06/01/2020 No. 156
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Rethink the Real Estate Issues in China
By Hu Zipu Translator Sheng-Wei Wang
May 1, 2010

After several visits to the motherland, on the one hand I was happy and proud of the achievements obtained during the country's economic takeoff; on the other hand, I had a strong concern deep in my heart, in particular, about the current overheated real estate market. Whenever I expressed my anxiety before my friends in China, they would try to relieve my concern. However, this has not alleviated my worry. During this New Year's Day occasion I decided to write down some of my thoughts and ask people to think. I wish that my worry is unfounded.


In a short time housing prices in major cities have risen to over ten thousand yuan per square meter (over US$136/per square foot; 1 square meter is about 11 square feet and 1 yuan is about US$0.15). This means that a typical new housing unit (100 square meters or 1,100 square feet) would cost at least a million yuan (close to US$150,000). For people with a normal income, this requires a wealth accumulation of three generations. The TV series, “Dwelling Narrowness," pointed out sharply the problem that the price does not match the per capita income. This series has aroused a great deal of social repercussions in China, especially among the younger generations, because they are the biggest victims of these high housing prices. If this problem can not be well resolved, it will pave the way for an economic crisis like that seen recently in the U.S.

Although expensive, the quality of these housing units is not impressive. Because the houses for sale are unfinished units, buyers must do their utmost to install the best possible interior decorations. But for the common areas, the real estate developers try everything to save funds. Hence, the corridors are mostly of gray cement, the stairs are narrow and steep, and multilevel buildings with six floors have no elevators. With the improvement of living standards, people tend to have higher requirements for exterior appearance of the units, public facilities, energy-saving features, etc. But it would be very difficult and expensive to improve these high-rises that emerged from the ground like mushrooms. Now Shanghai is making changes to incline the roofs of many flat-topped buildings. Maybe a few years later exterior elevators will be installed. Also, to save energy, insulation layers may have to be added to external walls, while old windows and doors will be in need of replacement, and so on. Huge bills will be sent to homeowners one after another and they will indeed become house slaves. This would be a harsh reality.

Concerning the idea of China's future urban housing, I also have views that differ from a lot of people. China is still a developing country. It should stay modest and prudent on its path towards a moderately prosperous society. The United States is a wealthy developed country. To live their kind of life is the dream of many Chinese people. But as they march toward a moderately prosperous life, people should reduce their blindness and ask a few more questions. China has a large population and relatively little useful land. If every family in big cities had a housing unit of more than 100 square meters, this would not fit China's national conditions. We still have to wait for history to judge the Americans’ lifestyle of going out by car and staying inside with air-conditioning on. I have never understood why Chinese people who can get organized easily and live in peace with neighbors could not implement the European-style housing. In Europe the general housing area of urban nuclear families is far less than 100 square meters. But people do not feel at all tight and crowded. Most of the ground floors of the buildings have common washing machines and a room for drying clothes. Each unit has a small storage space downstairs for stacking things not frequently used. The public areas are always clean. Either someone is hired or the individual units take shifts to do the cleaning work. The same can be said about heating and hot water. Regardless of whether the heat is supplied by the building owner, the building district or the state energy company, the individual consumption cost is based on the housing area. China now adopts the approach of a hot water heater for each home, and each unit has its own independent method for calculating air-conditioning usage. This has led to great waste of money and energy!


Maybe, when people progress towards a moderately prosperous life, it is inevitably a bit hard to avoid being blind. Well, if the real estate development companies did not only seek profit and the department in charge really called the shots for the people, many of the problems would not be difficult to solve.

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Professor Hu Zipu was born in 1944 in Chongqing, Sichuan Province, and graduated from the Physics Department of the University of Science and Technology of China in 1967. During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, she worked and lived in the army reclamation farms and remote areas of the southwest and in factories. She returned to the University of Science and Technology of China in 1978 as a lecturer, then was promoted to associate professor in 1988. From 1983 to 1985, she was a visiting scholar at the University of Houston and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1989 she visited Germany and has lived there until now. In 2008 she published her German novel Tong Xian (《彤县》), which reported on China's intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution.
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