Historians say that paper currency was invented by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty. Today, their descendants are taking the lead again: Young Chinese are abandoning cash. Shop anywhere in China–from a grand shopping mall to a small street vendor–and you can use your smartphone to pay. Of course, the wide acceptance of smartphones and 4G internet is one thing, the rise of fintech firms like Ant Financial is another. Yet to seriously phase out cash, authorities and professionals are pursuing something more than just QR codes: digital currencies based on blockchain technology. Despite the cracking down on unfavorable operations like ICOs, China is studying blockchain in a rather serious way.
After meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this year, Donald Trump backtracked and dropped his accusation of China being a currency manipulator. But the issue of currency manipulation is still debatable. The RMB is certainly not a free-floating currency and the controls are complex. China’s central bank sets the daily rate with movements only allowed in a narrow 2% band. This did not change for years, until August 2015 when the central bank reformed a bit by beginning to set the daily RMB rates based on the closing value of the previous day’s interbank forex market. But it’s not considered a major change and the way to achieve a more open currency remains difficult.
Many people in India still have the impression that Chinese products are cheap and of low quality. Yet India’s smartphone market is 51% Chinese, which may surprise many Indians. And it’s not just smartphones: More Chinese companies, from new tech firms to traditional manufacturers, are heading to China’s southern neighbor, along with many of the largest multinational enterprises. Companies like Ebay, Apple and Uber, have all targeted India as their next growth market. For Chinese companies, though, India market entry might not be easy. They have to face both their old competitors as well as rising local Indian firms.
Foreign Direct Investment has been an incredibly important catalyst for China’s economic development, bringing in the capital, technology and know-how that made China the world’s factory. But China is no longer so fresh and attractive to foreign investors as return on assets is falling. FDI to China increased 3.9% on the year to RMB 731.8 billion in the first 11 months of 2016—the 2015 expansion was 5.6%. Besides, increasing labor costs have become a heavy burden to foreign enterprises, especially manufacturers, who can cut costs by moving to Southeast Asia.
Chinese companies have been on a buying spree around the globe over the past two years. 2016 witnessed a record level of Chinese outbound mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity, with 932 deals worth over $220 billion taking place, an increase of 246% compared to 2015, according to PwC China. However, the surge in outbound investments has brought concerns from both Chinese authorities and recipient countries; the latter are becoming more cautious regarding the presence of Chinese capital in large-scale deals in key industries. Affected by such concerns and tighter government scrutiny, the number of M&A deals might not be as numerous in 2017 as in 2016, but the trend will not stop.
China’s One Belt, One Road initiative is the fusion of two development schemes—the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Together they comprise infrastructure between 65 countries containing 63% of the world population, more than 35% of global merchandise trade, and 30% of global GDP. To date about $ 150 billion in investment has been committed.
China’s economic growth over the past few decades has impressed the world. But the world’s second largest economy now faces a difficult transformation: from relying on exports and investments to developing domestic demand. That’s not easy. Government-led stimulus is only a temporary solution and only looked reasonable in the first few years after the recent global financial crisis. In fact, the main problem facing the Chinese economy has been the weak demand in domestic market which manifested clearly in 2006, and became more obvious when growth slowed down.
In China, while state-owned enterprises dominate the monopoly industries like petroleum and telecom, the country’s private economy is still the major source for growth in production, employment and exports. Private companies are very sensitive to market changes: When profit margins shrink, they will jump out quickly. Expectations are low while the Chinese economy is under the ‘New Normal’, but the government is still concerned about private investment stagnation. The top economic agency has created a work team to look into the problem and made 60 proposals to solve the slow-down issue. But will top-down methods work?
Bitcoin, a virtual currency traded online, was not invented in China, yet China is where 80% of the virtual “coins” are minted and 90% of the transactions are made. Currently, the global bitcoin market amounts to some $14.5 billion, roughly the same amount of money as Apple’s European back taxes. If the virtual currency’s popularity continues to grow, decisions made by Chinese investors and regulators may determine whether bitcoin fades to a historical footnote, like Napster or the eight-track tape, or becomes the silicon cornerstone of a new global financial order. A combination of factors thrust China into this decisive role.
One day in October, 2015, a group of disgruntled investors gathered in Beijing to lodge a complaint: they had bought so-called wealth management products from a state-owned guarantor backed company that managed nearly $8 billion in assets, and which had collapsed later. Such defaults have been uncommon in China’s wealth management product space, but the now-gargantuan industry may pose a large risk to China’s financial system. Many risky aspects of the wealth management products industry make people worry about the possibility of a chain reaction similar to the 2008 financial crisis, when the US mortgage market buckled under similar strains.