ORDERS from on high can shape the Chinese economy. In 2013 Xi Jinping, the president, said cities should be more like sponges, sopping up rainwater for reuse when parched. China is now working on some 30 “sponge cities”. Then in 2014 Mr Xi said the government should encourage businesses to invest in state projects. Since then China has announced plans for thousands of “public-private partnerships” (PPP), including sponge cities. But investors do not seem interested. Sponge cities are struggling to soak up private capital.

This month Guyuan, a city in Ningxia, a north-western region that is dry most of the year, launched China’s first sponge-city PPP. However, as is the case with others that are in the works, the “private” side of the partnership was not all it was cracked up to be. The investor, Beijing Capital, is in fact a government-owned firm. And to make the deal viable, the government pitched in a subsidy worth nearly one-fifth of the 5 billion yuan ($750m) total cost. 

This points to a bigger problem: a sharp slowdown in private investment in China. New data on September 13th underlined the trend. Over the first eight...Continue reading