A lot of these apartments, in Phoenix Island, Hainan province, are probably empty. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)

The real estate market in Phoenix Island, a development project in the Chinese island province of Hainan, was so inflated, so outrageously expensive and unsustainable, that it became known as the Dubai of China. With its palm tree-lined streets, glimmering high-rises and ostentatious sports cars, it even looked a little like Dubai. And now, also like Dubai but maybe more in the vein of south Florida, the Phoenix Island real estate market that drove so much local economic growth has imploded.

Phoenix Island is an extreme case, but it's in many ways symptomatic of China's skyrocketing real estate market, which is both a blessing and a curse for China. A blessing because it helps to drive economic growth and domestic consumption, which the country's economy needs more of to be healthy. It's a curse because, as Americans are well aware, it can burst, pulling down much of the national economy with it.

If the national real estate market collapses in China, it would be disastrous not just for China but for the entire world economy, risking a third wave of the global crisis that began with the U.S. financial collapse and worsened with the Euro crisis. Is Phoenix Island an outlier, a crazy market so extreme that it tells us little about China? Is it the start of a major but recoverable setback? Or, in the worst-case scenario, is it the beginning of the end for China's astounding 20 years of miraculous economic growth?