Until it was mysteriously pulled from the airwaves recently, the latest hit TV show on the mainland was Woju. Set in the imaginary city of Jiangzhou, clearly based on Shanghai, it follows white-collar workers as they struggle to buy apartments.
Those who manage to do so end up as fangnu, or mortgage slaves, as they work non-stop to repay their loans. The sub-plot concerns the antics of Jiangzhou's corrupt cadres and property developers, who are in league to profit from the booming housing market.
'Woju' translates as 'snail house', a sly reference to the way modern home ownership has become such a burden on people. The fact that the show was so realistic made it popular enough for Sohu.com to buy the rights to screen it online. Its portrayal of newlyweds taking on huge mortgages or turning to their families for help to buy an apartment, and of avaricious officials and property magnates who hire thugs to throw people off land they want to develop, hit a nerve among urban residents.
More than anything, Woju raised the pertinent questions of who is really in charge of housing policy and who benefits from the current lax controls over the market. That something is wrong is clear: in Beijing, the gap between property prices and average incomes is rising at a faster rate than anywhere else. The latest report on the housing market from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says that most property owners in Beijing pay far more than the recommended 25 per cent of their income to service their mortgages. Many have to rely on their families to make the initial down payment and many are flocking to neighbouring, and cheaper, Hebei province to buy apartments.
Yet the same report reveals that half of Beijing's property purchases are made by people from outside the capital, and that 20 per cent of those are purely for investment. So, while ordinary Beijingers are being priced out of the market, speculators are snapping up apartments in droves, while developers build new ones. It is a pattern being repeated in other major cities.
Last month, Fan Gang, an adviser to the People's Bank of China, highlighted the excessive speculation that is sending property prices ever higher. But Fan didn't mention that the rush to invest in the housing market has been caused by record lending by the banks. Since the global financial crisis, the government has lowered interest rates and encouraged a US$1.3 trillion credit boom.
Now, with both the Shanghai Composite Index and house prices roaring ahead, even the People's Bank of China is warning of asset bubbles appearing.
As far back as January, a group of senior Communist Party members published a letter on the internet saying that rampant lending could lead to a situation where 'privileged and corrupt individuals may use this opportunity to enrich themselves'.
As the axed Woju made very clear, the property speculators have done just that. In doing so, they might also have created the conditions for the next financial crisis.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist