Few Signs of Construction at Yujiapu, China's Manhattan Replica

As President Barack Obama and other world leaders attend the APEC summit in Beijing this week, it's unlikely their proud hosts will take them to see Manhattan — or at least the Chinese version of it.

China's $50-billion knock-off of the Big Apple sits on a river bend — much like its namesake — near the port city of Tianjin, some 120 miles from Beijing. Complete with its own Rockefeller Center and Twin Towers, it's been billed as the world's largest financial center in the making. But this Manhattan still has a long way to go.

Construction has ground to a standstill in Yujiapu, a financial district billed as China's version of Manhattan.
Ian Williams | NBC News
Construction has ground to a standstill in Yujiapu, a financial district billed as China's version of Manhattan.

A recent visit shows that construction that began in 2008 on the back of a massive credit boom unleashed in China after the global financial crisis appears to have ground to a halt. While the stunted version of "Rockefeller Center" and its Twin Towers appeared to be complete — both were empty and fenced off.

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"It's the financial crisis. The impact is big," said one man on the site who preferred not to be identified but said he worked for a transportation company. "I think there are still working on a building over there," he added, pointing down a wide and empty highway, strewn with litter.

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As he spoke, fierce gusts of wind howled around the shells of high-rise buildings lining the road, sending plumes of dust and plastic bags into the air.

Two thick-set security men with shaved heads appeared from the entrance of one building.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry. No, no, no," said one of them, moving to block a camera. "You can't shoot because it is not ready."

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Yujiapu was scheduled for completion in 2019, offering 164 million square feet of office space over an area larger than Manhattan's financial district in a bid to stimulate development of vast residential districts nearby.

Mock-ups of the bright and bustling metropolis envisioned by developers that dot roadside billboards stand in stark contrast to the lifeless cranes beyond, which tell the tale of a building frenzy quickly turning into a bust.

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"They are building stuff that nobody really wants or needs — and there will come a day of reckoning," explained Gillem Tulloch, a Hong Kong-based analyst and managing director of GMT Research who has studied the growth of China's "ghost cities" across the country.

After years of boom, property prices in China are falling and credit conditions are tightening. Government debts have ballooned to 240 percent of GDP, raising alarm among analysts.

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While many economists dismiss the idea of a financial crisis in China's closed economy because ostensibly the government could turn the credit tap back on, Tulloch expressed doubts over whether Beijing can continue to defy economic gravity.

"Our leading economists in the West were lauding the Soviet-style system from the 1950s up until the 1980s," he said. "They were all wrong. I think it's the same with China."

On Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping used the APEC opening to try and reassure about the state of China's slowing economy, saying Beijing has the tools to deal with it, and that it is "not that scary."

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Meanwhile, business appeared to be brisk in Yujiapu's Mommy's Yummy House restaurant though the mood among chain-smoking diners was somber.

When asked about whether business was picking up, the waitress was dismissive. This was the only restaurant to have opened in the area, she barked.

She then brought a "Coca-Cola" to the table. The flat and counterfeit beverage was fitting: a fake coke in a fake Manhattan, in a lonely restaurant at the heart of one of the country's most expensive and ambitious developments, fast turning into its most dramatic ghost city.