China Dream is still within reach

Andrew Leung says grim forecasts of a China hobbled by its immense challenges are not supported by the facts of a growing middle class and a determined push for crucial change

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 3:08am

With China's economy losing steam, many questions are being asked about whether this masks serious structural problems that may herald the end of the so-called "China Dream". A recent cover of The Economist showed a front-running China caught in the mud.

The first question that comes to mind is whether China could manage slowing to below 7 per cent growth without disaster. Professor Michael Pettis, of Peking University, thinks growth may have to slow to as low as 3 per cent before rebalancing towards private consumption. However, James O'Neill, former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, believes China's ambition of 7.5 per cent growth remains achievable.

The answer may become a little clearer by examining the following data.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, consumption contributed 55.5 per cent to China's growth in 2011, ahead of investment at 48.8 per cent and net exports at 4.3 per cent. The trend continued in the first three quarters of 2012.

Further, a report in the Mckinsey Quarterly shows that the number of middle-class consumers, those with US$9,000-US$34,000 of household income, has grown from 4 per cent of the urban population in 2000 to 68 per cent last year. And, already, China is now the world's largest e-commerce market, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

In fact, over the past 20 years, China has enjoyed by far the highest average growth rate in household consumption of any major economy, though capital investment has grown even faster.

The reality is that with large wage hikes and better access to health care and other social provisions, there is a surging middle class with rapidly rising discretionary income. This is happening in the largest urbanisation drive in human history, with third- and fourth-tier cities in inner provinces taking the lead. More economic opportunities inland would help in reforming the household registration system. This is critically needed to end the social and economic marginalisation of some 240 million rural migrants, by luring them back to their home turfs.

The second, related, question is whether, with declining exports, there will be sufficient jobs to stimulate greater consumption. Although the official unemployment rate has stayed around 4.1 per cent for the past decade, this hides huge lay-offs in unskilled jobs and high unemployment among an annual supply of 6.9 million graduates.

However, these problems are offset by robust growth in service jobs and rapidly rising private-sector opportunities in the inner regions, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. Although compared with last year, demand for labour in the second quarter this year declined by 2.8 per cent (167,000 jobs), there are still 107 jobs for every 100 job-seekers, especially in the western and central provinces.

The third question is whether China will be able to transcend low-value-added production towards an economy built on innovation and proprietary technology. Only a few Chinese brands are making their mark globally. Nevertheless, according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, for the first time, China now tops the world in filed patents, trademarks and industrial designs. What is more, with its financial resources, China is beginning to acquire some of the world's top brands.

The fourth question is whether China will be able to reform its repressive financial system and state sector, to improve capital utilisation. This is perhaps the last hurdle jealously guarded by vested interests, which holds back China. The recent credit squeeze imposed by Beijing on local governments' borrowing shenanigans and the abolition of the lending-rate floor for banks - albeit baby steps - are nevertheless a clarion call to arms.

The fifth question is whether China will be choked in pollution before achieving a higher-income economy. Out of sheer necessity, China is pushing rapidly ahead with a green strategy. In less than a decade, it leads in a number of renewable energies. According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, fossil energy is forecast to drop from 92.7 per cent of total energy demand now to 80 per cent by 2020 and 45 per cent by 2050, while renewable energy will rise from 6.7 per cent to 16 per cent by 2020, and to 45 per cent by 2050.

Under the current five-year plan, China plans to cut its energy intensity (energy used per unit of gross domestic product) by 16 per cent, and carbon intensity by 17 per cent. China seems on track with these targets. In an age of resource scarcity and climate change, there is no alternative to green development.

The sixth question is whether China will be able to win the fight against corruption and improve governance. There is now a raging nationwide anti-corruption campaign. Many senior heads are beginning to roll and the entire bureaucracy is being kept on its toes. The new leadership is setting an example of down-to-earth, no-nonsense frugality and is holding party secretaries to account for people-based governance. When the whole party's survival is at stake, these actions are unlikely to be a flash in the pan.

Last but not least, we should ask whether China, a rising world power, could learn to be at peace with itself and the world. In recent years, China has become the largest contributor of peacekeeping forces among permanent members of the UN Security Council. It also chairs an anti-piracy co- ordination committee, plays a crucial role in six-party talks on North Korea, and most recently hosted separate meetings in Beijing with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. A rising China is thus likely to embrace a greater role in maintaining world order. What remains unclear is how it will respond to rising domestic social and political aspirations.

Although there are still many difficult mountains to climb, if China succeeds in delivering a new social contract to its people and a new custodianship in the global commons, China's real renaissance could well be just around the corner.

Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong