China’s local-debt crisis is about to get nasty

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The Economist

Worries from a far-flung province” Guiyang City, Guizhou Province, China

Locals in guiyang have a keen sense of the distance between them and everywhere else. Over cold rice noodles bathed in chilli paste and vinegar, an elderly resident of the city in south-west China lists a number of recent economic achievements of his home town—namely, the shortening of travel times to other places. Chengdu, a megacity in nearby Sichuan, is now just three hours away by high-speed rail. Chongqing, another metropolis, can be reached in just over two. China’s Herculean construction of uber-fast trainlines has even brought Hong Kong, the southern financial centre, within a seven-hour ride. These travel times are rattled off with considerable pride. Not long ago they would have taken three to four times as long.

Yet this progress has been costly, and is proving to be unsustainable. Over the past decade Guizhou, the region in which Guiyang sits, has accrued enormous debts through its building efforts—ones which it can no longer repay. Many of the region’s roads and bridges went untravelled over the past three years as covid-19 stopped people moving about. A local bridge-builder was recently forced to extend maturities on its bonds by up to 20 years. The region is also known for its shantytowns. Guiyang is scattered with skyscrapers and green hills poking out from between them, as well as old, crumbling buildings. The government has spent well beyond its means in renovating such dilapidated residences. One shanty renovation in Guiyang, called Huaguoyuan, is among the world’s largest housing projects. The property developer has already defaulted.

Guizhou is a far-off region to many Chinese people in wealthy eastern areas. But its debt problems will set the tone for the rest of the country in the coming months. The province will probably be the first to receive a central-government bail-out. Indeed, local officials are already asking for help. On April 11th a government think-tank based in Guiyang said that the province does not have the ability to resolve its debts by itself and was seeking advice from the central government.

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