A workman helps recreate the mountain of idyll of Hallstatt, complete with a lake, concert hall and luxury homes
We are on a dirt track snaking its way uphill through rice paddies and groves of yellow bamboo. Behind us, spread out across a vast, smoggy plain, are the homes of tens of millions of dirt-poor migrant workers who struggle to earn a living in some of the most polluted cities on the planet: Huizhou, Dongguang, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the clustered sweatshops of southern China. Yet there in front of us, as we turn a final corner through the dust, is an Alpine vision.
A neo-Gothic church rises like a mirage. It is surrounded by the spotless wooden roofs of well-tended chalets, scores of them, a picture-postcard village set beside an artificial lake. Welcome to Hallstatt, the UNESCO-listed Austrian resort. Welcome to Hallstatt, China.
Never afraid to ‘borrow’ or imitate, Chinese planners have now designed what might be called the ultimate counterfeit: a settlement copied wholesale for the benefit of wealthy industrialists and located just an hour or so by chauffeur-driven limousine from their grim factories in the smoky distance.
News of the plans for a fake version of the idyllic lakeside village generated a mixture of astonishment, amusement and even a little outrage last summer when it was revealed that ‘spies’ from a Chinese developer had been secretly preparing detailed blueprints on furtive European trips, posing as tourists.
Six months later, as the villas near completion and the developers still smart at the controversy, we decided to play the Chinese at their own game by posing as buyers, the first Westerners to set foot inside this new settlement.
'You won’t find anything like this anywhere else,’ the young salesman tells us brightly as we stood looking out across the man-made lake at the resort. It looks a good deal muddier than the sparkling original.
'This is the only genuinely Austrian town in the whole of China.’
The real thing: The genuine Austrian Christuskirche which has been ripped off by the Chinese
No expense has been spared. The original buildings have been copied and reproduced with startling precision.
Horse-drawn carriages and flocks of white doves will be imported to lend authenticity. The prices are amazing, too: a new villa here built in the style of a 300-year-old lakeside home is being offered at between £200,000 and £500,000, higher than the real thing in Austria.
There is, however, a flaw in this otherwise impressive feat of construction: no one is buying.
China’s real-estate market, booming as recently as last summer, has gone into freefall. For the moment at least, Hallstatt, Austria, will keep the prize for visitor numbers.
This sudden reversal of fortune might generate a few wry smiles among lovers of the original. But the state of the Chinese property market is no laughing matter; in fact it has caused waves of alarm as the world’s second biggest economy heads for a crisis of confidence.
China is growing at its slowest pace for more than two years and property prices, which have grown fivefold in the past decade, are projected to shrink by as much as one fifth in the next year to 18 months. The price of new homes in China fell for the third consecutive month last December, official statistics show, with annual growth in real-estate investment slowing to its weakest pace for a year.
The property ‘bubble’ is a source of grave anxiety for economists and a potential disaster for China’s newly monied classes, who for years have snapped up luxury homes, often leaving them empty to preserve their treasured ‘brand new’ status, apparently secure in the knowledge their value could only rise.
Unable to invest abroad (the regime does not permit individuals to send money out of China) and with precious few options for domestic investment, tycoons and middle-class buyers have put their faith and their money in real estate. And this, in turn, has become one of the engines driving China’s extraordinary development.
Finding that so much of China’s ‘growth’ is paper profit based on empty bricks and mortar is scarcely better news for us in the beleaguered West. China’s expansion has fuelled the global economy, driving demand for raw materials and creating an enormous appetite for consumer goods and foreign luxuries.
When he visited Asia this month, Chancellor George Osborne spoke of China’s critical role in keeping the world afloat and of his desire to see wealthy Chinese buy imported ‘Rolls-Royces made in Sussex, Bentleys made in Crewe, and Burberry clothes manufactured in Yorkshire’.
The China Investment Corporation, a state-controlled sovereign wealth fund, immediately obliged by purchasing nearly nine per cent of the company behind Thames Water. And in this most auspicious of Chinese new years – the Year of the Dragon – there is no doubt that individual consumers would like to follow suit.
The US Congress moved closer to punishing China for allegedly manipulating its currency, as a key committee of the House of Representatives voted to advance legislation that could