At the enormous Pacific Department Store on Shanghai’s Huaihai Road, barriers block the street entrances and windows are shuttered. The store, which was one of the largest on one of the city’s busiest shopping streets for nearly two decades, closed in January. The shell of the store now sits incongruously opposite the K11 mall, which has been thriving ever since implementing a smart re-think of the shopping mall concept a couple of years ago. The lesson of the different fates of these two shopping centers is clear—adapt or die. Retail is not declining in China, it’s just changing.
Predicting China’s future is hard given its size, history and complexity of population, but it’s easy to share an opinion about the country—anybody can come in and say something about China, whether it’s news media or self-styled pundits. The cost of entry for having a view on China is so low that basically anybody can have one. The ongoing topic is the Chinese economy: bulls and bears have been arguing non-stop about the state of the economy. Damien Ma, Fellow of the Think Tank at the Chicago-based Paulson Institute, talks about how find the true signal in the noise, and discusses the less relevant factors one should dismiss.
Under the banner industrial policy “Made in China 2025”, China seeks to replace the advanced foreign manufactured goods that it has long relied upon with domestically-produced goods. But the effort is spooking the foreign business community, and the plan may not address China’s most genuine needs. Precise details of the implementation of the grand policy are only now beginning to emerge. For Chinese companies, the real long-term impact of the plan is at best unclear. But for foreign companies, although there will be business opportunities in the short-term, the plan as a whole presents big challenges to their future in China.
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.
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.
Seven years ago, around 70% of passengers in US-China air trips were American. But today, more than 50% of travelers are Chinese. Flying used to be a luxury mode for travel in China, but now is for the masses. Data shows that by 2029 China will overtake the US as the world’s largest passenger market. The increasing passenger demand has not only brought Chinese airlines big successes in the past decade but also some real challenges like lengthy delays and poor service. In fact, Chinese airlines are struggling to keep up with growth in demand, and compared to foreign counterparts, they are not as global nor as profitable as they should be.
Just a few years ago, China was a major obstacle to a global agreement on climate change. But the attitude of the government has changed, to the delight of all. But it will take more than good will to clean up and it will be a long time before the smog lifts. In this sense, the idea that China will be a ‘Green Leader’ anytime soon says more about how far they have to go than how far they have come. Yet in recognizing the problems and directing investments towards new technologies, China has stumbled upon a realistic expectation of leadership in the energy technologies of the low-carbon future.
Thirty years ago, there was such nationalist angst in the United States over Japanese buyouts of American companies that Hollywood even made a movie about it. In Ron Howard’s 1986 comedy Gung Ho, the fictional Assan Motors Corporation swoops in to buy an idled auto plant in a desperate Pennsylvania company town. The film was a comedy and of course ended with cooperation prevailing and the plant being saved. There is an obvious parallel with the situation today with the US agonizing over Chinese investments in a remarkably similar way to how it worried about Japanese takeovers in the 1980s.
Chinese people love to try new technologies. Over the past year, virtual reality exploded across the country, attracting attention as well as investment from people who see a potential wave of the future: Analysts predict that China’s VR market will be worth $8.5 billion by 2020. But the real-world business of VR, which surged largely on the back of heavy investment, is less solid than it could be. Some people expect the technology to bring revolutionary changes to many industries like gaming, films and shopping but currently a huge portion of the VR market is still for video games and the business model is not yet solidly defined.
Debt is a ticking-time bomb for the Chinese economy. In the past three years central government stopped local governments from financing through investment vehicles and set a cap for the issuance of bonds. But new forms of debt continue to be formed. Local officials appear not to care about borrowing more, as long as the money can be used in projects that may translate to political achievements. And with those achievements, officials will be promoted to a higher level–as will the debt burden. A more worrisome thought will be: can those additional government debts and investments support China’s long-term growth?