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A construction project in Beijing's Tongzhou district in May 2017   © Reuters
The Big Story

The hidden risks of China's war on debt

Lending clampdown sparks fears of an economic chilling effect

HENNY SENDER, Nikkei Asian Review columnist | China

HONG KONG -- When the Bank of Jinzhou, based in China's northeastern rust belt, went public on the Hong Kong stock exchange two years ago, its finances were a wreck. It had issued 34 billion yuan ($5.36 billion) worth of "wealth management products" that are hallmarks of China's sprawling "shadow" banking sector, and it was owed 9 billion yuan by an unnamed borrower who was under investigation by Hong Kong regulators. The bank, like many others across China, was loaded with risky debt -- the kind that China's leadership in Beijing is now determined to stamp out.

After a massive buildup over the past decade, the government is waging an all-out war on debt. In December, President Xi Jinping said slashing debt was one of the "critical battles" Beijing would fight over the next three years, along with reducing pollution and poverty. Regulators have cracked down on the shadow banking sector, and the government has put the brakes on Anbang Insurance Group, HNA Group and Dalian Wanda Group, conglomerates that spent billions on debt-fueled acquisition sprees for trophy assets around the world. On Feb. 23, regulators charged Anbang founder Wu Xiaohui with fraud and embezzlement and officially took over its operations.

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