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Tuesday November 10, 2009 - 19:39:24 GMT
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Improbable China part IThis is the first in a two part column on the Chinese economy
On the weekends the line to see Chairman Maoâ€™sâ€™ body in his mausoleum
in Tiananmen Square can stretch for blocks. This fall Beijing is full
of Chinese tourists. In the Forbidden City, in the Summer Palace and
especially in the brand new malls and shopping complexes, groups of
rural tourists in matching red or yellow baseball caps troop diligently
behind their guides and stare at the big new city.
These travelers are from an older China. They come from the farms and
small villages where the majority of Chinese live. In the countryside
change is slow and life conservative. But almost all of what they will
see in Beijing is brand new. The sleek office towers and highways, the
Olympic stadiums and fleets of new cars did not exist 20 years ago;
most of modern Beijing was built in the last decade. The sights of the
capital must be far more amazing to a farmer from Yunnan or a herder
from Gansu than to a visitor from New York, London or Moscow.
But these visitors are not just tourists; this new China belongs to
them also. Their attitude and good will matters and maintaining their
support for the economic policies of the government is one of the chief
goals of the Beijing rulers. If China is to continue to prosper it is
these people who must be given a chance for the life that has already
arrived for many others in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
China largely escaped the ruin that came over Western
financial institutions last fall. But it could not avoid the economic
effects of the debacle. The Chinese government has attempted to sustain
its economy by spending more than $900 billion of its own and state
bankâ€™s funds to support its $4.3 trillion economy until the global
trade system recovers and demand for goods once again flows to Chinese
Chinese economic growth since the crash of last September has never
approached the standard recession definition of two consecutive
quarters of negative GDP. Third quarter growth as recorded by the
government was 8.9%. It was 7.9% in the second and 6.1% in the first.
These figures are deceptive twice over. Chinaâ€™s population of 1.33
billion is still growing though only 0.65% a year and the government
estimates that 8.0% GDP expansion is necessary just to give each yearâ€™s
new workers employment. But internal migration of rural agricultural
workers to the cities and economic development zones is adding
uncounted millions more job seekers to the unemployment roles of the
new industrial China. These workers have to be accommodated or sent
Obtaining an 8% year on year increase in GDP is the bare minimum
acceptable to the Beijing economic planners. In the minds of the
central authorities anything lower risks the civil unrest that has so
often in Chinaâ€™s history shaken the hold of the central government.
The 7.7% National Bureau of Statistics growth estimate for the first
three quarters of 2009 is best viewed, and probably by the government
as well though not in official pronouncements, as a successful stop gap
rather than a permanent accomplishment because it has been produced by
an expenditure of savings rather than a permanent advance in capacity
to meet expanding demand.
Is it really surprising that a cash and credit stimulus over a
year worth almost one quarter of national GDP has produced a burst of
economic action? How could it be otherwise? But even the reality of the
8.9% growth can be called in question.
Various secondary statistics including year over year figures
for exports, down 23.0% in July, 23.4% in August and 15.2% in September
and imports, off an average 11.8% monthly in the third quarter do not
draw a picture of economic expansion let alone 8.9% activity. The
Chinese economy is almost 40% dependant on exports for GDP; if exports
are not increasing what is generating the demand for Chinese products?
Domestic consumption, retail sales?
As with the astonishing figures for auto sales, 70.5% higher
in July, 94.7% in August and 83.6% in September which are supported by
government purchase incentives, retails sales statistics are likely
inflated by provisions that do not reflect actual end consumption.
Retail sales rose an average of 15.36% per month year on year in the
third quarter and 15.00% monthly in the second. But sales statistics
include goods produced but not yet sold, the equivalent of inventory
and sales numbers in the United States. Although it is probable that
the Chinese economy is growing due to the massive government
involvement it is improbable that it is expanding as rapidly as
reported by national statisticians.
In purely anecdotal observations over the past week the malls
are full of people but buyers are few and even department store clerks
resort to actively touting their goods. Everyone questioned considered
prices in the property market to be highly inflated. The status of
private real estate in China is unclear. Typically seventy-five year
property leases are treated as ownership and bought and sold.
Chinaâ€™s willingness to do what is necessary to keep its
economy growing and having amassed the ability to do so on her own can
certainly be applauded but Beijingâ€™s actions should not be mistaken for
an altruistic contribution to global economic well being.
It is understandable that the world should look to China as
the new economic savior. But China alone cannot support the global
economy. If lower consumption and GDP have really arrived in the United
States, they will not be far behind in China.
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