Mainland wage gains have moderated on weaker corporate profits, capping consumer demand as the government seeks to sustain a rebound after a seven-quarter economic slowdown.
Average urban salaries rose 12 per cent in the first nine months from a year earlier without adjusting for inflation, slowing from 14.4 per cent for all of last year and 13.3 per cent in 2010, government data shows. Restaurant operator Yum Brands reports smaller pay increases, and labour ministry data shows the same for minimum wages.
Deeper declines in wage growth would undermine efforts by the new leadership under Xi Jinping to boost consumer spending and shift the world's second-biggest economy away from dependence on investment and exports.
Overcapacity in manufacturing is weighing on profits, with the latest reading due today when the statistics bureau releases industrial companies' net income for the year to October.
"Given the poor profit picture, wage growth is bound to slow down in the coming quarters and this is set to reduce the robustness of consumption," said Louis Kuijs, chief China economist at Royal Bank of Scotland in Hong Kong, who formerly worked at the World Bank in Beijing.
"The expected slowdown will impact the rebalancing in the sense that it will reduce the relative role of consumption in the short term."
Li Keqiang, the second-highest ranked official in the new Communist Party leadership and set to take over from Wen Jiabao as premier in March, said last week that household spending is key to boosting local demand. Minimum wages rose an average 19.4 per cent in 18 provinces this year up to September 30, government data shows.
That follows nine-month gains of 21.7 per cent in 21 provinces last year and 24 per cent in 30 provinces in 2010. China has targeted an annual average increase of 13 per cent for 2011-15.
Consumption, which includes government and household spending, fell to 49.1 per cent of gross domestic product in 2011 from 59.6 per cent in 2002, when Hu Jintao began his decade as Communist Party chief.
Last year's figure was close to the lowest contribution since China's reform and opening up policy started in 1978, government data shows.
"Changing this model has become of paramount importance if China is to avoid a disruptive bust in investment in the next one to two years and lapse into a middle-income trap in the medium term," George Magnus, senior economic adviser at UBS wrote last week, referring to growth slowdowns in developing nations after incomes rise.
In his last major speech as Communist Party chief this month, Hu vowed to double per capita income by 2020 from 2010, a target that HSBC estimates would signal real growth of about 7 per cent a year.
China's economy expanded 7.4 per cent in the third quarter from a year earlier, the slowest pace in three years. Analysts forecast a rebound in the October-December period to 7.7 per cent, based on the median estimate in a survey this month.
Growth in investment growth has outpaced consumption for years, posing dangers including higher bad debts, overcapacity, lower profitability, environmental degradation, social instability and external imbalances, according to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The global financial crisis exposed the risks to China's economy from its dependence on exports as shipments fell for 13 months and about 20 million migrant workers lost their jobs.
Yum Brands, the US-based operator of KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants which has about 5,000 outlets in China, had a smaller increase in labour cost of 8 per cent in the last quarter for the third quarter running.
"Food inflation is falling, so there is less need to help minimum-wage workers," said Alaistair Chan, a Sydney-based economist for Moody's Analytics. "Median wage growth will naturally slow as it gets higher, because productivity gains slow" and diminishing returns to capital and labour set in, Chan said.
Consumer prices increased 1.7 per cent in October from a year earlier, down from a three-year high of 6.5 per cent in July 2011. Food costs rose 1.8 per cent last month, down from an 11.9 per cent gain a year earlier.