In the good old days — oh, three months ago — Tao Shoulong would prowl the streets of this ancient city in his Mercedes-Benz. His wife and partner, Yan Qi, would cruise around in her Toyota Land Cruiser. Together, they would drink into the night with clients, suppliers and creditors, hatching plans to expand their Zhejiang River Dragon Textile Printing & Dyeing Co.
Tao built River Dragon from a start-up with four employees into one of China's biggest textile printing firms in just five years. He had even grander dreams: He wanted to see his company's stock trade on Nasdaq alongside the likes of Microsoft and Intel.
The dreams are dead. River Dragon shut down on Oct. 7. Tao and Yan have vanished, leaving behind more than $290 million in debt and a lot of anger in this city 140 miles south of Shanghai in the Yangtze River Delta. The company's demise put 4,000 workers on the street and jilted hundreds of suppliers and creditors.
The speedy rise — and speedier fall — of River Dragon is a depressingly familiar story in China these days. Thousands of Chinese factories have shuttered in the past year, done in by:
•An export-killing global slowdown that began with the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the ensuing financial crisis. Local textile merchant Fang Xingquan, a River Dragon creditor, is among many who believe a sharp drop-off in exports was a key factor in the company's demise.
•Rising materials costs that have squeezed profit margins.
•A deliberate Chinese government campaign to regulate sweatshop factories out of business.
China's National Bureau of Statistics this week said the nation's economy grew at an annual rate of 9% in the quarter ended Sept. 30, the lowest since 2003. The state-run Xinhua news agency said the government is considering a series of actions to boost exports and stimulate home sales.
Many economists, including Yu Yongding of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believe that China needs to keep annual economic growth of 8% or 9% to absorb the 24 million people entering the labor force every year or risk social instability.
Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund predicted that Chinese economic growth would cool from 2007's sizzling 11.9% to 9.7% this year and 9.3% in 2009. Private forecasters are even more pessimistic. UBS Investment Research, for instance, forecasts 8% growth in 2009.
"China is being hit over the head by both the global crisis and the domestic slowdown," says Stephen Green, economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Shanghai.
Exports account for nearly 38% of China's economic output. JPMorgan Chase calculates that Chinese exports fall 5.7 percentage points every time global economic growth shrinks by a percentage point. And the IMF is predicting that global growth will drop 2 percentage points — from 5% last year to 3% in 2009. Chinese appliance maker Haier has already seen export growth drop to 10% the first three quarters of this year from 30% a year earlier, the official English-language China Daily newspaper reported.
What happens to China has big implications globally: China contributed 17% of world economic growth last year, the same as the United States, according to the United Nations.
Home prices collapsing