In one Shanghai courtroom, steel trading firm boss Li tries to fend off a fed-up lender. China Minsheng Bank, the country's eighth-biggest lender, is trying to recover 3 million yuan ($472,100) of loans it made to the trading firm.
When the bank recalled the loan in June, Li tried to sell two Shanghai apartments she had used as collateral. In a flat property market, she came up empty-handed.
Her plea for more time to repay is one of more than 20 court cases Chinese banks have taken against steel traders. The targets tend to be mainly smaller trading firms with fewer than 50 employees, as the larger state-backed steel firms have more cash reserves.
These traders are mainly based in and around Shanghai, a tight-knit community drawn from Zhouning in the southern province of Fujian. At its peak in 2009, some 12,000 steel trading companies were scattered across the city, accounting for close to 3 percent of Shanghai's GDP, according to the local business chamber.
By some estimates, the number of steel traders has fallen by half, as steel prices crumpled in the third quarter of 2011.
"The court cases you see are usually when things get desperate," said a loans official at a Shanghai branch of Bank of Communications, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. "We've had people go missing. Some have fled overseas, while others just take on a new identity and move somewhere else."
The owner of one of China's biggest steel trading firms, Yizhou Group, skipped the country with his wife and children after piling up about 1 billion yuan ($157 million) in loans to banks including Bank of Communications, the official said.
Calls to Yizhou were not answered.
In the Shanghai courtroom, lawyers for Minsheng Bank told Li after the hearing that banks were desperate to recall loans as they had heard of some borrowers going missing with tens of millions of yuan still owed.
"One trader fled to Australia after borrowing 23 million yuan, while others used their property as collateral to several banks at the same time " Li said, recounting what she'd heard from a lawyer. "So banks are very cautious and taking immediate action against borrowers if they don't repay."