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Doug Saunders

Is China's middle-class dream built on a real-estate bubble? Add to ...

Among the many ambitious but debt-burdened Chinese millennials I met this week, one of them, a 28-year-old air-conditioning engineer named Li Hongyan, is pretty much the living and breathing embodiment of the new, post-export Chinese economy: Ambitious, highly risky, mildly panicked, tumultuous and impossible for his authoritarian government to predict or manage.

I met Mr. Li in the claustrophobia-inducing dormitory room he shares with his fiancée in northern Beijing, taking part in the suddenly popular Chinese activity of worrying about real estate.

It has been five months since Mr. Li used years of savings to buy his (and his entire extended family’s) first house – a 650-square-foot apartment in a slightly worn-out building.

His flat cost him the until-recently-unthinkable sum of $519,000, or 22 times his salary. On top of that, he borrowed most of the 40-per-cent down payment from a variety of friends and relatives; he, like many of China’s millennials, is leveraged up the wazoo.

His mortgage payments on the little apartment, at 5.3-per-cent interest, are $2,400 a month; his salary is $2,000 a month, which should make him comfortably middle-class, except that he really can’t afford the property that goes with it. So he’s renting it out, but can only get $940 a month for it, so is still paying the largest share of his earnings to support a house he cannot afford to live in. He and his fiancée have given up on restaurant meals and vacations.

They won’t be able to live in it for at least four years, he reckons, and only then if everything keeps growing – until then, they live in a tiny room, not much bigger than its double bed, in a workers’ dormitory, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with 10 other people.

“This is going to be a tough few years,” he says. “But, you know, I am constantly going over this decision in my head, and it still feels like a really good investment in my future. It does cause me a lot of worry, though – I think about it in the middle of the night.”

This is the new Chinese dream of secure membership in the middle class – a real-estate-driven wave of upward mobility that began in 2008, when Beijing opened up the mortgage-loan market to ordinary people in an effort to wean the economy off cheap exports and build a consumer-driven internal economy.

The last few months have seen that dream turn uneasy as China’s economy has gone flat: For the first time in many years, it isn’t growing at double-digit rates, and analysts say it is the overcooked real-estate market that is stalling the whole economy. China’s economic fate is no longer largely dependent on Western consumers buying its export products and China financing their debt: It is now the Chinese themselves whose mass decisions determine their economic fate.

It is the second great shift that China has undergone in the last 30 years: The first saw Mr. Li’s parents and their generation, by the hundreds of millions, move out of peasant farming and into factory work. That was a huge, carefully managed shift out of poverty. But the urban children of that generation have found themselves stuck in an awkward place, well above poverty but unable to have the economic security of middle-class homeowners in other countries – even if, like Mr. Li, they have an elite professional degree.

The Communist Party of China seems to have discovered that an emerging middle-class debt-and-consumerism market is a lot harder to manage than a manufacturing-plant economy. The state-controlled Chinese banks finance their mortgage lending with the enormous household savings of Mr. Li’s parents’ generation – who still save, rather than spend, because the Chinese state offers few health or retirement protections. The banks hold a lot of questionable debt which, if the economy stalls for much longer, could provoke a larger crisis.

And much of the real-estate boom is on an awkward foundation: Millions of empty apartments fill the smaller cities, built not by market forces but by state planning; analysts say it will be four years before they are all occupied. Meanwhile, Beijing and Shanghai housing is inflated beyond the means of even well-paid professionals.

Mr. Li figures he’s safe: He’s with a state-run company, so his salary is bound to go up. But, he admits, he’s very anxious these days. And he’s not alone: An entire generation has gambled their future on the belief that their salaries, their property prices and their country’s economy will keep on growing.

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