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Desperate Chinese Property Developers Resort to Bizarre Marketing Tactics

The country’s real-estate slump is getting worse—and looks set to drag on for years

By REBECCA FENG
Wed, Jan 24, 2024 9:34amGrey Clock 3 min

China’s real-estate crisis has dragged down the economy, caused massive layoffs and pushed multibillion-dollar companies to the point of collapse.

Economists think it is about to get worse.

Sales of newly built homes in China fell 6% last year, returning to a level not seen since 2016, according to China’s statistics bureau. Secondhand home prices in its four wealthiest cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen—declined by between 11% and 14% in December from the year before, according to the broker Centaline Property.

Developers are starting fewer projects. Homeowners are paying back their mortgages early and borrowing less. Once-thriving property companies are stuck in protracted negotiations with foreign investors, following defaults on about $125 billion of overseas bonds between 2020 and late 2023, according to figures from S&P Global Ratings.

Chinese developers and local governments are so desperate to attract home buyers that some have resorted to bizarre marketing strategies.

A property company in Tianjin ran a video advertisement featuring the slogan “buy a house, get a wife for free.” It was a play on words, using the same Chinese characters as the phrase “buy a house, and give it to your wife”—but presented in a sentence structure typically used to offer freebies for home buyers. In September, the company was fined $4,184 for the ad.

A residential compound in eastern China’s Zhejiang province promised last year to give home buyers a 10-gram gold bar.

Earlier this month, Sheng Songcheng, former head of the statistics department at the People’s Bank of China, told a local conference that the housing downturn would last another two years. He thinks new-home sales will fall more than 5% in both 2024 and 2025.

Wall Street economists are also ringing alarm bells about how long the real-estate slump will last.

“Not too many people are buying, can buy or want to buy,” said Raymond Yeung, chief China economist at ANZ. He said there had been a fundamental shift in the way Chinese people view the property sector, with housing no longer seen as a safe investment.

China’s real-estate sector and related industries once accounted for around a quarter of gross domestic product and the sector’s slump has been a significant drag on the world’s second-largest economy. That has increased calls for Beijing to do more to prop up the sector, but so far Chinese officials have stuck to piecemeal policies rather than introducing a landmark stimulus package.

A number of economists are making comparisons to Japan, which spent decades trying to rebound from a crash in real-estate and stock prices. China’s stock market is in a years-long slump.

China’s central bank can help make the situation less painful, but it will need to be aggressive, said Li-gang Liu, head of Asia Pacific economic analysis at Citi Global Wealth Investments. The central bank still has policy room and could take one big step to make a significant impact, he said.

Liu Yuan, head of property research at Centaline, said that without the government’s help, new-home prices will need to drop by another 50% from current levels before they reach a bottom. This is based on the assumption that the tipping point will only come when it is cheaper to buy than to rent houses, Liu said.

China’s real-estate downturn has claimed dozens of victims. More than 50 developers—mostly privately owned—have defaulted on their debt. Developers still have millions of unfinished homes that were sold but not delivered. Chinese authorities have set aside billions of dollars to help builders complete apartments but the logjam is growing.

The crisis has drained the coffers of some Chinese local governments, which previously relied on land sales as a main source of income. Economists estimate they have hidden debt worth anything from $400 billion to more than $800 billion. To quiet talk of potential defaults, the central government has set up debt-swap programs to help some of them refinance.

Some economists are optimistic. In the first half of this year, buyers of secondhand homes will gradually return to the new-home market and prop up the sector, said Helen Qiao, chief China economist at Bank of America. “Things will slowly get better from here,” Qiao said.

But most are still expecting more pain, and investors are bearish. A benchmark of Hong Kong-listed property stocks had fallen for four years in a row before the start of this year. Since Jan. 1, it is down another 15%.



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”