Walk around the old precincts of Beijing and you may notice something – unlike the more modern parts of China's capital, the buildings that line its ancient alleyways are not very tall, no more than six metres in height to be precise. The reason for this dates back to ancient times, when tall buildings were effectively banned in the city.

In those days, the privilege of elevated living was reserved exclusively for the emperor, whose ceremonial court in centre of the Forbidden City (below) reached a height of 28 metres. For an ordinary subject to have built their own house anywhere near that height would have been an unthinkable taboo and subject to severe punishment.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, which housed the Ming and Qing emperors (Britannica).

These low-rise policies of Beijing's past have an interesting continuity with its recent modes of governance. More than a century since China's imperial system was toppled, the construction of tall buildings remains a highly sensitive topic for the country's ruling powers, who earlier this year announced a nationwide ban on super-tall skyscrapers.

The ban, introduced on April 27 by the government bodies in charge of housing and development policy, ordered that buildings could not exceed 500 metres in height, nor could they be "copycats" of existing structures. Projects in cities including Suzhou and Chengdu have now been swiftly scaled back as a result. It comes after a directive two years earlier had already restricted new buildings to a mere 180 metres in Beijing.

The question is 'why'? With half of the world's ten tallest skyscrapers, China is a world leader in super-tall constructions, which have become a symbol of its construction capabilities and economic strength. But delve deeper and it becomes clear how problematic such projects have become for the Chinese government, and why it wants to avoid further headaches in the future.

The 'Bottle Opener' and Shanghai Tower pierce through the Shanghai skyline.

One need only look at the examples of recent showpiece structures like the 632-metre Shanghai Tower, the world's second tallest building after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Although an impressive landmark, the project was a financial failure that ultimately required state funds to be completed and has since struggled to attract tenants.

Just next to it stands the Shanghai World Financial Center, commonly referred to as the 'Bottle Opener', thanks to its unusual trapezoid aperture. This curious appearance resulted from a change to the original design, which had a circular aperture deemed too similar to the flag of Japan, Shanghai's occupier during World War 2.

Then there's the new giant of Beijing, known officially as the CITIC Tower (after its primary investor, CITIC Group) or commonly as the China Zun (中国尊) for its resemblance to a traditional zun wine vessel. The skyscraper is so tall it can be seen from far-flung corners of the capital, including the once-hallowed higher ground of the Forbidden City, below.

The China Zun viewed from the Forbidden City (Wikimedia Commons).

The China Zun has been problematic for several reasons. First, although it was approved by Beijing's municipal authorities, the national government were supposedly not aware of its existence until after it had started to tower over the city. By that point, though, it was too late, too impractical and too embarrassing for the project to be cancelled. In effect, a tower of imperial proportions had been built without the permission of the present-day emperor!

In addition to that significant loss of face, authorities took issue with the China Zun on security grounds, concerned that the tower's extreme heights made it possible for people to see all the way into the Communist Party's Zhongnanhai compound ten kilometres away. As a result, the government reportedly took possession of the top floors and halted plans for a public observation deck.

Although it was eventually topped out in 2017, problems have persisted for the China Zun, which is still not fully open or operational over three years later. A contact who works in the area told me that this continued delay is mainly because the rest of the surrounding site is still under construction, which means that the China Zun lacks the utilities and access routes needed to sustain a higher rate of occupancy and foot traffic.

Construction barriers and partial illumination at night reveal how the China Zun and its neighbouring buildings remain largely idle.

While some of these towers have reached completion, other plots remain empty and undeveloped. Most prominent among these is a site that belonged to China's former insurance giant, Anbang Group, before it was taken into government custody in 2018 over allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement. The plots were subsequently transferred to Sino-Ocean, a state-owned enterprise, but little has happened since then.

The following photos show how the China Zun and other towers have mushroomed around the empty site that formerly belonged to Anbang. (Hint: it's the patch of green towards the bottom right-hand corner.)

This site – the last piece of untouched land in Beijing's central business district (or "CBD"), one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world – is little more than a patch of overgrown weeds! It's the latest in a long list of stalled projects in the CBD, which contains numerous vacant plots and half-finished buildings.

Other examples include the Beijing Television Cultural Centre (below left), which was designed to house studios, cinemas and a a 241-room hotel, but has remained empty following a 2009 fire. The structure was deemed unusable but also impossible to demolish safely because of its proximity to the CCTV Tower, aka the 'Big Pants'.

Another site just down the road contains the concrete frame of an unfinished tower, which has been stalled for several years.

It is expensive, failed building projects like these which explain China's latest ban on super-tall constructions. But there are also other factors at play. Within Beijing, one of the key drivers is a plan to limit the capital's population to 23 million by the end of 2020, relocating many of the city's functions to new sub-centres in Tongzhou and Xiongan.

Another factor is a growing international consensus on super-tall structures, which sees them as inefficient, both to construct and to operate. By capping towers at 500 metres nationally, and 180 metres in Beijing, China's new constructions are more likely to be economically viable spaces, rather than showpieces for competitive local governments.

Material concerns aside, there is also a political logic behind Beijing's turn away from super-tall buildings. In recent years, China's leadership under Xi Jinping has called on the country to have confidence in its own culture, rather than blindly follow Western models. Yet the skyscraper forms which have come to dominate Chinese cityscapes were indeed born in the West, most notably amid the urban boom of North America.

What's more, most of China's tallest buildings have been conceived of by foreign architects. The China World towers in Beijing are a prime example; designed by British, Japanese and American firms, the structures took cues from the iconic twin towers of the original One World Trade Centre in New York City. The China Zun was designed by New York-based Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates.

This Western-inspired architectural form has thus become something of an eyesore for Beijing's top leadership, which now seeks a more indigenously "Chinese" development model. Previously, China's landmark constructions had sought to mitigate this problem by incorporating distinctive architectural apertures, as demonstrated by the Big Pants, the Shanghai Tower, and the Guangzhou Circle, below.

The Guangzhou Circle (Xuehua News).

But since President Xi Jinping expressed his disdain for these "weird buildings" in 2014, China's trend of erecting eye-catching architectural marvels came to an abrupt end. And it is likely not just because of their "non-Chinese" character, but also the immense wealth and status that they represent. In recent years, Beijing's priorities have pivoted decisively away from wealth creation towards poverty alleviation, making these symbols of extravagance politically untenable.

In this way, constructions that were once meant to be monuments of China's economic success may end up being reminders of successive failures. First, the failure of unreliable economic actors like the disgraced insurance giant Anbang. Second, the failure of inefficient planning models that result in underutilised and abandoned spaces. Third, the failure of a political economy which led sub-national governments to prioritise showpiece architecture over much-needed poverty alleviation.

Two of the starkest examples of such failures exist in Wuhan and Tianjin, where half-built, disproportionately tall towers have been paused indefinitely. Here's a shot of the latter, the unfinished Goldin Finance 117 tower in Tianjin, viewed from a passing train.

These 'ghost towers' have drawn unflattering comparisons with North Korea's "Hotel of Doom", pictured below, a 330-metre Orwellian pyramid in Pyongyang which was never finished and has been an empty shell for the last three decades.

The Ryuyong Hotel in Pyongyang (Outpost Magazine).

If the evolving fate of skyscrapers in China teaches us one thing, it's how the country's semi-marketized economy remains highly distorted by top-down policy and politics, a fact which can bring enormous benefits but also incur huge costs. On the one hand, Beijing's state-led economic model has enabled the completion of ambitious mega-projects like the Shanghai Tower, that probably no other country or economic entity on earth could dare attempt.

On the other hand, many of China's architectural marvels have not been an efficient use of land or capital, and have deprived areas of much greater need. For that reason above all, it appears that Beijing's golden era of skyscrapers may have quietly come to an end. And as the pandemic continues to reduce demand for urban office space globally, we may have passed the peak of super-tall construction not just in China, but across the world.