Rows of residential towers, some 26 stories high, stand unfinished in this provincial city about 350 miles west of Shanghai, their plastic tarps flapping in the wind.

Elsewhere in Lu’an, golden Pegasus statues guard an uncompleted $9 billion theme park that was supposed to be bigger than Disneyland. A planned $4 billion electric-vehicle plant, central to local leaders’ economic dreams, remains a steel frame with overgrown vegetation spilling into the road.

The structures are monuments to the once-grand ambitions of China Evergrande Group, now among the world’s most indebted property companies, and a case study in how China’s dependence on real estate as an economic engine helped feed those ambitions.

Evergrande is in trouble in part because it developed properties aggressively in places such as Lu’an, where its debt-fueled building spree came as the city’s population dwindled. It launched hundreds of projects across more than 200 Chinese cities.

As it expanded, Evergrande racked up more than $300 billion in liabilities. In September, it said it was facing unprecedented difficulties and was trying to protect customers. Days later, it missed a scheduled interest payment to overseas bondholders. On Monday, Evergrande and its property-management unit halted trading in Hong Kong; the unit said it could be subject of a takeover bid, which could bring in much-needed cash for Evergrande.

The company’s troubles are among the impacts unfolding since Beijing, concerned about risks to the financial system, last year began forcing developers to start cleaning up their balance sheets. Global investors are worried the crackdown could trigger financial-market distress or a protracted real-estate downturn. People who bought units in unfinished towers are wondering where their money went.

“We spent all our family’s savings on this apartment,” said a 59-year-old farmer surnamed Jiang, who, like other buyers in Lu’an, didn’t want to provide her first name because she is worried about upsetting the company.