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Finance & Economy

China’s unique economic model shows limits as economy slows

After the economies of Western nations imploded in late 2008, Chinese leaders began boasting of their nation’s supremacy. Talk spread, not only in China but also across the West, of the advantages of the so-called China model — a vaguely defined combination of authoritarian politics and state-driven capitalism — that was to be the guiding light for this century.

But now, with the recent political upheavals, and a growing number of influential voices demanding a resurrection of freer economic policies, it appears that the sense of triumphalism was, at best, premature, and perhaps seriously misguided. Chinese leaders are grappling with a range of uncertainties, from the once-a-decade leadership transition this year that has been marred by a seismic political scandal, to a slowdown of growth in an economy in which deeply entrenched state-owned enterprises and their political patrons have hobbled market forces and private entrepreneurship.

“Many economic problems that we face are actually political problems in disguise, such as the nature of the economy, the nature of the ownership system in the country and groups of vested interests,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing. “The problems are so serious that they have to be solved now and can no longer be put off.”

On Thursday, China released data that showed its economy was continuing to weaken. Many economists have been urging the government to loosen controls over the financial system, to support lending to private businesses while reining in state-owned enterprises, to allow more movement in exchange rates and interest rates, and to improve social benefits.

Such changes would curb the state’s role, lessen corruption and encourage competition. But making them would involve a titanic power struggle. Executives of Chinese conglomerates, army generals, Politburo members, local officials and the “princeling” children of Communist Party elders have little incentive to refashion a system that fills their coffers.

Another significant aspect of the China model is the growing security apparatus. Its heavy-handed tactics in pursuit of social stability have been called into question by, among other things, more than 30 self-immolations by disaffected Tibetans and a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States precipitated by the plight of a persecuted dissident, Chen Guangcheng. A well-documented uprising last winter against corrupt officials in the southern village of Wukan ignited a debate about how protests should be addressed: by the sword of the security forces, or through mediation by senior officials.

But it is the scandal over Bo Xilai, until recently a member of the party’s elite Politburo, that has most humbled those who previously praised the well-oiled nature of China’s political system and its appearance of unity.

Before the charismatic Mr. Bo lost his party chief post in Chongqing, other leaders were already starting to view him as an increasingly intolerable maverick. After arriving in Chongqing in late 2007, Mr. Bo began what was billed as a crackdown on crime, along with a revival of Mao-era singalongs and welfare policies, aimed at generating populist backing and winning political support from the “new left,” or hard-core socialists, for his bid to join the top-level Politburo Standing Committee, which is scheduled to turn over this year.

Mr. Bo’s bid veered sharply from the traditional route of ascension, which since the era of Deng Xiaoping has been one of back-room patronage and shadowy negotiations among party elders. The problem now in China is that the powers of those elders have diminished with each generation — the current president and party chief, Hu Jintao, is weaker than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who was much weaker than Mr. Deng.

With the dissolution of power, a multitude of factions and alliances are emerging under one-party rule, with no one voice able to impose order.

“China needs a system in place more than ever,” said Wang Kang, a liberal writer from Chongqing. “Only a system can guarantee stability.”

Some say that the purge of Mr. Bo was a correction in the political system, and that the system has returned to normal. But many others argue that given the growing incoherence at the top, and the diversity and reach of mass media in China, it is inevitable that more politicians will adopt Mr. Bo’s populist methods. Cheng Li, a scholar of Chinese politics, noted that at the annual National People’s Congress in March, several rising sixth-generation leaders gave prominent news media interviews, a form of self-promotion that was a break from tradition.

“There are no clear and steadfast rules,” said Wu Si, chief editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a journal of politics and history. “In this confused state, there is bound to be someone like Bo Xilai who deploys various methods to compete to enter the standing committee.”

Mr. Bo’s policies also helped expose another fault line in the China model: the priority placed on economic growth through investment projects carried out by state-owned enterprises, with generous loans from state banks. This is the framework propping up the Chinese economy.

Flush with infrastructure projects, Chongqing, with a population of 31 million, had an economic growth rate of 16.4 percent last year, the highest of any municipality. But the municipal government and local state-owned companies have accumulated $160 billion in debt, according to an estimate by Victor Shih, who studies China’s political economy. Many of those loans might never be repaid.

Policy makers pushing for a different model across China, one that relies more on consumer spending and encourages private enterprise, insist that long-stalled structural overhauls must be restarted. Some see an opening in the coming leadership transition. But the biggest hurdle may be the fact that both departing and incoming leaders have close ties to state-owned enterprises, which are keen to preserve the status quo.

The hesitancy over the next step is heightened by China’s cooling economy. The growth rate slowed to 8.1 percent in the first quarter of this year, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in March cut the forecast for the year to 7.5 percent. The property market is deflating. The data released on Thursday showed that domestic demand is weakening and exports are flagging.

China warded off the global financial crisis with a $580 billion stimulus package and a loosening of bank lending. Its leaders could fall back on that government-led, investment-driven approach if the economy cools too much.

One thing keeping them in check, however, is fear of rampant inflation, which could increase social unrest. Discontent among the poor and middle class is a major source of anxiety for Chinese leaders, yet there are no easy solutions to the widening wealth gap, as long as rapid growth is the priority.

The surging number of protests arising from this gap is another stress point in the China model. Officials rely heavily on domestic security forces to quell what they call “mass incidents,” which one sociologist, Sun Liping, estimated at 180,000 in 2010. In March, the government announced that it planned to spend $111 billion on domestic security this year, a 12 percent increase over 2011, and $5 billion more than this year’s military budget.

During the uprising in Wukan last winter, which began because of what villagers called illegal land seizures by local officials, police units surrounded the village, but backed off after Guangdong Province officials negotiated with the residents. Wang Yang, the provincial party chief, took credit for the peaceful settlement and has proposed that that strategy be more widely adopted, in an implicit criticism of the militant tactics used in “stability maintenance.”

The weakness of those tactics was exposed once again when Mr. Chen, the activist put under house arrest in 2010, made his nighttime escape from village guards who had beaten him and his wife. Mr. Chen, who is blind, fled to the United States Embassy in Beijing. That such brutality could set off a diplomatic crisis between the world’s superpower and its rising rival is as obvious a sign as any of the deep flaws in China’s security methods.

“From the few times I’ve engaged with them,” Mr. Chen said, “I know they have the intention of reforming, of slowly initiating the rule of law. But I don’t know how soon.”

Jonathon Ansfield
New York Times

About chankaiyee2

Author of the book "Tiananmen's Tremendous Achievements" about how with the help of Tiananmen Protests, talented scholars with moral integrity seized power in the Party and state and brought prosperity to China. The second edition of the book will be published within a few days to mark the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Protests All the parts in the first edition remain in the second edition with a few changes due to information available later and better understanding. There are also some changes for improvements of style. The new parts are Chapters 12-19 on events in China after the first edition was published: The fierce power struggle for succession between reformists and conservatives; Xi Jinping winning all elders’ support during his mysterious disappearance for 2 weeks in early September, 2012; and Xi Jinping Cyclone. Chan Kai Yee's new book: SPACE ERA STRATEGY: The Way China Beats The US An eye-opening book that tells the truth how the US is losing to China. The US is losing as it adopts the outdated strategy of Air-Sea Battle while China adopts the space era strategy to pursue integrated space and air capabilities: It is losing due to its diplomacy that has given rise to Russian-Chinese alliance. US outdated strategy has enabled China to catch up and surpass the US in key weapons: Hypersonic weapons (HGV) that Pentagon regards as the weapon that will dominate the world in the future. Aerospaceplane in China’s development of space-air bomber that can engage enemy anywhere in the world within an hour and destroy an entire aircraft carrier battle group within minutes. Anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, anti-ASAT weapons, stealth aircrafts, drones, AEW&C, etc. The book gives detailed descriptions of China’s weapon development based on information mainly from Chinese sources that the author monitors closely. U.S. Must Not Be Beaten by China! China is not a democracy. Its political system cannot prevent the emergence of a despotic leader or stop such a leader when he begins to bring disasters to people. A few decades ago, Mao Zedong, the worst tyrant in world history did emerge and bring disasters to Chinese people. He wanted to fight a nuclear war to replace capitalism with communism but could not bring nuclear holocaust to world people as China was too weak and poor at that time. If a despot like Mao Zedong emerges when China has surpassed the US in military strength, world people will suffer the misery experienced by Chinese people in Mao era. China surpassing the US in GDP is not something to worry about as China has the heavy burden to satisfy its huge population, but China surpassing the US in military strength will be world people’s greatest concern if China remains an autocracy. US people are of much better quality than Chinese people. What they lack is a wise leader to adopt the correct strategy and diplomacy and the creative ways to use its resources in developing its military capabilities. I hope that with the emergence of a great leader, the US can put an end to its decline and remain number one in the world. China, US, space era strategy, air-sea battle, space-air bomber, arms race, weapon development, chan kai yee


4 thoughts on “China’s unique economic model shows limits as economy slows

  1. Reblogged this on Craig Hill.


    Posted by Craig Hill | May 12, 2012, 12:44 pm


  1. Pingback: China acts to boost loans, bolster flagging economy « China Daily Mail - May 13, 2012

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  3. Pingback: U.S. lets China bypass Wall Street for Treasury orders « China Daily Mail - May 22, 2012

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