First coined by two World Bank experts in 2007, the middle-income trap phenomenon—the existence of which is disputed by some economists—describes how growth in developing countries tends to stagnate when gross national income (GNI) per capita rises above a certain level, as higher wages push up production costs. Countries can become “stuck in the middle” as they struggle to compete with low-income newcomers where labor costs are still low, and advanced high-income economies with strong innovation. Since 1960, only 15 countries have escaped the“middle-income trap.” Can China beat the odds?
A blog post by a self-styled financial veteran knocked the wind out of the Chinese business community recently. The author, Wu Xiaoping, argued that the country’s private firms should step aside and allow the state to increase its dominance of the economy. The private sector has “fulfilled its task of assisting the state-owned economy in achieving its rapid development,” Wu wrote. The article went viral on social media, sparking criticism from entrepreneurs and support from left-wing commenters. Under normal circumstances, a blog by an obscure middle manager would never garner so much attention. But Wu’s post touched a nerve. These are tough times for private firms.
A new year is a time for fresh starts and new beginnings. At least, that is what policymakers in Beijing will be hoping. The second half of 2018 produced some negative headlines on the economy as a domestic deleveraging drive and the intensifying trade war with the US slowed growth and undermined confidence. Will these headwinds continue battering the Chinese economy or will Beijing be able to engineer a recovery? There are few people better placed to answer this question than Shen Jianguang, one of China’s most respected economic analysts, whose career has included stints at the European Central Bank, IMF and OECD.
The moment finally came just after Lunar New Year, 2016. That morning, residents in Lintao, a city of 200,000 in the remote northwest, turned on the taps, but no water flowed. The groundwater that provided the town’s supply had simply run out. A year later, Si County, a cluster of settlements 2,000 kilometers to the southeast, also ran dry. After municipal wells began to empty, local schools and hospitals resorted to drilling their own. In the north, which contains nearly half of the population but only 20% of the water resources, there is not enough to meet demand. Groundwater storage on the North China Plain fell at a rate of more than 6 trillion liters a year between 2002 and 2014.
For China’s technology sector, the decision of the United States to hit Shenzhen-based telecommunications giant ZTE with a trade ban in April was an abrupt and painful wake-up call. Until then, many in China had grown accustomed to thinking of their country as a global leader in technology. After all, China’s smartphones, high-speed railways and e-commerce platforms were the envy of the world. But in the days following the ban, designed to punish ZTE for violating US sanctions on Iran and North Korea, it became clear that one of China’s most successful companies was totally dependent on American suppliers.
China’s huge current account surplus was once the symbol of its status as the “factory of the world.” But in recent years, that surplus has been shrinking. Last year, it sank to 1.3% of GDP. The half-year deficit announced in August was the first in more than 20 years. Some economists predict China could soon be running a current account deficit. If that happens, it will be a watershed moment with implications for all manner of issues, from the policies Beijing is able to pursue to the status of the RMB as a global currency and maybe even the way the US finances its debt.
In October, the CKGSB Business Conditions Index (BCI) dropped slightly from the worst reading to date in September, from 41.9 to 41.4. Although not quite as dramatic a decline as the previous month, the deterioration of conditions for doing business in China should not be underestimated. It shows that the majority of sampled companies, some of the most competitive private businesses in China, are pessimistic about their prospects for the next six months.
Cleaning up China’s poisoned air, water and soil and transforming its industry-dependent economy is a vast task, one that may need an investment of up to 620 billion per year—and government can only directly fund 10-15%. To achieve its ambitions, the government needs to attract investment from the financial sector, private companies, households and international investors. Green finance offers the opportunity and China has rapidly established itself as one of the biggest players in the global green finance movement. But how green are China’s green bonds? Many analysts argue that if you scratch under the Chinese system’s green veneer, it reveals a different color entirely.
China’s logistics industry is on the fast track to a bright future. The country’s delivery firms are already posting impressive growth figures, and rapidly rising consumer spending is set to send demand soaring further. Read our infographic to learn more.
By 2045, there will be nearly 350 million people in China aged over 65. The rapidly aging society is the legacy of a huge baby boom that was abruptly halted by the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979. Over the long term, this trend threatens to drag on economic growth. There were five Chinese taxpayers for every senior citizen in 2010; by 2030, there will be just two. But for businesses that stay ahead of the demographic curve, there will be big opportunities—another 200 million new customers. Slowly but surely, digitally-savvy seniors are changing the game for brands in China.