Rampage of white elephants: Tiny Chinese county racks up $5.7bn debt with dozens of vanity projects

China is renowned for building its way to prosperity, but a rural county in Guizhou Province with just 370,000 people went rogue in the process, racking up 40 billion yuan ($5.7bn) in debt with dozens of white-elephant projects.

The county’s annual revenue was just a billion yuan when its money troubles surfaced in 2018.

The fiasco has fascinated the Chinese public, with a 22-minute video detailing Dushan County’s irresponsible splurge getting 27 million views after a Shanghai film-maker posted it to Chinese social media on Monday, reports The South China Morning Post (SCMP) and Chinese state media.

Among the county-endorsed vanity projects was a 99.9-metre-high, sprawling wooden building that promoters hoped would earn a Guinness World Record, but that now stands empty.

Other projects in the building spree that started in 2016 include man-made scenic sites and industrial parks that were intended to boost the economy but remain unfinished or idle, reports China Daily.

According to the film, called How Dushan Burnt 40 billion, 18 of the projects have been completed, 32 are under construction and 17 are set to be redesigned.

After the video went viral, the Dushan county government issued a statement, which SCMP translated.

It said: "In view of previous reckless borrowing, performance boasting, and unfinished projects, [the county government is] working in accordance with laws, and constantly correcting our ideas in development, purifying the political ideology, and standardising decision making, strengthening project management, and effectively moving towards the rectification of problems."

In December 2019 the county’s former Communist Party secretary, Mr Pan Zhili, who has been blamed for the debt crisis, was charged with taking bribes.

Prior to that, in 2018, the county was investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which concluded that officials had covered up illegal land use. At least 10 officials were removed from their positions.

Dushan’s debt crisis surfaced in 2018 when some local government financing vehicles used by the county defaulted on repayments to investors, said SCMP.

Image: Highway in Dushan County, Guizhou Province, China. Just 370,000 people live there (Wahsaw/Public domain)

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