What Could China look like in the year 2040? A perspective for the next 30 years

from my book “Australia and the World in 2040“. Complete copies available in February 2018

In the early part of the 21st century, China was the fastest growing economy in the world and overtook the US in GDP terms in 2015. It also had the greatest foreign surplus in the world, and was the largest lender to the US, the biggest foreign debtor nation in the world.

When Xi Jinping came to power in 2011, the per annum growth of China’s economy was beginning to slow from the heady 10-15% rates for most of the 25 years to 2012 to a more modest 6-8%. Although still very high by world standards, slow growth in China meant a lessening of the Communist Party’s legitimacy (at least that was the fear in the minds of its leaders). Much of the high growth in that 25 year period had come from the rapid industrialisation brought about by Deng Zou Ping’s reforms at the 1979 plenum which turned the country into a market economy, at least for manufacturing products.

This resulted in about 400m people migrating from the country sides into cities where they manned the new factories, often in very primitive conditions. It nevertheless saw most of those 400m people go from rural poverty to earning a living wage – an unheard of event anywhere in the world up until that time. By 2010, though, much of China’s advantages in basic manufacturing were eroding with higher wages, higher costs and a higher exchange rate. Many factories were moving to lower cost countries such as Vietnam, the Middle East and Africa.

China now faced new reform challenges, which would see itself move up the “food chain” from low skill manufacturing, to high tech, innovative design and manufacturing. It also needed to rapidly develop its services sector such as education, finance, medical, bio-technology.

They also needed to rapidly reform agriculture where there was no private ownership of land (it was largely controlled by regional party chiefs), so there had been nothing like to development of rural land under private ownership equivalent to what had happened with city dwellings. As a consequence, Chinese agriculture was low tech, low productivity, and the peasants had little incentive to develop their land.

They also singularly lacked what most western countries took for granted, and which China’s rapidly growing and well educated middle class were demanding: rule of law, modern government services such as a social security safety net, modern hospitals, pensions, consumer laws, environmental laws. Most of all though, what Chinese people most wanted was a society free of corruption, especially by part bosses.

At the historic plenum in 2013, Xi Jinping discussed and flagged a number of reforms which in many ways exceeded Deng Zou Ping initiative in the early 1980s. For the first time, the Plenum’s official document committed  for markets to play a “decisive” role in the allocation of resources in the economy. In the coming years this lead to the role of state own enterprises being considerably diminished, with many of them being privatised or closed (if they were too inefficient).

The SOEs, which in 2013 represented over 50% of economic output, were also expected to stand on their own merits in terms of funding, and banks were liberalised and skilled in terms of their commercial lending activities in order for this to be brought about. These reforms resulted in a number of enterprises going to the wall (bankruptcies in SOE’s were allowed for the first time in 2016), but it also resulted in a number of them becoming internationally competitive, and a number of them grew into major global corporations. In 2014, there were 2 Chinese companies in the top 1000 companies (outside the US) by capitalisation. By 2030, there were 55, all growing out of reformed SOEs of 2014, and all public companies floated on the Hong Kong and Shanghai Stock exchanges

To support the 2013 reforms, financial institutions were up-skilled in money market operations as the Party announced that as of the end of 2014 there would be a partial float of the Yuan and a full float by 2016 when it would become the single Chinese currency, both domestic and international, and would be fully convertible. When this came about in January 2016, the currency rose by 25% against the US dollar. Interest rates became market determined by the beginning of 2015, the Chinese Central Bank was made independent of day to day government directive, but was required to work within parameters determined by the government to achieve certain economic outcomes such as exchange rate bands, inflation and unemployment had to be kept within certain bands. Between 2015 and 2020, the government also spent $250m in computerizing their services, particularly to online services, and in boosting the activities and sophistication of the Chinese Bureau of Statistics.

All these changes were primarily designed to make the economy more transparent, less corrupt,  and oriented to moving away from growth coming from investment in export industries to growth coming from productivity improvements and rapidly expanding consumer demand at home. The reforms included:

  1. key economic reforms such as liberalising the setting of interest rates (ie to the market), incentivising innovation, loosening the grip of competition-stifling state-owned enterprises (SOEs) on vital areas of the economy;
  2. allowing private ownership of rural land, and removing the ban on rural residents buying land in cities, which would allow peasants to cash in on the value of the land they work, and thus bring them up to the status of their urban equivalents. It was also hoped that this would unleash a flood of new investment in rural areas, modernising agriculture, and unleashing a further round of rapid growth, It is also seen as a key way to unleash pent up spending from rural areas which would become a major area of growth in consumer spending. This is exactly what happened from about 2018 onwards; and
  3. setting up an independent judiciary at local, regional, and national levels

While at the same time as bringing these economic reforms into being, Xi signalled there would be no political liberalisation following the Plenum in 2013. In fact he considerably strengthened the state security apparatus, doubling its budget between 2013 and 2020. Real political reform would not come until Xi successor came to power in 2023. Over Xi’s time in office, political reforms did take place mostly in the countryside, starting with the election of party officials on local councils. To stand you had to be a member of the communist party, but there were real secret ballot elections as early as 2015 in a number of rural areas. This soon spread to provincial governments by 2020, and the party then formalised its already existing factions of conservative, moderates, modernisers and liberals. If a citizen wanted to vote or stand, you had to be a member of the party. This meant that by the time the President and polit-bureau was elected by all party members in 2028, the party itself had grown from 40m members in 2013 to 750m members. 85% of these members voted in the 2028 elections.

China had always thouight of itself as a great power, it is just that western countries had not allowed it to take what regarded as its rightful place in world affairs. Since 2015, when it became the biggest economy in the world, it began to re-assert itself in the manner of a great power: by 2018, it had 4 million men under arms, 30 nuclear powered submarines and 5 nuclear powered aircraft carriers, and over 5000 supersonic strike fighters which many in the west regard as superior to the US F35 Joint Strike Fighter. It also had a global network of weapon carrying drones controlled out of Hong Kong, and a formidable international spy network.  As a great-power, it had considerable reach, but saw its primacy as being in the AsiaPacific region. The Americans also thought of themselves as an AsiaPacific power, particularly since Barrack Obama refocused them away from Europe and onto Asia in about 2010. Since then, the Pacific became the primary battleground. Interestingly though, it was not the Pacific but the Indian Ocean where tensions initially first came to boiling point between the world’s two superpowers.

Being the largest trading nation in the world, China in 2015 had built its navy into a significant blue water force, although it was still some way behind the US and even India, whose navy was by far its most significant military force. China was determined to make sure all its sea-lanes were kept open, and that trade could flow in and out of China without interference.  In 2015, the most significant of these was not in the Pacific, but in the Indian Ocean. Or, more specifically, the Arabian Sea. This had been for a century or more, one of the busiest sea highways in the world, and was critical for China in particular as the Persian Gulf was its major source of oil and gas. Since the early 1990’s, there has been a great deal of lawlessness around such states as Somalia, Yemen, and the Sudan, in many ways failed states. Somalia also played host to a network of pirates who specialised in boarding western (and sometimes Chinese) freighters, taking their crews and passengers hostage, and then demanding and getting tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.

By 2015, China had just about enough of this. In spite of a large of navies – British, French, German, Italian, American, Australian, Indian, Scandinavian and Japanese – patrolling the Arabian Sea, these hijackings persisted, and were even becoming more daring. China decided to act. First, in the face of mounting international criticism, they sent several divisions of para-troops into Somalia and effectively destroyed the pirate’s operating bases, and killed many of them. Secondly, they put pressure on world banks to freeze their assets. And thirdly, they captured and banished their leader, Jacda Bashire, to the international court in the Hague to be tried (ironic, since they were not a party to the treaty which set the Court up, and did not recognise it as a legitimate legal entity which could preside over its citizens – the same as the US). This effectively ended the pirate operations, at least for some time.

There still remained a core group of criminals who had a organisational structure, and significant wealth through ransoms. On June 5, 2017, one of China’s increasing number of cruise ships was streaming through the South China Sea 2000 kilometres south of Hong Kong and 1000 km east of Vietnam. I was 5.13am. There was an explosion. All 4232 people on board perished, 96% of them being mainland Chinese.

…..to be continued

The NBN is all about productivity improvement – ask CSIRO

For those of you who are not aware, the CSIRO has an incredibly interesting podcast called CSIROPOD. It shows off the range and depth of Australia’s leading scientific research institution. For those of you excited by the possibilities of science, like me, to solve the world’s problems, it is just a treasure-trove. Most people do not realise, though, CSIRO is not only “hard science”. It has soft science areas like economics and social research.

One area which it has tackled recently is the area of Australia’s productivity. Apparently, if you take mining and agriculture out of the mix, Australia ranks about 33 out of 36 in the OECD productivity table. This is in stark contrast to almost every other social and economic indicator where Australia usually rates in the top 3 or 4. This is a disgrace.

This interview outlines the challenge, but also the solution:

http://www.csiro.au/en/Portals/Multimedia/CSIROpod/Uploading-the-economy.aspx

What it clearly explains is that there is a solution to this predicament, but it involves Australia as a nation committing to completing the roll out of the NBN fibre to the home, which the coalition are still holding the line about dismantling. This is crazy. Malcolm Turnbull has more than enough ammunition to fire at the ALP on this area of economic policy. He should not also prevent the solution from being arrived at. It is politics in its worst form.

I still think Turnbull is the best leader for Australia at the moment, but he is dead wrong on this one.

The New Korea?

There have recently appeared two interesting, but very different takes on the behavior of the bizarre North Koreans

A view on the geo-political implications of North Korean behavior http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/time-us-disengage-north-korea-crisis?utm_source=Cato+Institute+Emails&utm_campaign=7a8995a9f8-Cato_Today&utm_medium=email&mc_cid=7a8995a9f8&mc_eid=271f8f78af

and a view on China’s motives:  http://www.businessinsider.com/why-china-supports-north-korea-2013-2

My view is I think it is time the world community came to an historic agreement and closed down this rogue state before they blow us all up. Isn’t it time that China and the US came to a statesman-like agreement about those crazies. Surely they could do a deal whereby in return for US troops withdrawing from the Korean peninsula and being replaced by UN force including Chinese, they could hold fee elections and unite the peninsula. China doesn’t want a nuclear Nth Korea any more than the US does.

In many ways, the first article by Doug Bandow is sort of agreeing with this view, although he took it further by suggesting the US abandons the nuclear guarantees with Japan and South Korea, which may force China in to coming to a wider settlement including a militarily neutral united Korea. It is an interesting thought. It might also bring Russia into play and force it to play a more constructive role than it has hitherto, both in Asia and the Middle East. A US withdrawal from Korea and the removal of the guarantee certainly is high stakes, but may ironically be less risky than the current stale-mate, where the North Koreans seem to think they can thumb their noses at the great powers with impunity. This is a very serious and dangerous position for both great powers to take. Any little tin pot regime who acquires nuclear weapons in the future will think they suddenly will have equal status, and who knows what might happen. It also gives every tinpot dictator every reason to go after the nuclear option because they then will be propped up (unintentionally) by the great powers.

I think in terms of geo-politics the Korean situation is a bigger issue for both great powers than a middle east settlement but there appears to be zero momentum for it.  Withdrawal of the nuclear guarantee may be seen as the ultimate in “real politic” but if it ultimately brings to a head the issues that are bubbling along now and leads to a settlement, it could be Obama’s and the new Chinese regime’s greatest foreign policy achievement. It certainly should be worth considering, and undoubtedly ups the stakes considerably.

Not sure about the view on China’s intentions. I hear what he says about mineral rare earth, but the benefits sort of pale into insignificance when compared to the risk of regional wars with the withdrawal of the US. Personally, I would have thought a democratic, neutral, economically progressive united Korea would be far more beneficial to China than an unstable nuclear armed failed state.

The other point I’d make, is that any unification should be thought about in the light of the German experience. They would be crazy to converge onto a common currency as Germany did to its great cost. Better to have a federation with two currencies, and watch south Korean, Japanese, US and Chinese investment money pour into the North until in 50 years time when the north and south economies are similarly prosperous then they could unite the currencies.

The North is brilliantly positioned to become the new north Asian economic super tiger.Now that would really be to China’s advantage.

Europe – what a mess

In retrospect, it was a big mistake to think that the Euro could work across diverse economies, without fiscal and monetary union. But that in itself was impossible because of the very diverse ideas in Europe about economic responsible economic management and fiscal discipline. Indeed, the formation of the Eurozone encouraged all the member economies that they could have German style living standards, but without the disciplined, focussed and skilled German workforce and economy, and without the economic management which has charactarized the German government, at least for the last 10 years.

Many countries, led by the French, have believed they could run economies with very generous social benefits without the hard economic management and decision making which so charactarizes successful economies. For instance, when the last president of France hesitatingly tried to instigate mild economic reforms such as raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 there were howls of protest which forced him to back down. This does not even go near economic distorting policies like the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), exorbitant pension and social welfare provisions, industry subsidies, and unaffordable internal and external deficits. In spite of the fact that the IMF, ECB, World Bank, and Germany have been handing out enormous bail outs to many broke countries in southern Europe, nearly all of them have been unable to fully implement them because their electorates will simply not wear them.

The only way is for the market to force it on them ie leaving the euro zone and issue their sovereign currencies. How might this work? Take Greece. Greece in the current circumstances will never pay back its debts. It will be saddled with such stringent provisions that it could remain in recession for 20 years. Time for a change in direction.

If Greece, without warning, announced that henceforth the Greek currency would be in drachma, and all international debts would be written off,  then there would be short term pain, but eventually the market would kick in (probably 18 months to 2 years), and the Greek economy would begin to recover. There would undoubtedly be a 50% plus devaluation against the euro, which would make Greek exports cheaper, and imports more expensive. It would also allow the Greek central bank to recapitalise the Greek Banks by printing more Drachmas. This, though, would all end in disaster if it were not accompanied by drastic economic reforms to the social welfare system, collection of taxes and other charges, removal of distorting government subsidies of various kinds, reform of the legal system and a crackdown on the corruption which so distorts the efficient running of the Greek state.

Within five years, the Greek economy will recover, the debts will be written off, and the competitive advantages of Greece will start to kick in in a much more  growth friendly environment than before. The low growth, deficit cutting and low investment environment which ios the consequences of the European bailouts, will be delivered via a market mechanisms and will not therefore be the subject of the political vastitudes currently underway in Greece.

No-one though sees this as pain free. It is not. It will be very painful indeed, but in the medium term it will be less so than 20 years of recession, and it will give hope to a population sadly lacking in it, especially the young. It is somethingthe population and government can galvanise around, and on which it could build a prosperous future.

It is also something the other southern European governments such as Spain, Italy and Portugal would also likely copy once the benefits become apparent. The French, well they will remain French, and keep their heads buried in the sand, even though the economy distorting welfare state, government subsidies, the CAP, and unreformed labour, capital and distribution markets are worse than almost anywhere in the EU, and France’s economic performance reflects that. They should also take the economic medicine, and return to the Franc. But they won’t of course!

Zapatero’s Cuts

Comment on the Economist article (31 May 2010) “Zapatero’s Cuts”

There is a slow reality beginning to creep into the EuroZone. After years of bagging English speaking markets for their free market practices (which caused the GFC!!), and patronising them for their uncaring welfare free states, they have been forced down that track to survive as individual states, and as a Union.

Hopefully the crisis upon Europe will force long sought after reforms of labour markets, fiscal policies, and trade which will allow the world as a whole to operate much more efficiently and prosperously. Gone will be the days when a relatively few French and Belgium farmers can hold the whole world to ransom via the common agriculture policy ensuring (heaven forbid) that the world may at last get realism into the World Trade Talks.

Or am I living in a dream-world? Is this just another false start in Europe, and when a modicum of prosperity returns so will the same shonky practices? I very much hope not.