In China, bet on forgotten cities to get a good real estate deal

(AFP) – To buy a cheap apartment, Fontana Fang had to go looking for it far away: it is in northern China, near the Russian border, that she has found her happiness… 4,000 kilometers from her home.

In China’s big cities, “unless you’re from the elite, I don’t see how young people can earn enough to buy a house,” sighs this 29-year-old woman, who works in marketing.

Like her, many young people scared by property prices choose to buy in remote and declining industrial regions, where it is still possible to own a home.

Fontana lives in Guangzhou with her husband and their two children, but the apartment is owned by the couple’s parents.

In this megalopolis of 15 million inhabitants in the south of the country, a square meter generally exceeds 100,000 yuan (12,400 euros), a price unaffordable for many.

But last winter, Fontana discovered Hegang, a mining town in the northeast where temperatures were then around minus 20 degrees.

In this smaller town (population 1.4 million), the couple had to pay just 40,000 yuan (5,000 euros) for a top-floor apartment with a covered balcony and stunning hillside views.

Their project? Renovate it to make it their second home, when they want to escape the sweltering Canton summers.

“I was incredibly surprised. I didn’t expect to be able to buy a house for so little”, exults Fontana.

– “Doing nothing” –

Cities like Hegang, China has hundreds of them, with a rich industrial past but now forgotten.

Such is the case for Fuxin, in Liaoning province (northeast), or Rushan, in Shandong (east), which have seen their population decline since the 1980s, as government reforms have shifted China’s economic focus towards the southern and eastern coasts.

Hegang lost 15% of its inhabitants between 2010 and 2020, according to official data.

Now these declining cities are appealing to the younger generation, attracted by low property prices and relaxed, affordable lifestyles.

A young man who bought an apartment for 68,000 yuan in Gejiu, a mining town in southwestern Yunnan, told AFP he did it “mainly to have nothing to do”.

It refers to the so-called “tang ping” (literally, “lie down”) attitude, a counterculture that has emerged in recent years in China that encourages young people to do as little as possible and reject social pressures related to work.

Leaders of the ruling Communist Party strongly criticized this move, saying it went against the values ​​of hard work and innovation.

Gejiu’s new owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had “still not thought about work” since he moved: “I will stay here, live on what little savings I have and find a temporary job in a big city when I have none left.”

– “Fashion will pass” –

During a recent visit by an AFP team to Hegang, street vendors offered fruit, vegetables or biscuits for the equivalent of a few cents, while retirees played cards in front of their houses.

“There’s something spiritual about this slower pace,” notes Kathy Cato, 28, who also just bought an apartment in Hegang.

“In (wealthier) cities we only talk about work and business all day long,” adds the young woman, who previously lived in Xi’an and Zhengzhou, two big cities in the center.

“But people don’t do that too much here, because the probability of making a lot of money is pretty low anyway.”

Hegang had known good fortune in coal mining, but now his finances are bloodless: the municipality is struggling to repay its debts and the government has come to its rescue through a “restructuring” in 2021.

The measure avoided bankruptcy, but the city regularly pays its employees late, according to a local administrator.

For Shen Wenxin, originally from Hegang where he has just moved to open a cafe, “the more people come, the better.”

“But they represent only a small part of the economy,” he adds.

Other residents contacted by AFP also doubt the city’s ability to find a second youth with the newcomers.

Max Chu left Hegang for Beijing when she went to college. He works in the capital and now has no desire to return.

“After a while the trend (of going to these industrial cities, ed.) will pass”, he predicts, “people will forget about it”.

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