China, and China-centred Asia, is now the centre of the world economy, and steady growth has been a source of stability in an otherwise unsteady world. As a result, even a tiny wobble in the country’s economic performance — such as was visible in the data for the month of May — makes the world sit up and take notice. The numbers have received even more scrutiny than usual because of the context: both a Chinese stock market that has fallen into bear market territory, and a growing trade dispute with the world’s other great economy, the US. But the story is much bigger than a market correction and a tit-for-tat exchange of threats and tariffs. Despite China’s astonishingly strong and sustained expansion, the economy is widely considered vulnerable because the growth in output has been underwritten by an even faster increase in debt. This has been particularly true since the financial crisis, when the country’s leaders accelerated the building of infrastructure, real estate and other f...

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