Chinese Local Governments Run Up $6 Trillion in Debt, Partly to Build Giant Statues and a Full-Size Replica of Titanic

(p. B1) To officials in her corner of China, the statue of Yang Asha, a goddess of beauty, serves as a tribute to the rich culture of the local people and, they hope, a big draw for sightseers and their money. To many others in China, she is another white elephant in a country full of expensive monuments, gaudy tourist traps and wasteful vanity projects that draw money away from real problems.

Those critics point to the statue of Guan Yu, a general from antiquity, in the city of Jingzhou, where he also towers higher than the Statue of Liberty and wields an enormous polearm called the Green Dragon Crescent Blade.

They point to the Jingxingu Hotel, a 24-story wooden building with lots of empty balconies and open spaces but few actual rooms — and it has not accepted guests beyond a few tourists who come to gawk.

They point to the construction of a full-size, $150 million replica of the Titanic in a reservoir deep in China’s interior, 1,200 miles from (p. B5) the ocean.

. . .

Singling out the $38 million Jingxingu Hotel and the $224 million Guan Yu project, which also included an elaborate base and surrounding park, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development ordered on Sept. 29 [2020] that communities may not “blindly build large-scale sculptures that are divorced from reality and the masses.”

Chinese government officials have long prized big projects. China now has four-fifths of the world’s 100 tallest bridges, more miles of ultramodern expressways than the American interstate highway system and a bullet-train network long enough to span the continental United States seven times. Those projects have employed millions of people and helped fuel the country’s breakneck growth.

But local officials borrowed heavily to fund those projects. Estimates put the amount of local debt as high as $6 trillion, raising fears of financial bombs lurking in the ledgers of far corners of the country.

Beijing has doubled down on further investment spending this year in an initially successful bid to shake off an economic hangover from the outbreak of coronavirus in China last winter.

Yet with each passing year, as projects are built in ever-more-remote places, the economic kick from each project becomes less and less. China is on track this year to add debt equal to four months’ economic output while its economy grows by an amount equal to less than two weeks’ output.

Local government borrowing “is still out of control,” said Gary Liu, an independent economist in Shanghai.

For the full story, see:

Keith Bradsher. “As China Battles Poverty, Colossal Projects Draw Ire.” The New York Times (Fri., Nov. 27, 2020): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 26, 2020, and has the title “A Soaring Monument to Beauty in China Is Stirring Passions. Mostly Anger.”)

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