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Fixing China’s Real-Estate Sector

Past warnings of a housing-market crash in China have never been borne out, with the real-estate sector always managing to muddle through. But unless the government takes concerted action to address the deteriorating finances of developers, this time may well be different.

BEIJING – In the two decades since China’s State Council officially classified the real-estate sector as a “pillar industry,” the sector has undergone rapid development, propelling GDP growth and inspiring in millions of Chinese the dream of owning their own home. But the sector is now plagued by problems, from high prices to massive debts, and threatens to undermine growth at a time when China can ill afford it.

Though there is no private land ownership in China, households are eager to own their own homes, both to improve their living conditions and to accumulate wealth. Chinese cannot easily purchase foreign assets, owing to capital controls, and Chinese stock exchanges have not been performing strongly. China does not tax residential real estate, capital gains, or inheritance – and promises major gains in value. As a result, property becomes the most attractive asset form to own.

From 2005 to 2021, the real price index for residential property in China increased by 28.5%, from 87.95 to 112.99. While the price index has fallen a few times over the years, it has always rebounded strongly, giving Chinese the impression that, when it comes to wealth accumulation, home ownership is practically a sure thing.