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You've heard about China's explosive economic growth. Well, some of it has been driven by rampant borrowing on the part of its municipalities. And the bill for all that borrowing is becoming clearer and it's big. China says its local governments owe nearly $3 trillion - that's more than the gross domestic product of France.
NPR's Frank Langfitt visited one of China's more debt-ridden cities for a closer look.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Wuhan is an industrial hub along the Yangtze River in Central China, with a population larger than New York's and an impressive growth rate of more than 11 percent. To finance some of that growth, though, Wuhan has racked up big debts. According to China's state-run media, the city owes more than $33 billion - nearly twice Wuhan's GDP. Banks became so concerned they cut off funding for a 17-mile highway project.
The debacle became a source of public debate. Here, on a Wuhan TV show, a host reads people's complaints.
(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Through translator) The River North Highway has been under construction for many years and still isn't finished. It's the pits. How tragic.
LANGFITT: On the show, Zhao Zhenyu, a university professor bashed the government for launching a project it couldn't afford.
PROFESSOR ZHAO ZHENYU: (Through translator) Even though you knew the project was not ready to proceed, you still insisted on holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony. I don't know if this was lower-level officials deceiving their bosses or bosses just making arbitrary decisions.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: The project did re-start again. In fact I'm looking at it right now. There are a bunch of tall supports for a bridge and a bunch of workers here. But I talked to some one involved in the project and he said there still is no financing, and that the company that's working on it has not been paid in a year and is still owed about $16 million.
Wuhan's government has tried novel ways to offset the massive cost of infrastructure, including the city's first subway lines.
Wu Xinmu is an economics professor at Wuhan University.
WU XINMU: (Through translator) Wuhan subway's adverting rights were auctioned off and the government recovered about $300 million.
LANGFITT: Officials even sold the naming rights to a subway station to a duck parts company, but dropped the idea after people complained. Wu says such schemes don't bring in enough money and the city has to control its borrowing.
XINMU: (Through translator) The government can't just rack up unlimited amount of debt, even if the projects are for the public good.
LANGFITT: When Americans hear these kinds of debt figures, they might think of analogies close to home.
(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's a sad day for the Motor City. Detroit has now filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, saying they simply can not pay their bills.
LANGFITT: In fact, Wuhan's debt is more than 50 percent larger than Detroit's. But economists say the chances of Wuhan or any other city here going bankrupt is close to zero.
ANDY ROTHMAN: The problem is not that there is going to be a local government default on the banks. That's not going to happen.
LANGFITT: Andy Rothman is the China strategist for CLSA, a brokerage firm. He says cities won't go under because the Communist Party controls the financial system.
ROTHMAN: It's nothing like the way we think about the United States, because this is in many ways a fake financial system.
LANGFITT: In the case of Detroit, the local government was at odds with private creditors, unions and pension boards. In Chinese cities, the Communist Party is on both sides of the loans.
ROTHMAN: What we have in China is a Communist Party-controlled bank lending money to a Communist Party-controlled local government to build Communist Party-approved public infrastructure.
LANGFITT: Rothman says the party can handle local governments' huge debts because it still has a ton of money and China's annual GDP is over $9 trillion. But Rothman adds things have to change.
ROTHMAN: Spending on public infrastructure in China was growing at about 20 percent a year. It spiked up to about 60 percent in 2009. And now it's growing at 20 percent a year again. That's just unsustainably fast.
LANGFITT: Unsustainable, because it could eventually threaten China's financial system. Economists say the increase in infrastructure spending must ease. That will mean fewer new highways and subway lines, which many cities in China's interior still need. And ultimately, all this will spell slower growth for China's once-blistering economy.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai
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