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A main source of China's power is its growing economy. That strong economy has also helped ensure the government stays in power. And a big part of China's economic growth is real estate. The real estate market in China has been booming for years, but now it's starting to retreat. A major survey found prices fell last month in 79 out of 100 cities. Land sales have dropped as well. NPR's Frank Langfitt traveled one of China's struggling cities.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So I'm driving into Wuxi on a rainy night. And I've just passed, like, five or six new apartment towers that must be 30 stories tall, and I could only see a handful of lights on. Wuxi is a city of nearly 5 million in eastern China's Jiangsu province, about an hour's bullet train ride from Shanghai. It's one of many midsized, provincial cities where the real estate market is anemic. Huang Jiqiang works as an agent with Central Plains Real Estate here. He says supply and demand are completely out of whack.

HUANG JIQIANG: (Through translator) There's nothing you can do. Now all the new housing complexes are dropping their prices and doing promotions because there are just too many homes. After all, there aren't that many buyers, and the pool of buyers is getting smaller and smaller. Homes are still under construction out there.

LANGFITT: Huang says prices have already dropped 15 to 20 percent this year. He estimates it would take nearly two and a half years to sell off all of Wuxi's current housing stock. In private comments leaked online, an official with one of China's biggest developers, Vanke, estimates the city's unsold inventory was actually double that - almost five years' worth of empty apartments. By all accounts, the culprits are overbuilding, inflated prices and almost no local demand.

JIQIANG: (Through translator) Every local family has at least two or three apartments, so they already have enough space to live. And if an outsider wants to buy a new apartment, they cannot afford it. A 970 square-foot apartment, on average, costs more than $116,000. The way they see it, that's a lot of financial pressure.

LANGFITT: Especially in a city where the average annual salary is just $8,200. Wuxi's been trying to lure in people from elsewhere to prop up the market. Buy a 650 square-foot apartment, and the government will throw in a much-coveted local residency permit, which entitles your children to public schooling among other benefits. So far, Huang says, that's not enough.

JIQIANG: (Through translator) Many clients are still waiting and seeing and hoping there will be further price cuts from the current levels.

OLIVER RUI: Since the beginning of this year, there's a kind of switch of the mood. People become more cautious, and it never happened before.

LANGFITT: Oliver Rui teaches finance at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. He says the housing glut is driven by a political system that has rewarded local officials for economic growth over everything else.

RUI: If they want to be promoted in the next level of political hierarchies, they have to show the GDP growth rate is better than their neighbors'. What is the easiest way to increase the GDP growth? Is through the investment, OK, is through the real estate.

LANGFITT: Even if that real estate doesn't actually sell.

RUI: They think the people from the rural area eventually can't help to digest all those inventories. That's the hope.

LANGFITT: Do you believe that?

RUI: I don't believe so.

LANGFITT: Rui says that's because, on average, it would take a Chinese person 15 years of earnings, without spending money on anything else, to pay for a home. That's at least double the international standard.

SAM CRISPIN: Hello, everyone. I'm Sam Crispin. I've been living and working in Shanghai for 20 years now, covering the China real estate sector.

LANGFITT: Neither Crispin nor Rui expect the market to crash. Rui says the government has many tools, from cutting interest rates to lifting restrictions on home purchases, that can prevent free-fall. Crispin expects prices to gradually drop and people, eventually, to buy. He cites Shanghai's Pudong New Area, which had huge vacancy rates in the 1990s.

CRISPIN: The whole of Pudong was a bit of a basket case 15 years ago. Not many people wanted to make the move. But now we see some of the most expensive, most desirable real estate here in Pudong. It's been a massive success for Shanghai.

LANGFITT: Of course, Shanghai is a prestige, coastal city and a magnet for the wealthy and ambitious - dramatically different from Wuxi. As for Crispin, earlier this year, he moved home to England for family reasons. He says no one should read too much into this, but he sold all but one of his properties in China. He's looking for better rent revenue.

CRISPIN: I could see that capital growth was slowing, and it was time to go and invest elsewhere where there may be better income.

LANGFITT: It seems like a good time to diversify. Frank Langfitt. NPR News, Shanghai.

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