What’s Next for China?

Xi Jinping

When Deng Xiaoping assumed control of China following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, he was in charge of one of the poorest countries in the world. The average person in China survived on the equivalent of $3 per day and the bulk of the population worked on government-run collective farms. Deng’s response to this dismal situation was a series of economic reforms that led China away from Mao’s socialist regime toward a free market economy. The results have been spectacular.

Since 1978, when Deng’s reforms began, real GDP per capita in China has increased from $381 (in 2010 prices) to $10,431 in 2020. Today, China is a solidly middle-income country on a par with Mexico or Indonesia. According to World Bank data, in 1981 more than 875 million people in China lived in extreme poverty. By 2019, fewer than 1 million did. The world has never seen such a high economic growth rate sustained over such a long period or as dramatic a reduction in poverty in such a short period. Deng brought about an increase in the material well-being of his people unrivaled in history.

But, as we discuss in the Apply the Concept in Section 11.5 of Chapter 11 in Macroeconomics (Section 21.5 in Chapter 21 of Economics), despite Deng’s success he failed to resolve a conflict at the heart of the Chinese system:  Deng and the other party leaders saw their economic reforms as strengthening socialism and not as replacing socialism with capitalism. They had no intention of undermining the role of the Communist Party in Chinese society or of introducing democracy. The result is the peculiar situation China now finds itself in under current leader Xi Jinping: A country that extensively relies on free markets ruled by an autocratic regime that justifies its dictatorship as necessary for the preservation of socialism.

In 2022, at the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi seems likely to be elected to a third term as leader of the Communist Party, breaking with the tradition since Deng of leaders serving only two terms. Like Mao, Xi’s apparent intention is to retain his office indefinitely. Xi’s speeches indicate that he believes that China is following a path like the one that Karl Marx, writing in the 1800s, believed countries would follow, which would culminate in a socialist economy. He sees Mao as having reasserted China’s independence from Europe and the United States, although at his death China remained largely rural and agricultural with very little scope for market activity. Deng continued the evolution of the economy by establishing a market system that raised incomes and allowed for industrial development. Xi sees himself as finishing the process by leading China to become a “modern socialist nation” by 2035.

As we discuss in the Apply the Concept, there are a number of obstacles to China’s continued economic growth, obstacles that appear to have increased during 2021 as Xi’s plans have become clearer.

  1. As part of his plan to transition China to being a socialist nation, Xi has increased government regulation of China’s economy. He has imposed large fines on technology firms such as Alibaba and Tencent and on the ride-hailing firm Didi. A government proclamation effectively ended the for-profit school tutoring industry, which seven of ten Chinese students had been using. This government action raised concern among the owners of some small and medium-sized businesses that their investments in their firms could be wiped out arbitrarily without notice. Wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs were also being pressured to devote more funds to charity. Whether increased government regulation will result in entrepreneurs pulling back from the investment needed to sustain economic growth remains to be seen. 
  2. Over the decades since market reforms began, the Chinese economy had been cutting reliance on production by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in favor of production by private firms. Recently, some observers have concluded that Xi plans to increase the share of the economy controlled by SOEs, although his public statements have emphasized the need for SOEs to become more efficient and for the government to reduce its subsidies to these firms. Many of China’s trading partners, including the United States, have objected to these subsidies. If the importance of SOEs in the Chinese economy should increase, it would likely further slow economic growth and increase the frictions between China and its trading partners. 
  3. Economic growth has been slowing down. Between 1978 and 2011, per capita real GDP grew at an annual average rate of 8.9 percent. Between 2012 and 2020 that growth rate slowed to 6.0 percent. Although compared with most other countries, a 6 percent growth rate is quite high, some economists believe that the Chinese government has been overstating the true growth rate. As an article in the Wall Street Journal put it, “real growth has long been one of the ways officials are evaluated in China, and so there is a strong incentive to inflate it—and substantial evidence that has happened.”
  4. China’s population is rapidly aging. Its birthrate of 1.3 children born per woman during her lifetime is well below the rate of 2.1 needed to maintain the population. The working age population has been declining since 2011, as the fraction of the population over 65 has been increasing. Although the populations of Europe, the United States, and other high-income countries have also been aging, those countries have more resources than does China to provide support to retired people, as with the Social Security and Medicare programs in the United States. Because China’s average retirement age is only 54, while its average life expectancy is 77 years, an increasing number of retirees is being supported by a decreasing number of workers. The Chinese government has announced plans to raise the official retirement age but the government has abandoned past attempts to do so in the face of public protests.
  5. The economy’s excessive reliance on investment in real estate. Particularly during the past five years, real estate investment has been an important contributor to the growth of the Chinese economy, accounting for as much as 25 percent of GDP (as opposed to only about 7 percent in the United States). But the difficulties that the Evergrande real estate development firm encountered during 2021 seemed to be an indication that what has been the largest real estate boom in history may be ending. In some cities as many as 40 percent of apartments are empty, making it difficult for Evergrande and other developers to make the interest payments on their loans and bonds. The Chinese government has issued regulations that limit borrowing by real estate developers in an attempt to reduce what the government sees as speculative building of apartments. Whether the government can reduce the importance of real investment in the economy without causing a significant reduction in the economy’s growth rate is uncertain. 
  6. Increasing political problems with other countries. The Chinese government has drawn sharp international criticism for a number of actions: Its repression of the more than one million members of a Muslim minority in western China; its ending the political independence of Hong Kong; the expansion of its military and its threatening actions towards Taiwan (which the Chinese government believes is part of China); and its failure to be forthcoming with information about the origins of the Covid-19 virus. An additional source of disagreements with other governments has been disputes over international trade. Both the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as governments in Europe, have been critical of the Chinese government forcing foreign firms that operate in China to transfer intellectual property to Chinese firms, an action that is in violation of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) rules. The growth of Chinese exports has been greatly helped by China’s membership in the WTO, which may be threatened by what other governments see as China’s violations of WTO rules.

The actions that Xi Jinping takes in the coming years are likely to have a large effect on not just the Chinese economy, but on the world economy. 

Sources: Stella Yifan Xie, “China’s Economy Faces Risk of Yearslong Real-Estate Hangover,” wsj.com, November 8, 2021; “Xi Jinping Is Rewriting History to Justify His Rule for Years to Come,” economist.com, November 6, 2021; Sofia Horta e Costa, “Chinese Developer Controlled by Government Is Latest to Plunge,” bloomberg.com, November 8, 2021; Kevin Rudd, “What Explains Xi’s Pivot to the State?” wsj.com, September 19, 2021; “At 54, China’s Average Retirement Age Is Too Low,” economist.com, June 26, 2021; Nathaniel Taplin, “China’s Economic Data: A Guide for the Dazed and Confused,” wsj.com, January 4, 2021; Stella Yifan Xie and Mike Bird, “The $52 Trillion Bubble: China Grapples With Epic Property Boom,” wsj.com, July 16, 2020; the World Bank; and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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