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China's spiralling property prices

Rob Young with Yilin
Image caption Yilin tells the BBC's Rob Young she has no idea how long it will be before she can afford a flat

In an international restaurant in the centre of Beijing, diners are tucking into the self-service buffet of fish, noodles and dim sum.

One of the waitresses, 24-year-old Yilin, is working a late shift. She moved to the capital from the nearby province of Hebei three years ago.

Yilin tells me she is in Beijing, like the other seven million migrant workers here, to earn money and improve her life.

"As an ordinary Chinese girl, I want a comfortable home - an apartment big enough for three people," she says.

Unaffordable property

That may be beyond her reach, as it is for many of China's migrant workers, the people who have driven this nation's impressive economic growth story.

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Image caption Property prices in China's biggest cities have been soaring

On her break, Yilin says she'd love to buy an apartment, but there's no way she can afford one on her salary.

"As everybody knows in China now, property prices are so high. I can't afford to buy it on my own."

"I think probably in the future I could just about afford to buy one with my future boyfriend or husband. I don't know how long it's going to take. I don't know if we'll have the money for a deposit.

"If I can find a man with more money, I won't have to struggle for too many years to save up too hard for a deposit."

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Image caption In Beijing, first-time buyers must now put down at least a 30% deposit

In the year to September, the average property price rose 11% in China's 70 biggest cities, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

But that's the average: in Hefei, the capital of Anhui province in eastern China, prices shot up by 47%; in Beijing, they rose by 28%.

Social media

Estate agents in the capital say that in some of Beijing's most desirable developments, prices have doubled.

Ma Jun, chief economist at the People's Bank of China, has used the word "bubble" to describe this, according to a Bloomberg translation of comments in Chinese.

The property situation is of such concern, it has become the unlikely theme of a song doing the rounds on social media.

The melody of TV entertainer Chen He's number is sad-sounding. But my favourite line has to be this: "On my salary I can only afford a mortgage to buy half a toilet."

The song is funny and really catchy, and critical of an aspect of life in China.

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Image caption China's economy is growing at its slowest rate in a quarter of a century

The government is attempting to help wannabe home owners, and has introduced a load of new restrictions.

In Beijing, first-time buyers must now put down at least a 30% deposit. Second-home buyers have to make a down payment of 50%. Other cities have introduced similar rules.

Managing expectations

Indeed, data suggests price growth cooled in October.

But an economic adviser to the government, Xu Hongcai, has some sobering news for hopeful house hunters.

"Ordinary Chinese people need to be more realistic when they decide to buy a property to live in," says the deputy chief economist at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges.

"The government provides a variety of choices for low-income families. They could rent in public housing or in special flats for low-income families."

When I ask him if owning a nice apartment in a big city is beyond the means of migrant workers, Mr Xu replies "yes".

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Image caption People need to be "more realistic" about owning property, says one government adviser

In a newly built apartment complex on the southern edge of Beijing, decorators are applying the finishing touches.

The lobby has grand crystal chandeliers on the ceiling, the door handles are golden.

One of the recent buyers, Mr Ren, says he has paid way over the odds for his apartment, and thinks he knows who is to blame.

"Prices are unreasonably high now. At this development, the average price should be 2,000 yuan ($289; £228) a square metre but it's actually 10 times that.

"There are about 16 or 17 buyers here who've bought as an investment, not to live here. There are just too many speculators."

Construction industry nerves

A few minutes drive away, there's an open-air canteen on a building site.

It is lunchtime, so work on the half a dozen partly constructed apartment blocks has paused.

A man is cooking noodles in a wok, serving them to hungry men and women sitting on blue and yellow upturned buckets.

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Image caption China's outstanding debt stands at 250% of GDP - two and a half times the size of its annual economic output

News of the government's housing intervention is making people here nervous.

"We came as migrant workers in the summer. We're farmers back home in our province," one of the men says.

"We mainly do decorating inside. Now it's a very hard time for construction. For the builders, the bricklayers, it's difficult. We're hoping we won't be affected as much as them.

"It pays to know lots of bosses. The more bosses you know, the better chance you have of getting a job."

Debt burden

The social cost of the property frenzy may occupy the minds of most Chinese. But policymakers and economists are also worried about the financial implications.

The property market is built on debt - developers have borrowed money to build; purchasers have taken on loans to buy.

Some are alarmed about the size of the debt.

"We saw this in the US leading up to 2008," says Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of a Beijing-based multinational and a regular financial commentator on state TV.

"The government is really trying to make it easy for anybody to get loans in order to purchase new houses, new cars, whatever it may be."

China's outstanding debt stands at 250% of GDP - two and a half times the size of its annual economic output - a level that is worrying some.

"I'm certainly concerned with where debt levels are right now. GDP numbers haven't been looking great, so new loans have been issued a lot over the past six to nine months," says Mr Schmidt.

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Image caption Some say 2017 could be the year China's debt-fuelled boom turns to bust

Loans may help prop up growth. But they could also be storing up trouble.

The government is letting banks swap loans to companies for a stake in the businesses in order to ease the debt burden.

Research notes from various international banks suggest 2017 could be the year China's debt-fuelled boom turns to bust.

But Eric Schmidt says people should not underestimate the ability of China's Communist Party to manage the economy.

"At the same time, the government has a pretty good understanding of where they are and the risk it implies."

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