Zhou Xin
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Zhou Xin
My Take
by Zhou Xin

Why silencing debate over China’s economy is bad for the country

  • Alternative voices have been dismissed, despite China’s economic failings becoming too real to ignore
  • The elephant in the room is how the country can balance economic growth and its zero-Covid policy

According to a recent joke shared among Chinese economists, few of them are willing to talk about the domestic economy these days, finding a lot more comfort instead in debating topics such as the risk of recession in the US.

The reluctance to raise questions about China’s economic situation or Beijing’s related policies is understandable, as Chinese authorities are getting less tolerant of dissenting voices.

Expressing contradictory views on a government policy could be seen as a deliberate affront to central authorities. Even a well-intended reminder of market risks can be seen as something that “bad-mouths” the government or a “malicious attempt to short the Chinese economy”.

A number of voices in China have already been silenced, with their Chinese social media accounts shut down and their names blacklisted by local media outlets.

China censors more economists after critical takes on zero-Covid

Any mention of economic dangers could come under accusations of failing to spread “positive energy”, despite the country’s economic failings becoming too real to ignore.

In March, when China announced its annual growth target of 5.5 per cent for 2022, it was widely hailed as pragmatic. Four weeks later, the Shanghai lockdown happened. Now it seems unlikely that the country will be able to match that goal in any single quarter this year.

Domestic commentaries and analyses about the world’s second-largest economy increasingly read like they are lifted from government documents.

The consequences are significant when there is insufficient debate about economic policies, causing results that policymakers did not intend. Even when the policy direction is correct, a top-down, cookie-cutter approach to implementation can generate new problems.

For instance, China’s intention to reduce bubbles in the property market is laudable, and the government is right to think that the debt levels of property developers have become too high. Still, a heavy-handed approach of restricting credit access from those companies might be reckless amid a sharp economic slowdown.

For now, many big questions are clouding China’s economic future. The elephant in the room is how the country can balance economic growth and its zero-Covid policy. Is it possible to achieve both goals down the road, as the country did in 2020 and 2021? If not, what is the way out?

Is Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of “development is the hard truth” still valid? In other words, is China still choosing pragmatism over ideology?

These questions are important, as they matter for all Chinese people and even the whole world, and they require thorough discussions and debate. It is certainly not a good sign when the country’s wisest experts are withholding their answers.