Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is the broadest and deepest effort to purge, reorganize and rectify the Communist Party leadership since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the rise of Deng Xiaoping two years later. It has already probed more than 182,000 officials…
China is in the midst of an economic transformation that is in many ways unprecedented. The core of this transformation is the shift from a growth model heavily reliant on low-cost, low value-added exports and state-led investment into construction to one grounded in a much greater dependence on high value-added industries, services and above all, domestic consumption. China is not the first country to attempt this. Others, including the United States, achieved it long ago. But China has unique constraints: its size, its political system and imperatives, and its profound regional geographic and social and economic imbalances. These constraints are exacerbated by a final and perhaps greatest limit: time. China is attempting to make this transition, one which took smaller and more geographically, socially and politically cohesive countries many decades to achieve, in less than 20 years.
The bulk of this work will take place over the next 10 years at most, and more likely sooner, not because the Xi administration wants it to, but because it must. The global financial crisis in 2007-08 brought China’s decadeslong export boom cycle to a premature close. For the past six years, the Chinese government has kept the economy on life support in the form of massively expanded credit creation, government-directed investment into urban and transport infrastructure development and, most important, real estate construction. In the process, local governments, banks and businesses across China have amassed extraordinary levels of debt. Outstanding credit in China is now equivalent to 251 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, up from 147 percent in 2008. Local governments alone owe more than $3 trillion. It is unknown — deliberately so, most likely — what portion of outstanding debts are nonperforming, but it is likely far higher than the official rate of 1 percent.
Despite claims that China’s investment drive was and is irresponsible — and certainly there are myriad anecdotal cases of gross misallocation of capital — it nonetheless fulfills the essential role of jumpstarting the country’s effort to “rebalance” to a new, more urban and more consumption-based economic model. But the problem, again, is time. China’s real estate sector is slowing. Sales, home prices and market sentiment are falling, even in the face of continued expansion of the overall credit supply. The days of high growth in the housing construction sector are numbered and prices, along with overall activity, are on a downward trend — one that can and will be hedged by continued high levels of investment and credit expansion, but not one that can be stopped for long. Real estate and related construction activity will remain the crucial component of China’s economy for the foreseeable future, but they will no longer be the national economic growth engines they were between 2009 and 2011.
This means that in the next few years, China faces inexorable and potentially very rapid decline in the two sectors that have underpinned economic growth and social and political stability for the past two or more decades: exports and construction. And it does so in an environment of rapidly mounting local government and corporate debt, rising wages and input costs, rising cost of capital and falling return on investment (exacerbated by new environmental controls and efforts to combat corruption) and more. Add to these a surge in the number of workers entering the workforce and beginning to build careers between the late 2010s and early 2020s, the last of China’s great population boom generations, and the contours emerge of an economic correction and employment crisis on a scale not seen in China since Deng came to power.
The solution, it would seem, lies in the Chinese urban consumer class. But here, once more, time is China’s enemy. Chinese household consumption is extraordinarily weak. In 2013, it was equivalent to only 34 percent of gross domestic product, compared to 69-70 percent in the United States, 61 percent in Japan, 57 percent in Germany and 52 percent in South Korea. In fact, it has fallen by two percentage points since 2011, possibly on the back of the anti-corruption campaign, which has curbed spending by officials that appears to have been erroneously counted as private consumption. There is reason to believe that household consumption is somewhat stronger than the statistics let on, but it is not nearly strong enough to pick up the slack from China’s depressed export sector and depressive construction industries. China’s low rates of urbanization relative to advanced industrial economies underscore this fundamental incapacity.
Whatever the Chinese government’s stated reform goals, it is very difficult to see how economic rebalancing toward a consumption- and services-based economy succeeds within the decade. It is very difficult to see how exports recover. And it is very difficult, but slightly less so, to see how the government maintains stable growth through continued investment into housing and infrastructure construction, especially as the real estate market inevitably cools. This leaves us with a central government that either accepts economic recession or persists in keeping the economy alive for the sake of providing jobs but at risk of peril to its reform initiatives, banks and local governments. The latter is ugly and very likely untenable under the current political model, which for three decades has staked its claim to legitimacy in the promise of stable employment, growth and rising material prosperity. The former is absolutely untenable under the current political model.
The pressures stemming from China’s economy — and emanating upward through Chinese society and politics — will remain paramount over the next 5-10 years. The above has described only a very small selection of the internal social and economic constraints facing China’s government today. It completely neglects public anger over pollution, the myriad economic and industrial constraints posed by both pollution and pervasive low-level corruption, the impact of changes in Chinese labor flows and dynamics, rising education levels and much more. It completely neglects the ambivalence with which many ordinary Chinese regard the Communist Party government.
2003? Just imagine how many expats and how many billions have fled since then. There is structural unrest in China as it seeks to make a very difficult transition. If push comes to shove, how do you quickly create unity and patriotic spirit? How do you spell Crimea in Chinese?