WUHAN, China — In the seven years it will take New York City to build a two-mile leg of its long-awaited Second Avenue subway line, this city of nine million people in central China plans to complete an entirely new subway system, with nearly 140 miles of track.
And the Wuhan Metro is only one piece of a $120 billion municipal master plan that includes two new airport terminals, a new financial district, a cultural district and a riverfront promenade with an office tower half again as high as the Empire State Building.
The construction frenzy cloaks Wuhan, China’s ninth-largest city, in a continual dust cloud, despite fleets of water trucks constantly spraying the streets. No wonder the local Communist party secretary, recently promoted from mayor, is known as “Mr. Digging Around the City.”
The plans for Wuhan, a provincial capital about 425 miles west of Shanghai, might seem extravagant. But they are not unusual. Dozens of other Chinese cities are racing to complete infrastructure projects just as expensive and ambitious, or more so, as they play their roles in this nation’s celebrated economic miracle.
In the last few years, cities’ efforts have helped government infrastructure and real estate spending surpass foreign trade as the biggest contributor to China’s growth. Subways and skyscrapers, in other words, are replacing exports of furniture and iPhones as the symbols of this nation’s prowess.
But there are growing signs that China’s long-running economic boom could be undermined by these building binges, which are financed through heavy borrowing by local governments and clever accounting that masks the true size of the debt.
The danger, experts say, is that China’s municipal governments could already be sitting on huge mountains of hidden debt — a lurking liability that threatens to stunt the nation’s economic growth for years or even decades to come. Just last week China’s national auditor, who reports to the cabinet, warned of the perils of local government borrowing. And on Tuesday the Beijing office of Moody’s Investors Service issued a report saying the national auditor might have understated Chinese banks’ actual risks from loans to local governments.
Because Chinese growth has been one of the few steady engines in the global economy in recent years, any significant slowdown in this country would have international repercussions.
As municipal projects play out across China, spending on so-called fixed-asset investment — a crucial measure of building that is heavily weighted toward government and real estate projects — is now equal to nearly 70 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. It is a ratio that no other large nation has approached in modern times.
Even Japan, at the peak of its building boom in the 1980s, reached only about 35 percent, and the figure has hovered around 20 percent for decades in the United States.
China’s high number helps explain its meteoric material rise. But it could also signal a dangerous dependence on government infrastructure spending.
“If China’s good at anything, it’s infrastructure,” said Pieter P. Bottelier, a China expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “But right now it seems the investment rate is too high. How much of that is ill-advised and future nonperforming loans, no one knows.”
For the last decade, as economists have sought to explain China’s rise, a popular image has emerged of Beijing technocrats continually and cannily fine-tuning the nation’s communist-capitalist hybrid. But in fact, city governments often work at odds with Beijing’s aims. And some of Beijing’s own goals and policies can be contradictory.