China’s copy of Manhattan is no longer a ghost town, Bloomberg reports. But that doesn’t mean it has forever forestalled a “day of reckoning” for its debt-fueled growth.
The northern city of Tianjin drew negative press coverage a few years ago because of a newly built replica of Manhattan complete with a mock Rockefeller Center that was created as part of a massive government infrastructure project but for years was little more than a ghost town. But the city is now occupants are finally clocking to the city: Bloomberg reports that once empty skyscrapers, vacant office towers and unfinished hotels and apartments are gradually filling up amid the central government’s renewed push to refashion the city into a crucial gateway for a revitalized Northern China.
There still may still be a financial reckoning for Tianjin looming in the future, but right now there are green shoots of economic life in the urban districts at the center of the city’s unprecedented construction boom.
But there’s a catch, of course: As is true for the broader Chinese economy, the growth in Tianjin “is mostly government driven, though there are signs private industry is coming.”
Here’s more from Bloomberg:
In the Binhai district, empty offices are filling up with staff from private companies as well as employees of some of the biggest state-owned enterprises, such as China National Chemical Corp., railcar manufacturer CRRC Corp., and China Poly Group Corp., a conglomerate with businesses ranging from explosives manufacturing to real estate.” While many local governments across the country are struggling with heavy dependence on debt-fueled growth, Tianjin benefits more than almost any city from its position at the vanguard of two of the country’s biggest national projects.
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Bloomberg saves one notable detail for the last paragraph of the story, citing an official who offers some local perspective: The city is supposed to play in important role in China’s “one belt, one road” initiave, another massive debt-fueled trade and transport infrastructure project meant to replicate the ancient Silk Road trade routes that connected Europe and Asia. The government-funded expansion aims to join Beijing with the surrounding Hebei Province to create a mega city of 100 million people.
It should come as no surprise that Tianjin has…backing from heavy hitters in the party.
“We want the city to become one of the world’s largest ports like Singapore or Hong Kong,” said Xiao Sheng, vice director of the free trade zone in Tianjin. “We want to develop a new business and development model that could be promoted to other regions in China.”
But even as China signs up foreign partners for its latest scheme, offering financial inducements like a $50 billion infrastructure investment in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally, some at least are showing unease at the massive debt-fueled spending necessary to bring the project into reality.
In a diplomatic showcase years in the making, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited leaders from 29 countries to hear his pitch about the “one belt, one road.” But what’s notable is that India, the worlds fastest growing and second-most populous country, didn’t even bother to send a delegation, warning that the “unsustainable debt burden” required to launch the project would be a disaster for the countries involved.
The story notes that though Tianjin’s growth rate slipped to 8% last year – down from 9% the year before – it still outpaced 6.8% YoY rate for the broader Chinese economy in 2016. But that’s a pretty low bar: China’s economy grew in 2016 at its slowest pace in 26 years.