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China helps private sector tackle debt crisis

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Authorities in Zhejiang province have sent 11 work groups to oversee a bank bailout of private firms suffering from a liquidity crunch in a coordinated move to tackle the Wenzhou debt crisis.

A spokesman with the provincial government said on Tuesday that 25 banks in Wenzhou City have pledged to increase lending to bolster private firms to weather the debt crisis.

During a visit to Wenzhou on October 5, Premier Wen Jiabao asked banks to lend more money to small firms and tolerate higher levels of debt. He also requested a crackdown on the high-interest informal lending market.

By Tuesday, three of more than 90 private entrepreneurs who had gone into hiding in recent weeks to avoid repaying high-interest informal loans returned home.

The local business community said the Wenzhou debt crisis is an extreme case of small- and mid-sized private companies (SMEs) struggling to survive the liquidity crunch resulting from the country's current macroeconomic control policies, which have been designed to cool inflation and rein in the runaway property market.

Under the government's coordination, banks have also increased the lending ratio to SMEs.

Tao Lingfu, head of the Wenzhou branch of the Bank of China, promised the bank would continue to issue loans with interest rates lower than 30 percent to corporate borrowers that are having liquidity problems but able to sustain production.

Meanwhile, industry associations have also taken measures to provide financial assistance.

Zhou Dewen, chairman of the Wenzhou SME (small- and medium-sized enterprises) Development Association, said the association has prepared an emergency fund worth 900 million yuan ($141 million)to help private firms in urgent need of cash to sustain operations.

"The association's member companies would make donations to the fund," he said.

Zhou said about half of SMEs in Wenzhou have difficulties in borrowing from bank and are forced to obtain capital from the unofficial lending market, despite the danger of high interest.

"Many of the firms are labor-intensive manufacturing firms making narrow profits from the mass production of small commodities such as eyeglasses, clothing, shoes and lighters," he said.

Among the three returned absconders, Hu Fulin, president of China's largest eyeglasses manufacturer, the Zhejiang Center Group., is the biggest debtor. He fled to the United States from Wenzhou on September 21, leaving 1.5 billion yuan ($236 million) in debt owed to both Chinese banks and individual creditors.

Hu said upon arriving at an airport in Wenzhou on Monday that he hopes his company can overcome the current difficulties with the government's support.

Chen Derong, vice governor of Zhejiang province, pledged that the government will ensure Hu's personal safety, as well as that of his assets.

"The government will provide support to help companies that are trapped in the financial crunch but have the ability to survive these difficulties," Chen said.

Another runaway company leader Sun Fucai, chairman of the board of the Aomi Fluid Equipment Co. Ltd., also returned to Wenzhou on Monday.

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life living in the dark," he said.

Hu Jianjin, an official in Dongtou County, Wenzhou, said Sun's firm, which makes high precision sanitation pumps, valves and pipe fittings, has great market potential. The county government will help the company get enough loans to emerge from its current plight.

Sun's company, founded in 2003, has 100 million yuan in debt to banks and informal lenders. As banks limited the lending amid the country's current macroeconomic control policies, the company's capital chain broke. He went into hiding on September 11, when he sent his staff on a vacation trip to a scenic spot.

"I will be more cautious in maintaining the cash flow if I can resume the company's operation," Sun said.

He said he is hopeful the company can get back on track as the government has given strong support to help it get bank loans and protect the safety of his assets.

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