies garnered a lot of attention because they confirmed that China’s real estate woes were more widespread than Beijing had let on.
After publication, Beike deleted the report, saying that it had collected information “incorrectly” and that the data “did not reflect the actual situation.”
Traditionally, Nanchang’s economy relied on manufacturing and construction. It has tried to bring in better-paying digital economy and technology industry jobs without much success.
Known as the city where Chinese Communist Party rebels first defeated the Nationalists nearly a century ago, Nanchang is surrounded by other cities that are more compelling options for offices.
Nanchang had the same number of buildings higher than 200 meters, or roughly 60 stories, as Beijing in 2022. However, Beijing’s population was three times larger and was the second-biggest city by economic output. Nanchang, by comparison, is 36th. In 2021, the commercial real estate firm JLL said the office vacancy rate in Nanchang was 40%.
Cinderella Fang, 28, was born and raised in Nanchang. When she was growing up, most apartments were in low-slung walk-up buildings, and there were no planned communities. She said the area near her childhood home had transformed into a sprawl of 30-story apartment complexes.
After going to a university in Beijing, Fang returned to Nanchang in 2019 hoping to find some work and possibly buy an affordable home. But she moved to Shanghai after a month, because the only job she could find in Nanchang was a marketing position that paid one-third of what she made in Beijing.
“The job market in Nanchang has not been very good,” Fang said.
Other transplants to Nanchang were drawn to the prospect of reasonably priced apartments and strong public schools — only to encounter developers who could not deliver the homes they promised.
Shortly after her daughter was born in 2019, Andie Cao, who lives and works in Shanghai, bought an unfinished apartment in Nanchang. It was closer to her hometown in the Chinese countryside, and she planned to move after the developer was set to finish the project in late 2021.
But the developer ran into financial problems and stopped construction in July 2021. After continuing to pay the mortgage for a year, Cao and other homeowners staged a mortgage boycott last July.
Cao said that the salespeople had also told her that the apartment was in one of Nanchang’s more established districts with good schools, but that it was actually zoned for a neighboring, less developed area on the city’s outskirts.
“Everyone was deceived,” she said. “Otherwise, why would there be so many people buying a home in the suburbs?”
She said she was continuing to boycott, because the homes were still unfinished. She said the police had visited her parents to tell Cao to stop speaking out. The banks are now suing some of her boycotting neighbors.
“It’s like an egg being smashed against a rock,” Cao said. “I didn’t expect this kind of thing to happen to ordinary people like us.”
Zou Shengji, a real estate broker in Nanchang, said the negative publicity about the unfinished apartments had left many potential homebuyers “afraid and worried.”
During the Labor Day holidays in early May, usually a busy time for home sales, Zou’s team sold fewer than 20 apartments, he said. It sold triple that amount in the same period two years ago.
Potential clients say they will come see the apartments but don’t show up, he said. Clients are reluctant to buy because real estate feels too risky at the moment.
“Many people are sitting on the fence now,” Zou said. “It’s possible that homes will be really difficult to sell in the future.”