TIANJIN, China — The Binhai New Area in the municipality of Tianjin looks like a cross between a desolate stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike and the bottom of the ocean. Half-built residential high-rises shimmer in the sun-baked distance, so far apart that even thinking about walking between them is exhausting. Construction workers in yellow hard hats cross the road gripping sledgehammers; they look like schools of weary-eyed fish.
"That's an indoor rain forest," Dong Cui told me as she waved toward an I.M. Pei-style glass pyramid through the window of her silver Audi A6. "This is a cruise port," she said later, pointing at a curvy postmodern edifice many miles down the highway. "That over there will be a Hilton." Dong is a manager of San'Ai Business Exchange Co., a private organization that takes investors and government officials on driving tours of the area. On a hot day in early July, I was her only client. "This place is a kind of miracle," she told me. "It shows that our government can accomplish whatever it wants."
Welcome to Tianjin, China's sixth-most populous city and perhaps its biggest property bubble. A half-hour train ride from Beijing, a 200-mile-an-hour straight shot through open farmland and industrial sprawl, Tianjin was long known as a shipping hub with uncommonly tasty steamed pork buns. It is now considered a "dual-core city." Its old quarter is quaint and tree-lined, sprinkled with European and American architecture built in the late 19th century, when the city first opened up to foreign trade. Its other "core" is the Binhai New Area, an 876 square-mile swath of salt pan, wetlands, and old fishing villages now home to 2.48 million of the city's 11 million inhabitants.
Binhai's scope is difficult to fathom. The area is home to the largest cargo airport in northern China and the fourth-busiest seaport in the world. Slightly inland is the 12 square-mile Tianjin Eco-city, a $22 billion Sino-Singaporean joint venture where the area's white-collar workers will live in wind- and solar-powered homes. Along Binhai's 95-mile coastline is a $3.82 billion Israeli-made desalinization plant and an artificial beach, its sand imported from the southeastern province of Fujian. Docked nearby is the Kiev, an old Soviet aircraft carrier that has been converted into a theme park and a five-star hotel. Three yacht marinas are under construction. The Binhai New Area "is already the country's third engine of economic take-off after the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and the Shanghai Pudong New Area," one high-level Binhai official stated in a promotional pamphlet last year.
Binhai officials have borrowed upwards of $64 billion to finance their vision, and their strategy seems to be working. Tianjin's GDP officially grew by 16.4 percent in 2011, the highest in China (tied with the municipality of Chongqing) and faster than any country in the world except Qatar. Much of this growth was driven by Binhai. Tianjin's per capita income is now close to Beijing's, a major coup for the city that has long been considered Queens to Beijing's Manhattan. But shady accounting schemes could mask major financial risks lurking just beneath the surface. "If you look at the local debt to local revenue ratio, one of the largest and worst debt bubbles exists in Tianjin," Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese financing, said in an interview with the bank Credit Suisse in March.
In 2008, the central government issued a $586 billion stimulus program to help China weather the global financial crisis, and local governments were suddenly awash in easy credit. They splurged on subways, airports, luxury condominiums, and five-star hotels -- anything that would boost short-term GDP growth. According to China's National Audit Office, local governments had amassed about $1.7 trillion of debt by the end of 2010, about 27 percent of the country's GDP -- but other estimates put the number at almost twice that. Tianjin took out more loans than any other Chinese city in 2009, increasing its outstanding debts by 47.2 percent, far above the national average.
Like other local governments, Tianjin officials typically borrow money through shady financing companies to skirt borrowing regulations, making the city's balance sheets difficult to assess. Tianjin officials insist that their companies -- often called "local government financing vehicles" -- are on solid financial ground. Last September, Vice Mayor Cui Jindu said that the city's financing vehicles had paid off over 80 percent of their loan principle due in 2011. He added that Tianjin should be able to clear its debts, with one caveat: "If we end up not getting a single new loan, there could be problems," he said.
China's financial system might well weather an explosion of defaults, even as the country enters into its worst economic slowdown since 2008. Yet loads of bad debt could also result in inflation, a prolonged economic slump, or even a financial meltdown. "You don't know where debt risk is going to rear its head," said Patrick Chovanec, a professor of economics at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He mentioned Cui's remarks as possible evidence of pandemic check kiting, a type of fraud. "You basically keep the game going by writing more and more bad checks," he explained, "which disguises the fact that you have nothing in your bank account."