The West hasn’t grasped the scale of the disaster facing China


FEBRUARY 8, 2024

Xi’s economic intervention will produce short-term market optimism over the Spring Festival – and little else – ALEX PLAVEVSKI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

China’s Spring Festival has huge demographic and political significance.

It’s the last surviving relic of a past world, where extended families gathered at their home villages to share respectful greetings to the old, wishes for prosperity (“Gong xi fa cai” in Mandarin) among the younger generation, and joy at the births of new heirs and descendants.

Nearly 40 years of the coercive One Child Policy, not to speak of uncounted deaths from Covid-19 among the elderly last Spring Festival, has taken an irreversible demographic toll on festival jollity.

This year it is snow, not the pandemic, that is disrupting travel and spoiling the party. But this too is a starkly apt metaphor for the wintry grip of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian power. “Good wishes, get rich” rings hollow in these days of economic stagnation and decline.

At home and abroad, much attention was paid on February 6 to an extraordinary Chinese stock market rally, apparently based largely on news that Xi Jinping was in conclave with market regulators over new measures to revive market confidence.

No doubt the timing of this characteristically command economy intervention was carefully chosen to evoke festive cheer. Anyone in the West buying into it, however, needs to take a step back and think again. After all, the rise was led by recognizably state-directed investors.

For years Xi has made much of his achievements in “lifting millions out of poverty”, quietly ignoring the point that this was more about removing Communist ideological blockers to prosperity than it was implementing a better-balanced economic model.

This year, the other shoe has fallen. Bad loans, rent-seeking by inept local government and state-owned enterprises overproducing led to a disastrous property bubble that has now burst. The 30pc share that the property sector held in the economy is now a millstone dragging it into the mire, with other sectors falling into disarray around it.

Beyond the immediate crisis, things aren’t much better in the longer term. China’s workforce is ageing and shrinking, creating a headwind for growth. Younger generations, meanwhile, are increasingly disaffected. Youth unemployment hit a record high of over 21pc in June 2023. The Government’s response was to stop publishing the figures. Small wonder then that market sentiment is so cautious.

While Western media outlets are increasingly willing to publish harsh criticisms of the Chinese leadership’s economic ineptitude, international institutions are still treading cautiously. In December, the World Bank published a readable, elegant China Economic Update which outlined in meticulous detail the quantitative evidence for a slew of ills currently afflicting the Chinese economy.

As befits the organisation’s expertise and credibility, the report also offers a series of suggestions as to what it would be “appropriate” for China to do to revive its fortunes. Given the degree to which Xi Jinping has taken personal control of the levers of state power, he is unquestionably the sole arbiter of high-level economic policy. It’s accordingly of note that there is nowhere in the entire 58-page document a single reference to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), let alone Xi Jinping.

Diplomatic niceties and corporate nerves mean that this failure to name names is replicated in much heavy-weight Western assessment and analysis. The result is a widespread, misguided impression that China has an economy run much like any Western free market, with issues that might “appropriately” be dealt with in a relatively conventional manner.

It is probably true that a well-planned and executed programme of coordinated reforms could lessen a number of China’s current economic headwinds. But they will not be so dealt with, because that is not what Xi Jinping does.

An artificial, short-term surge in market optimism whipped up by the February 6 buying spree does not amount to a credible policy for fixing the mess that the CCP has made of its post-Covid revival, or for liberal economic reforms.

Xi Jinping has a completely different agenda, which includes such economically risky aims as annexing Taiwan, and continuing his support for Putin’s Russia. All his intervention in the stock market has done is highlight how irrelevant conventional market forces are in China.

China’s national strategy under Xi is driven by a political, military and economic contest with the West – ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP

Most rational Western analysis agrees that economic engagement with the PRC is unavoidable. China’s economy is locked in a population doom spiral, loaded with bad debts. But as bad as the economic situation is, the political risks should weigh even heavier.

China’s national strategy under Xi is driven by a political, military and economic contest with the West. The autocrat has staked his reputation on hard, exclusive Chinese nationalism and independence from the Western-led rules-based order. He has already shown in Hong Kong something of his intentions for Taiwan.

Last year, it was reported that 68pc of major corporations bought political risk insurance in 2022, compared with 25pc in 2019. China, where firms are subject to sudden expropriation, and operate at the whim of political overlords, was seen as a particular risk factor, and one it was increasingly hard to insure.

The US investment bank chief executive who last September said he was “highly cautious” about Chinese risk in late November stated bluntly that if there was war in Taiwan, all bets would be off; his bank would exit China if the US government ordered him to.

Economists and business analysts focusing on the prospects for a rise in GDP or a fall in unemployment are focusing on entirely the wrong issues. Our understanding of the Chinese economy was flawed, failing to see how much was built on debt and thin air.

The next thing to unravel could be our last, treasured illusions about how Xi will react to his country sinking into an economic mire, with a falling population. It’s time to prepare for a new cold war.

Courtesy: The Telegraph