Zhu Rongji

Open to criticism

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 November, 1998, 12:00am

While the People's Daily was this week confidently predicting that the Chinese economy will zoom along in the fast lane for many years, others are saying catastrophe is lurking just around the corner.

It is the first time doomsayers have been allowed to have their say in what is perhaps a sign of the divergent views and styles of President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji .

Among the pessimists is Yang Fan, a leading commentator and economist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), who predicts China will stumble into a major crisis within five years or less.

'The signs of an impending crisis are looming large,' he writes in a lengthy analysis published in Strategy And Management, a magazine published by a top Communist Party think-tank. 'Though more people are talking about the possibility, most are still turning a deaf ear. Too many adopt an ostrich position.' Even more outspoken is the Shenzhen-based writer He Qinglian, who fears China's economy is already so bankrupt it is about to sink under the sheer weight of its accumulated debts.

'We all agree about the long-term trends; we only differ on how soon the crisis will break out,' she said during a recent trip to Beijing. 'Yang Fan says five years but I don't think it will take that long.' However, Wang Jiachuan, a top official in the Ministry of Finance, wrote in the People's Daily: 'It is possible for China's economy to maintain a high growth rate 10 to 20 years after the start of the 21st century.' He discounted fears China's golden years were gone for good and argued high growth was bound to be fuelled by heavy spending on infrastructure, housing and urbanisation.

But for Yang, this is just China's nouveaux riches, as he calls them, painting a rosy picture to fool foreigners into investing more of their money.

'Such optimism stems from the need for the rich classes to mesmerise society in order to protect themselves. It is both superficial and disgusting,' he writes.

He's book also broadsides China's 'new rich' who have been diverting state assets into their pockets to the tune of 50 billion yuan (HK$46.75 billion) a year, she says.

Even in the decade up to 1992, they grabbed 500 billion yuan but it was worse after the financial reforms started when, she says, Communist Party officials 'enjoyed the big free lunch of socialism', issuing shares in enterprises and plundering public wealth.

The latest issue of Strategy And Management has more detailed calculations and comes up with far bigger sums. It says that two billion yuan of public assets fell into the hands of rural cadres when the household responsibility system was started 20 years ago, but other reforms during the 1980s enabled officials to funnel five trillion yuan into their personal wealth.

This was done by demanding commissions but mainly reselling commodities acquired at low fixed state prices on the open market and then pocketing the difference.

The real rip-off came after 1992 when China's financial reforms began providing new opportunities to steal assets in the form of bonds, shares, loans, and real estate.

'Billions of yuan worth of assets were transferred and billions of government loans have not been transferred,' writes Mr Yang. 'Taking all the power-money exchange activities into account, no less than 30 trillion yuan fell into private hands during the past 20 years.' People like Mr Yang are asking what the difference is with what happened in Russia? In her best-selling book, Pitfalls Of Modernisation, He describes in detail the ways officials running state enterprises have falsified accounts to transfer money raised on the stockmarket or borrowed from banks into their own bank accounts.

'The special feature for China is that we can't acknowledge that we have transferred public property into private hands because it touches on the legitimacy of Communist Party rule,' says Mr Yang, who adds China's 'gradual way of reform' is failing.

The official line is that Russia's 'shock therapy' was a terrible mistake and so Chinese officials like to boast about the social stability at home compared with the 'chaos' in Russia. To have suggested anything else was, previously, unheard of.

'In the initial period of reform, it is more stable than 'shock therapy', but it leads to the corruption of public power. It channels state-owned assets to ruling cadres. It is unfair,' writes Mr Yang.

He points out - judging from an investigation into the affairs of 40 state-owned enterprises - that just by fiddling the petty cash receipts, officials may have creamed off more than 14 billion yuan.

She also alleges officials have consistently undervalued and sold state assets to perpetrate financial scams of all kinds. 'It is so common in China that the representatives of poor enterprises have become very rich,' she writes.

Daily newspapers have been less blunt but plenty of stories appear about state owned enterprises (SOEs) which have doctored their accounts to show illusory profits.

Behind all this is the as yet unvoiced accusation that the Communist Party's entire strategy of economic reform is failing. A report by the Strategy And Management think-tank in its latest issue makes this clear. Even though plenty of capital has been raised on the domestic stockmarkets and abroad during the last six years to finance the renovation of state-owned enterprises, most of the money has been squandered. Shares have been issued to the public, but the factories are still owned by the state and run by the same people in the same way as before. The suspicion is growing that profits are doomed to fall - if you accept they ever existed - making it harder and harder for listed SOEs to pay out dividends.

This year, the overall SOEs' economic losses have deepened and the malaise spread to new sectors, straining confidence in the state banks which have over a trillion yuan in non-performing loans. While foreign analysts have been airing such concerns for a while now, it is striking to find Chinese expressing blunt warnings of a mass banking default.

The China Economic Times has published reports warning that Chinese companies are as heavily indebted as South Korean chaebols and that China's property bubble is bigger than Thailand's. So far though, even the most outspoken Chinese intellectuals are reluctant to explicitly blame the Communist Party and instead prefer to stress the unexpected Asian financial crisis.

In its lengthy report, the Strategy and Management Research Society even utters the heresy that China is actually the country most threatened by the Asian crisis.

'This is because we have more foreign debt than other Asian countries, and we have more bad debts in our state-owned banks,' it says to bolster its underlying argument that circumstances call for more reforms, not further postponements.

'What is worse is that the foreign investment inflow has dropped by a big margin: 35 per cent in 1997. After years of rapid growth, our economy encountered setbacks; an economic recession seems to be unavoidable,' it continues, warning of 'severe social disasters'.

Pessimists like He and Mr Yang are warning all kinds of events might trigger the big crash: a run on domestic banks, a collapse in stock market prices, more natural disasters or a drop in investor confidence.

China's alleged strengths are scrutinised critically. He warns even China's huge foreign exchange reserves provide no assurance of stability. China is borrowing huge sums of foreign exchange but much of it, perhaps half, is secretly leaving the country, she writes, quoting figures to show that in terms of capital flight, China only trails Venezuela, Mexico and Argentina.

Mr Yang wonders whether China's dependence on foreign investment is healthy, speculating on what would happen if foreign investors decided to repatriate their profits, rather than reinvest them in expansion, as they have done until now.

While China always has problems to worry about, the debate is revealing: party-approved intellectuals are being allowed to sound off just like dissidents would do if they could.

And gung ho government officials and the Jeremiahs are now both facing the painful prospect that the years of rapid growth may have gone for good. The money has all been spent and the free lunch is over.

'When the resources controlled by the state are fully used-up and the rapid economic growth comes to a halt, the historic moment of truth will arrive,' warns Mr Yang ominously.