WENZHOU, China — The 300 employees of Aomi Fluid Equipment here were delighted recently when the owner offered an all-expenses-paid, two-day trip to a mountain resort three hours away.
The owner, Sun Fucai — or Boss Sun, as he’s known — was so insistent that his workers attend that he imposed a $30 fine on any employee who refused the getaway. Nearly everyone went.
When the employees returned from their holiday, they found that the factory had been stripped of its equipment and that Boss Sun had fled town. “It was entirely empty,” Li Heying, a former Aomi worker, said of the factory. “It was like what happens in wartime.”
The boss, as it turned out, was millions of dollars in debt to loan sharks — underground lenders of the sort that many private businesses in China routinely use because the government-run banks typically lend only to big state-run corporations.
As China’s economy has begun to slow slightly, more and more entrepreneurs are finding themselves in Mr. Sun’s straits — unable to meet debt payments on which interest rates often run as high as 70 percent in this nation’s thriving unregulated, underground loan system. Such illegal lending amounts to about $630 billion a year, or the equivalent of about 10 percent of China’s gross domestic product, according to estimates by the investment bank UBS.
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