STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And let's follow-up on a story from earlier this fall. The European Union, you may recall, asked China for financial help with its debt crisis. China is the EU's largest trading partner, and it's widely thought of as having plenty of savings to invest. But it turns out that the Chinese have a less well-known debt problem of their own. Over the last several years, local governments across China have borrowed a total of about one-and-a-half trillion dollars. They borrowed the money to build infrastructure and prop up economic growth. And some fear that much of the money will never be repaid.
NPR's Frank Langfitt sent this report from Western China.
(SOUNDBITE OF WALKING ON MUDDY ROAD)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm walking along a muddy construction road in Shaanxi Province, and I'm looking at what's supposed a big highway, more than 60 miles long. But, in fact, all that I can see right now is a big slab of concert maybe 100 yards long. There's nothing on either side of it, and it doesn't look like anyone's worked on it in months.
(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOGS)
LANGFITT: Nearby sits a work camp, dotted with abandoned tents. Cui Jinmin ran a crew of about 15 workers here. He explains what happened.
CUI JINMIN: (Through translator) From April until now, the subcontractors on this road haven't been paid any money. There's nothing we can do. The road's owner has no money, and we can only wait.
LANGFITT: The road's owner was the city government of Yan'an, the cradle of China's Communist Revolution. It borrowed from banks to build the highway with an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. When the money ran out, the banks cut the government off. After laboring for months without salary, Cui's workers left in July.
CUI: (Through translator) Right now, they owe our team at least $300,000, and almost the entire project is halted. We've worked for so many years, and this is the worst project we've ever worked on.
LANGFITT: Local officials refuse to discuss the project - part of a massive stimulus program China's government launched in 2008. The purpose: cushion the economy from the global financial crisis. The strategy worked, but in the meantime, many local governments racked up huge debts. Local governments in West China's Gansu Province owe $22 billion - or one-and-a-half times their annual revenue. Next door in Inner Mongolia, the tab is $44 billion. How many projects have crashed like the highway in Shaanxi?
STEPHEN GREEN: Well...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREEN: ...we don't really know, which is the scary thing.
LANGFITT: Stephen Green leads research in greater China for Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong. He says there's so many projects, it's unclear how many have stopped. But Green thinks most won't be able to pay their way.
GREEN: When we look at these projects, it's very hard for us to see where the project is going to make enough money to pay back the loan.
LANGFITT: Most highways just don't make enough in tolls. And roads aren't the only problem. China's high-speed rail system has run up more than $300 billion of debt, according to the rail ministry.
GREEN: The banks have stopped lending money, more or less, to the Ministry of Railways, which is meant that hundreds of projects around the country for high speed rail have either been slowed down or stopped.
LANGFITT: If all this sounds like it's leading to a U.S. or even a Greek-style debt crisis, Green says China has some big advantages. Debt makes up a smaller share of China's gross domestic product than it does in America or Greece. And although China's economy is slowing, it's still growing faster than most. Green says China's central government will eventually have take over many bad loans, but probably has the wherewithal to avoid a banking crisis.
GREEN: Ultimately, you're going to have to go down the bailout route.
LANGFITT: Charlene Chu monitors Chinese banks for Fitch Ratings in Beijing. She agrees. But she also sees another potentially bigger problem ahead.
CHARLENE CHU: Definitely, I would say real estate is the issue right now at the immediate moment.
LANGFITT: The government has put on restrictions to cool China's blazing property market, and sales have fallen accordingly. Businesses and local governments have heavily invested in Chinese real estate. Chu is watching to see how many won't be able to make loan payments in the coming months.
CHU: Real estate would be extremely difficult to deal with, because that is penetrating every aspect of the economy.
LANGFITT: Back in the wilds of Shaanxi Province, Cui Jinmin sits and waits. He shares a shack with his wife and a space heater.
CUI: (Through Translator) We watch at least seven, eight hours of television a day. Just before you arrived, we were plugging rat holes. We have lots of rats.
LANGFITT: Cui has no idea when construction on the highway will begin again, or whether his crew will ever return. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.