Iron bubbles: Exploring optimism in China’s modern ghost cities

Michael Alexander Ulfstjerne


Financial bubbles are generally understood retrospectively as ruptures or bursts, indexing some form of radical change. Conversely, this article proposes that when engaged ethnographically, bubbles are premised upon a collectively imagined continuity. Empirically, I unpack investment rationales in the wake of a local resource boom in a high-growth region in Inner Mongolia. Among interlocutors, anticipated price increases in property investments were not considered as speculation; investments were not hopes of a radically different future. Rather, they were imaginative ways of pulling a future of continuous growth into the present. What I relate as a present continuous. I argue that optimism understood through this temporal sensibility does not serve to freeze time but instead dictates continuity as the only possible kind of change. Finally, I suggest that collective efforts to adhere to the temporality of the bubble were also actively contributing to its collapse.


ethnography, financial bubbles, optimism, hope, ghost cities, China

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/706760