Wanted posters for fugitive debtors, not commercials, are the main images that flash up on a big electronic screen in downtown Yixing, in the heart of the faltering Chinese industrial powerhouse that is the Yangtze River Delta.
The posters, from the local courts, show the identity card numbers and pictures of dozens of people who have fled unpaid debts. Rewards ranging from 20,000 yuan (HK$23,000) to 330,000 yuan are offered to anyone reporting their whereabouts.
But Hengsheng Square is the glitziest part of Yixing – with the most luxury stores, the brightest lights and the priciest office buildings – and few passers-by, their attention directed elsewhere, heed the wanted posters. They have little novelty value in any case, with the "runaway debtor" phenomenon now just part of daily life in the small city as economic growth slows.
In many ways, the square stands as a metaphor for the overall health of the Chinese economy. Under a prosperous surface, deep cracks have begun to emerge in its investment-led model, casting a shadow over the country's economic growth prospects and even giving rise to doubts about the fundamental soundness of the world's second-biggest economy.
"The economic dynamics are waning," said Professor Hu Xingdou, an economist at Beijing Institute of Technology. "China's economic growth in recent years was powered by massive money printing, which is dangerous and unsustainable."
Like many places in China, Yixing, in the eastern province of Jiangsu and a 2½-hour drive from Shanghai, is struggling to cope with weakening demand, rising wages and widespread industrial overcapacity. Its gross domestic product growth rate – 7.2 per cent last year – has almost halved in the past decade, exposing financial strains and prompting painful consolidation.
Runaway bosses are just a symptom of its economic woes. Behind every wanted poster on the big screen, there's the story of a bankrupt factory, a business that's gone bust or an investment chain that's collapsed.