Last evening, Beijing time, Premier Li gave the most anticipated speech at Davos. One day after China’s GDP came in at 7.4 percent, Li assured the packed audience, of international business and government leaders, that China will avoid a hard landing, continue its ongoing reform and restructuring and ensure a prolonged period of sustainable future medium-to-fast growth.
Even before the release of the GDP numbers, a number of Western media and policy pundits were predicting a China stall. Issues with the real estate sector, local government debt, SOE intransience, shadow banking, over capacity and a weak global economy were cited as the factors which would continue to push growth rates lower in the future. But even amongst the hardened doubters, there were signs of dissension, with the Wall Street Journal grudgingly indicating respect for China’s handling of its economic affairs.
Premier Li: Don’t worry about a China slowdown
The 2014 results represented the slowest growth in 24 years and the first time the government has missed its target on the downside. But Li was in no way defensive, while acknowledging China’s 10-trillion-dollar economy will continue to face downward pressures in 2015, Li indicated that the country will avoid systemic financial risks and will improve its quality of growth to ensure an “appropriate” pace of expansion. The rise in urban and rural employment numbers, rising real income levels, moderate inflation, a 50 percent individual savings rate, a 5 percent decrease in energy per unit of GDP, significant growth in China’s tertiary industries/services and record numbers of new businesses, added meat to his assertions.
Li, in essence continued the line of thought he voiced at the Summer Davos in Tianjin, where he indicated China’s actions are predicated on the realization that its economic growth pattern wasn’t sustainable and that to avoid the “Middle Income Trap” China’s economic engine needed to be restructured to be more efficient and competitive.
“We will continue to pursue a proactive fiscal policy and a prudent monetary policy,” Li said. “We will step up anticipatory adjustment and fine-tuning as well as targeted macro-regulation, in order to stabilize economic growth, upgrade its structure and achieve better quality and performance.”
Li is clear that China does not regard the fiscal and monetary policy tools Western governments are limited to, as an effective means of transforming its economy.
“For the Chinese economy to maintain medium-to-high speed of growth and achieve medium-to-high level of development,” Li said, “China must properly use the hand of the government and the hand of the market, and give full scope to both the traditional and new engines of growth.”
This highlights a sharp contrast between China’s “Big Hand” (government) over the “Invisible Hand” (market) approach, and Western democratic/capitalist models, which put the market on top and government as a kind of enabling and clean up mechanism.
“To foster a new engine of growth,” Li said, “we need to encourage mass entrepreneurship and innovation, and mobilize the wisdom and power of the people.”
The word innovation was repeated 33 times during Li’s Summer Davos speech and it continues to be central to Li’s vision of a more prosperous China. With 3 of the top 5 mobile phone manufactures and a host of other technological innovators like Alibaba and Tencent, there is a new sense of confidence within and outside about China’s future.
“To transform the traditional engine of growth, we need to focus on increasing the supply of public goods and services, and strengthening the weak link of the economy,” the premier said.
This references the need to make China’s SOEs, government and financial sectors more efficient and responsive to the needs and pressures of the market.
China, he added, “will continue to promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, and open up its service sector, central and western regions as well as the capital market wider to the outside world.”
This is a list of areas which China will be opening up to more investment internally and externally. The Shanghai FTZ has been used as a model and will be extended to Fujian, Tianjin and Guangzhou. They represent the cutting edge of a new kind of economic development platform which will be extended inland once the models have been proven.
“China will encourage its companies to explore the international market, and work for common development with other countries through greater openness towards each other,” Li said.
Premier Li is signaling strong support for globalization and indicating a desire to work regionally and internationally to create better trade mechanisms. The New Silk Road, extension of transportation infrastructure into Southeast Asia, AIIB, BRICS Bank etc… are strong indicators of this desire which is essential to China’s resources imports and finished goods exports.
So, what can we expect from China, the second largest economy in the world in 2015?
Some say the single biggest risk for the economy is still the interlinked and rising problems associated with shadow banking, local government and corporate debts and a stagnant real estate sector. But at about 54 percent of China’s GDP, China’s debt is far below most developed nations. The key will be how local governments are funded and regulated. This touches on the real estate sector as well which is badly in need of reform but because it represents 25 percent of the economy it must be handled carefully.
Continued increase in consumption. Consumption now accounts for 51.2 percent of GDP in China. Though it is still considerably lower than the 70 percent average for the developed countries, it continues to move in a positive direction. The services sector has now overtaken the industrial sector as the largest segment of the Chinese economy and seems to be following the government’s playbook to re-balance the economy.
China is developing more confidence in its ability to innovate and lead cutting-edge FMCG markets and this trend will continue further balancing the public-investment and export-driven, forces which drove the economy in the past.
China has also taken some steps to solve its overcapacity issues. A two pronged approach which is shifting heavy industrial capacity in areas like transportation infrastructure to projects in neighboring areas and the world stage. For example the merging of China’s major railroad companies and the projects they will being doing in the Mekong delta region. The second prong is the identification and closing of first and second generation industrial plants which is how China has been able to achieve a 5 percent increased efficiency in energy use per unit of GDP.
In the financial sector expect more pressure on the big banks to be more SME focused in exchange for more liberal controls of lending and deposit rates. An example: the lifting of the deposit rate ceiling, the deposit insurance draft plan being considered and the new property registration system will standardize the markets and provide new financial product opportunities. To make things more transparent the government has adopted new budgetary laws, local government debt regulations and encouraged state-owned enterprises to adopt mixed ownership structures.
It is clear though that fiscal and monetary policy will be part of the symphony not the main players. Premier Li was clear that he opposed another monetary stimulus to push growth rates and instead, would rely primarily on structural reforms. A thought which was expressed in Davos on Wednesday, by Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People’s Bank of China, who also expressed a willingness to sacrifice growth for stability.
“If China’s economy slows down a bit, but meanwhile is more sustainable for the medium and long term, I think that’s good news,” he said.
China’s growth cannot be delinked from the global context. As the main driver of the world’s economy since the US mortgage crisis meltdown, China has taken on a new role. Just as importantly and expanding China needs access to raw materials if it intends to consume and export finished goods. A resurgent US will help China, but a stagnating EU will hurt it. These seem to be the dominant trends which WTO started and which will carry on for some years.
The premier said China will go full speed ahead with liberalizing interest rates, allowing markets to play a greater role in setting prices, in forging trade agreements and opening up its financial system.
“We will not be afraid of difficulties, and we will continue to move along the path of reform and restructuring,” Li said.
All of this, he suggested, was not only in China’s interests but also that of the global economy.
“China’s reform and development will bring more opportunities for the world.”
Since China revealed its 2014 annual growth rate of 7.4 percent on Tuesday, there has been heated discussion worldwide. Some observers cited the figure, the lowest in China since 1990, as proof of the lost glory of the Chinese economy.
Several Western institutes predicted that China’s economic growth would tumble to about 6.5 percent in 2015 and some even proclaimed that 2015 would be the last year that China would see growth figures above 6 percent. Last week, a column in the Financial Times said the Indian economy may outstrip China’s this year.
When China’s GDP growth was above 10 percent, many voices expounded that such a high rate would be harmful. However, just as China is committed to economic restructuring and a turn to the “new normal,” there appears to be more catcalls and scary predictions for the future. We have to be unswerving in our commitment not to return to the GDP-oriented path.
GDP figures are so favored by the media as they are easy to grasp. But China has passed the era of GDP-fixation and Chinese people now harbor more expectations for economic development. Despite continued pursuit of wealth, we highly value safety, environmental protection, equal opportunity and explicit rules. With money, there should also be dignity.
Chinese economic and social development has entered an era of multiple targets, which will become more effective. But sometimes the effects are invisible. This makes it harder to measure than what GDP does.
It’s different in India. Long overshadowed by China, it is keen to become the best in some aspects. It is in dire need of evidence to show that it is not inferior to China.
Even if the Indian economy does outstrip China’s one day, the impact on the Chinese public will be far less than on its own people, since India has been waiting for the outcome for so long. The West seems to be also long expecting the day. Some Western media attach more significance to India’s overtaking China than Chinese people do.
China’s GDP growth is unlikely to always rank top of the global list and we won’t modify our set direction in social and economic development.
The “new normal” in the Chinese economy doesn’t mean stagnation nor recession, but a strategic adjustment toward quality and sustainable development. We have such a widespread capacity to push forward economic and social development and meet people’s expectations for a better life.
China’s growth of 7 percent maintained in the period of economic and social restructuring is no less significant than 10 percent in the past times of extensive development. While the Chinese government is capable of achieving higher growth, its choice of lowering the rate deserves more praise.
China has never been applauded by the West in its development since the end of the Cold War. We have grown used to this. We need to stay firm to achieve our target of deepening reform.