Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the National People’s Congress that China’s GDP growth rate would drop from 7% in 2016 to 6.5% this year. In 2016, the country’s growth rate was the lowest it has been since 1990.
The precision with which any country’s economic growth is measured is dubious, since it’s hard to measure the economic activity of hundreds of millions of people and businesses. But the reliability of China’s economic numbers has always been taken with a larger grain of salt than in most countries. We suspect that China’s economy is growing less than 6.5%, if at all.
The key part of Li’s statement is that the Chinese government is signaling that it has not stopped the decline in the Chinese economy. That means more economic pain is on the way. According to the BBC, Li said the Chinese economy’s ongoing shift is promising, but it is also painful. He likened the Chinese economy to a butterfly trying to emerge from its cocoon. Put another way, there are hard times in China that will likely become worse.
The Miracle Is Over
China’s economic miracle, like that of Japan before it, is over. Its resurrection simply isn’t working, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sustained double-digit economic growth is only possible when you begin with a wrecked economy.
In Japan’s case, the country was recovering from World War II. In China’s case, it was recovering from Mao Zedong’s policies. Simply by getting back to work, an economy will surge. If the damage from which the economy is recovering is great enough, that surge can last a generation.
But extrapolating growth rates of a society that is merely fixing the obvious results of a national catastrophe is irrational. The idea that China was going to economically dominate the world was as dubious as the idea held by some in the 1980s that Japan would.
China’s dilemma, like Japan’s, is that it built much of its growth on exports. Both China and Japan were poor countries and demand for goods was low. They jumpstarted their economies by taking advantage of low wages and sold products to advanced economies. The result was that those engaged in exporting enjoyed increasing wealth. But those who were farther from East China ports, where export industries clustered, did not.
China and Japan had two problems. The first was that wages rose. Skilled workers needed to produce more complex products were in short supply. Government policy, which focused on exports, redirected capital to businesses that were marginal at best, which increased inefficiency and costs.
But most important—and a fact often forgotten by observers—is that miracles depend on customers who are willing and able to buy. In that sense, China’s export miracle depended on demand from its customers… not on Chinese policy.
Effects of 2008
In 2008, China was hit by a double tsunami. First, the financial crisis plunged its customers into a recession that was followed by extended stagnation. Thus, demand for Chinese goods contracted. Second, China’s competitive advantage was cost, and it now had lower-cost competitors.
China’s deepest fear was unemployment, and the country’s interior remained impoverished. If exports plunged and unemployment rose, the Chinese would face both a social and political threat, emanating from immense inequality. It would face an army of the unemployed on the coast.
This combination is what gave rise to the Communist Party in the 1920s (which the party fully understood). So, a solution was proposed that entailed massive lending to keep non-competitive businesses operating and wages paid. That resulted in even greater inefficiency and made Chinese exports even less competitive.
The Chinese surge had another result. China’s success with boosting low-cost goods in advanced economies resulted in an investment boom by Westerners in China. Investors prospered during the surge, but it came at a cost. It damaged the economies of China’s customers in two ways. First, low-cost goods undermined businesses in the consuming countries. Second, investment capital flowed out of the consuming countries and into China.
That inevitably had political impacts. The combination of post-2008 stagnation and China’s urgent attempts to maintain exports by keeping its currency low and utilizing irrational banking created a political backlash when China could least endure it—which is now.
There is talk of increasing China’s domestic demand, but China is a vast and poor country and iPads are expensive. It will be a long time before the Chinese economy generates enough demand to consume what its industrial system can produce.
The Cost of Unemployment
In the meantime, the struggle against unemployment continues to generate irrational investment, and that continues to weigh down the economy. Economically, China needs a powerful recession to get rid of those businesses being kept alive by loans. But politically, China can’t afford the cost of unemployment.
The re-emergence of a dictatorship in China under President Xi Jinping should be understood in this context. China is trapped between an economic and political imperative. One solution is to switch to a policy that keeps the contradiction under control through the use of repression.
The United States is China’s greatest threat. President Donald Trump is threatening the one thing that China cannot withstand… limits on China’s economic links to the US. In addition, China must have access to the Pacific and Indian oceans for its exports. That means controlling the South and East China seas. The US is aggressively resisting that control.
Faced with this same problem in the past, Japan turned into a low-growth, but stable, country. But Japan did not have a billion impoverished people to deal with, nor did it have a history of social unrest and revolution.
China’s problem is no longer economic—its economic reality has been set. It now has a political problem: how to manage massive disappointment in an economy that is now simply ordinary.
China must also determine how to manage international forces (particularly the United States), which are challenging China and its core interests. China is trying to convince the world that it remains what it was a decade ago. That strategy could work for a while, but many still view China through a lens that broke long ago.
But reality is reality. China is no longer the top owner of US government debt; that honor goes to Japan. China’s rainy day fund is being used up, and that reveals its deepest truth… when countries have money they must keep safe, they bank in the US.
China carried out a great—and impressive—surge. But now, it is just another country struggling to figure out what its economy needs and what its politics permit.
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