The Value of Emptiness:
Zhengzhou’s empty houses and the PRC’s housing bubble
Is there a housing bubble in the People’s Republic of China?
Abstract: With increasing regularity, scholars, commentators, and journalists writing in English can be counted on to use the existence of empty houses to argue that the current real estate market is a bubble just about to burst. Nevertheless, these claims (and claims like them) have been being made for nearly 15 years now, and the Chinese housing market has yet to “pop” in a way remotely comparable to the housing market crash of 2007 and 2008 in the United States. In this article, I draw on 24 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted among real estate professionals, wealthy entrepreneurs, and aspiring homeowners in Zhengzhou, Henan as well as papers from economics to argue three points. First, I show that the use of empty houses as an indicator of bubble-ness is misguided in the PRC where there is no holding cost for residential property. Second, I show that keeping houses empty has a particular cultural significance in unpredictable Zhengzhou, where empty houses are seen in opposition to nonexistent houses rather than to occupied houses. Finally, I make a connection between empty houses in the PRC and unoccupied luxury condos, apartments, and mansions in markets like Vancouver to show how the PRC’s “pressure cooker” market is exporting the empty house as a cultural artifact.