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POLITICAL ECONOMY
China says local government debt soars
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Dec 30, 2013


China holds ex-security chief's colleague over graft
Beijing (AFP) Dec 30, 2013 - A former close colleague of China's ex-chief of internal security Zhou Yongkang is under investigation for "law and discipline violations", authorities have announced, stepping up anti-corruption inquiries another notch.

Li Chongxi, chairman of the Sichuan province Political Consultative Conference -- a debating chamber that is part of the Communist Party-controlled governmental structure -- is being probed for "suspected severe violation of discipline and the law", the ruling party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said.

The phrase is commonly used as a euphemism for corruption.

No further details were provided in the announcement Sunday.

Li, 62, was the chief secretary of Sichuan's party apparatus when Zhou was the Communist number one in the province from 1999 to 2002, according to the two officials' biographies carried on state-run news portals cpc.people.com.cn and xinhuanet.cn.

Li was promoted to be the vice party chief of the province in 2002, before he took other posts and then his current position, which is at the ministerial level, this year.

He has become at least the 18th official at vice-ministerial level or above to fall since a once-in-a-decade power transition in November last year that anointed Xi Jinping as the ruling party's general secretary.

Among the 18 at least five are believed to have been proteges of Zhou, who is a former member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and one of China's strongest politicians of the past decade.

The New York Times earlier this month cited "sources with elite political ties" as saying that Xi has given the go-ahead for a corruption investigation into Zhou himself.

It would be the first time in decades that such a high-ranking figure has been targeted in a formal inquiry, which would unmistakably send shockwaves through China's elite.

Xi, who became head of the state in March, has warned that corruption could destroy the party and threatened to crack down on high-ranking officials, described as "tigers", along with low-level "flies".

High-profile cases that have emerged over the past year include the sacking of Jiang Jiemin, head of China's state-owned assets watchdog, and Li Dongsheng, formerly a vice minister of public security.

But critics say no systemic reforms have been introduced to increase transparency to help fight endemic graft.

China on Monday announced the results of a long-awaited debt audit, revealing that liabilities carried by local governments ballooned to 17.9 trillion yuan ($2.95 trillion) as of the end of June.

The figure, released by the National Audit Office in a statement on its website, compared with 10.7 trillion yuan as of the end of 2010 -- an increase of 67 percent.

Concerns have grown at the amount of debt in the country and its potential impact on the world's second-largest economy, and Beijing embarked on the audit in late July.

Disquiet centres on borrowing by local authorities, which have long used debt to fuel growth in their regions, often by pursuing projects that are not economically viable or sustainable.

China's debt problem is considered to be a serious potential drag on its economy unless steps are taken to rein it in.

The local government debt burden was generally in line with economist estimates, if slightly higher, including one made in early October by Bank of America Merrill Lynch of 17.2 trillion yuan.

"We believe the markets and the Chinese government should be alarmed by the rapidly rising leverage, but we do not believe China is on the brink of a debt crisis, especially if the new leaders can take decisive measures to arrest its rising leverage," Lu Ting, economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong, said in a note Monday.

Lu cited the central government's "very low" ratio of debt to gross domestic product (GDP) at 21 percent.

Since almost all government debt is denominated in China's own currency and owned domestically, "the People's Bank of China (central bank) can prevent a public debt crisis with its unlimited capability for liquidity supply", he said.

He added that China is protected by a trove of national savings which include $3.5 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, its central and local governments' own solid assets, and the country's still-high economic and fiscal revenue growth.

The National Audit Office also said that direct government liabilities at both central and local level came to 20.7 trillion yuan as of the end of June.

That figure amounts to 40 percent of China's GDP, according to economists Liu Li-Gang and Zhou Hao at ANZ bank.

But if contingent liabilities are included, the amount would exceed 30 trillion yuan, they said, adding the total would be equal to as much as 55 percent of GDP.

"It is worth noting that this is the first time China is releasing total government debt figures," they said in a report.

The results also raised questions, they said.

"It is still not clear whether the two sets of figures are statistically comparable," Liu and Zhou said of the local government debt figure comparisons between the end of June 2013 and the close of 2010.

While debt has helped the investment-based economy expand strongly, economists and the government itself believe it is unsustainable and the growth model should be rebalanced towards consumer demand.

Highlighting the sensitivity of the audit, the National Audit Office said in July that the endeavour has been ordered by the State Council, or cabinet, which is headed by Premier Li Keqiang.

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