Hunting for White Elephants in China’s Coal Country

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RUZHOU, China — A police officer threatened us with a criminal investigation. A local official pleaded with us to write a positive article.

My colleague Cao Li and I came to Ruzhou to hunt for white elephants. During China’s boom times, the local authorities borrowed money to build these vanity projects — stadiums, theme parks, highways to nowhere — to create jobs. Now China’s economy is slowing, and economists warn that the borrowing has set ticking time bombs that threaten the economy.

Ruzhou, a city of one million in China’s coal country, looked as if it might be one of those places. A source of local government financing had defaulted. Later, we would learn that the local hospital system was trying to borrow money from its modestly paid doctors and nurses.

We did not expect local officials to greet us happily. At the same time, we did not anticipate that our reporting would touch off a strong response from the Chinese government.

Beijing tries to suppress reporting that it thinks could undermine the authority of the Communist Party or that deals with sensitive humanitarian or political subjects.

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