Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The short, sharp life of 'Chinese century'

By Nick Ottens

If there is to be an Asian century, it won't be China's alone. While it still has hundreds of millions of people living in poverty, the country is losing its cheap labor advantage to East Asian competitors while more industrialized nations in the region are far more receptive to international trade.

The Chinese economy is expected to overtake the United States as the world's largest in sheer size by the middle of this decade but the ruling Communist Party has ample reason to be worried about perpetuating China's impressive growth rates for another generation.

As China's middle class expands in the urban east, it is expecting more than just growth but in the western hinterland, a lack of development and, perhaps even more frustrating to the people there, a lack of political accountability fuels unrest and discontent. The party will be increasingly hard pressed to meet the aspirations of both these peoples. Economic and political openness, as desired in the coastal provinces, would weaken the state's grip on industrial development, which could exacerbate the existing imbalance between cities and countryside.

Chinese labor is already becoming too expensive for some manufacturers who are taking their business to countries as Indonesia and Vietnam while Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan are more attractive for technology companies that require an educated workforce and a business climate that isn't too burdened by regulatory restrictions and corruption.

Labor laws and tax regimes in the rest of South and Southeast Asia are generally more flexible. These countries welcome international trade and investment whereas China seeks to protect its "infant industries" from free and fair competition on the global market. This policy enables the ruling class in Beijing to build high-speed railways across China but the cost, which is less clear, could be hugely detrimental to its economy in the future.

Foreign investors in China have to cope with laws and regulations that are inconsistently enforced - sometimes arbitrary. The Chinese legal system cannot guarantee the sanctity of contracts, which is vital to a market economy. Capital account transactions are tightly regulated.

This is a system that thrives on cronyism where businesses that are connected with local and state officials prosper and companies that aren't could see their investment go up in smoke when a magistrate determines that factory wages should increase by a third, overnight.

China does attract huge amounts of foreign direct investment. In fact, it takes in every month what India assumes in a year. Yet China grows at a rate just two percentage points faster than India. And even there, corruption is endemic.

At its most recent congress in March of this year, the Communist Party affirmed the need to improve "balanced growth", which should translate into increased welfare spending, including subsidies for farmers and the urban underclass. Western stereotypes notwithstanding, the Chinese state is not sitting on an infinite amount of cash however. It cannot simultaneously build a proper welfare state and allow the subsidizing of companies, especially in real estate, to continue unabated. If it wants to expand social programs and thus prevent civil unrest, it has to challenge vested interest with allies in the party.

With major changes in political leadership expected next year, it may not be until 2013 before a comprehensive social agenda is implemented. That could be two years wasted while necessary economic reforms to further open up China to world markets are delayed.

There is another, less immediate concern that could put a stop to this Chinese century before the world has a chance to recognize that it's living in one.

By the middle of the 21st century, 400 million Chinese will have retired. That's more than America's total projected population by that time. India, which is set to overtake China as the world's most populous nation by 2030, is expected to have nearly 400 million people more in 2050 than China.

How is China going to pay for all these old people? China doesn't have an expansive public pension system, which means that many Chinese in their prime, often without siblings because of their government's "one child" policy, will have to provide not only for their parents but, as life expectancy rises, their grandparents as well. Naturally, wages will have to rise to accommodate this unprecedented level of dependency which can only happen if Chinese labor becomes much more productive and skilled - fast.

The party has to manage this while not only dealing with internal pressure to democratize; it is also expected to finance American and European deficit spending when these continents blame China for its "colonialist" scramble for resources, including water, in Africa and Central Asia - resources it desperately needs to continue to grow; to invest in its future industrial base and to alleviate hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

If despite this all, China somehow ends as tomorrow's superpower, "owning" the 21st century, that will be quite a feat.

Nick Ottens is an historian from the Netherlands and editor of the transatlantic news and commentary website Atlantic Sentinel. He is also a contributing analyst with the geopolitical and strategic consultancy firm Wikistrat.

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