Looming Stagnation

Looming Stagnation

by Author(s): Minxin Pei

FORECASTERS OF the fortunes of nations are no different from Wall Street analysts: they all rely on the past to predict the future. So it is no surprise that China’s rapid economic growth in the last thirty years has led many to believe that the country will be able to continue to grow at this astounding rate for another two to three decades. Optimism about China’s future is justified by the state’s apparently strong economic fundamentals—such as a high savings rate, a large and increasingly integrated domestic market, urbanization and deep integration into the global trading system. More important, China has achieved its stunning performance in spite of the many daunting economic, social and political difficulties that doomsayers have pointed to as insurmountable obstacles to sustainable growth in the past. With such a record of effective problem solving, it is hard to believe that China will not continue its economic rise.

Yet, while China may sustain its growth for another two to three decades and vindicate the optimists, there are equally strong odds that its growth will fizzle. China’s economic performance could be undermined by the persistent flaws in its economic institutions and structure that are the result of half-finished and misguided government policies. A vicious circle exists in which the Communist Party’s survival is predicated on the neglect of fundamental aspects of society’s welfare in favor of short-term economic growth. And many of the same social, economic and political risk factors the government has thus far sidestepped—heavily subsidized industries, growing inequality, poor use of labor—remain. Some are becoming worse.

Because the party relies on growth for legitimacy, Beijing invests in tangible signs of progress—factories, industrial parks and the like. This emphasis on “visible” gains has in turn led to huge social deficits. By focusing on short-term growth instead of long-term sustainability, health care, education and environmental protection have all been neglected. Not a cause for optimism.

The end result is a state built on weak political, economic and societal foundations with a potentially unhappy and restless people. Reducing these economic and social deficits will require both additional financial resources and politically difficult institutional changes. Allowing such deficits to accumulate is simply not viable.

Worse, China’s difficulties will be compounded by the future deterioration of some of what have thus far been structural and political strengths—a large, young population; underpriced natural and environmental resources; and a public consensus in support of economic growth. With fewer people entering the workforce, a rapidly aging population and ongoing environmental damage, China faces the choice between stagnation, even disaster, or fundamental change. The fact that all of these risk factors have not derailed China’s growth in the past does not preclude the possibility that they could do so in the future, especially if the Chinese government fails to make major policy adjustments.

Of course, these challenges—rebalancing China’s economic growth, addressing social deficits and rebuilding a political consensus that supports growth—are manageable if the Chinese government can implement effective economic and political reforms and remove the underlying causes. But will Beijing do so? Does the Chinese political system possess the flexibility and inner strength to overcome the opposition of entrenched interests? Is the ruling Communist Party willing to take the risks of adopting reforms and disrupting a carefully balanced coalition of political and economic interests?

As the world is engulfed in a global economic crisis and China’s growth engine starts to lose steam, it is time to reexamine the risk factors that lie ahead and rethink our complacent assumptions about China’s future.


HIGH RATES of economic growth tend to conceal serious structural, institutional and policy flaws because, as the Chinese saying goes, “one mark of beauty can hide a hundred spots of ugliness.” All too often, high growth rates themselves are taken as prima facie evidence of superior institutions and wise policies. Our obsessive focus on the speed of economic development often blinds us to the underlying weaknesses of the country. Over time, such myopia leads to complacency and, worse, a dismissive attitude toward warning signs of trouble.

In China, four factors were crucial to the state’s economic performance over the past thirty years: high domestic savings (which allowed for investment in industry), the demographic dividend (which provided a large potential workforce), the globalization dividend (which enabled integration into the world market) and considerable efficiency gains from the liberalization of an enormously inefficient planned economy. However, while these fundamentals have contributed to rapid economic growth since the 1980s, they unfortunately also allowed the Chinese government to avoid undertaking effective measures that would further liberalize the economy, establish robust regulatory institutions and dramatically reduce the role of the state in the economy. This does not mean that Beijing has not taken important reform measures. It has—but it did so, almost without exception, only when compelled by a serious economic crisis (as was the case with mass bankruptcies of state-owned enterprises at the end of the 1990s).

Such behavior is costly because it ignores the fact that benefits from investment in capital, demographic advantages and growing trade neither solve all problems nor remain static. Today, as China’s export growth plummets and domestic consumption remains anemic, it is quite evident that economic and societal imbalances have not only undermined China’s sustainable growth but also have weakened its ability to weather the current economic crisis. To be sure, these imbalances have been building up since the early 1990s. Their principal symptoms consist of excessively high investment in fixed assets (i.e., capital-intensive industries) and low household consumption, rising dependence on exports as a growth driver and the underdevelopment of the service sector. For example, from 1992 to 2005, investment rose from 36.6 to 42.6 percent of GDP while household consumption declined from 47.2 to 38 percent of GDP. In 2007, household consumption fell to 35 percent of GDP, a historical low. Consequently, export growth assumed increasing importance as a key driver of GDP growth. By 2007, export growth contributed roughly 25 percent of GDP growth.

Because the bulk of China’s investment goes into the manufacturing sector, particularly capital-intensive heavy industries, persistently high investment has exacerbated the imbalance between too much manufacturing and too little growth in the service sector. Compared with its developing-country peers, China stands out for having an underdeveloped service sector.

Besides creating excessive dependence on exports and industry, too much investment in fixed assets has begun to yield decreasing economic benefits. Between 1991 and 1995, RMB 100 million in additional investment yielded RMB 66.2 million in additional GDP, 400 new jobs and RMB 10.4 million in additional wages. Between 2001 and 2005, the same amount of extra investment yielded only RMB 28.6 million in additional GDP, 170 new jobs and RMB 3.7 million in additional wages.

Such structural imbalances threaten growth sustainability because they create massive economic distortions, subjecting the Chinese economy to chronic excess capacity, low consumer welfare, rising trade frictions and poor utilization of its comparative advantage—people—because these imbalances lead to growing capital intensity and decreasing labor intensity.


Pei Chart Small


OF COURSE, these structural imbalances are symptoms of both unreformed economic institutions and the continuation of bad policies. Despite thirty years of reform, the Chinese state maintains a decisive influence on the economy through both its direct presence (state-owned or - controlled enterprises) and its policies. For example, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) account for about 35 percent of GDP today, but the government’s role in the economy is much more substantial than even this figure indicates. The state maintains a monopoly or near monopoly on the so-called strategic sectors, such as banking, financial services, natural resources, energy production, telecom services and most heavy industries. Nearly all of China’s largest companies are owned or controlled by the state.

In addition, key input prices, such as those of energy, land and capital, are set by the government. Because of the government’s bias in favor of investment and manufacturing, such key prices are set at artificially low levels as subsidies. For example, the primary market for land is almost nonexistent. Local governments often seize land from powerless and voiceless peasants and sell the land-use rights to developers and/or use it for infrastructure projects—all for a fraction of its market value. As for the cost of capital, the Chinese government has been skillfully wielding financial repression to use household savings as a way to subsidize the investment of Chinese state-owned firms. Until recently, SOEs could borrow from banks without worrying about repayment. Even though household deposits are nominally protected by the state, Chinese taxpayers are responsible for bailing out banks that are drowning in massive nonperforming loans.

Obviously, such wasteful use of China’s scarcest resources—energy, land and capital—to maintain an unbalanced growth model cannot be sustained indefinitely. For the past three decades, China’s strong economic fundamentals enabled its government to continue these distortions with impunity. But many of these fundamentals are either weakening or expected to disappear within the next two decades, thus making it impossible to achieve high growth with the same flawed policies.

Of the deteriorating fundamentals, two deserve special mention—demographics and savings—because they have in the past been among the principal drivers of China’s growth. China is expected to lose its demographic dividend in the middle of the next decade. The median age of the population will rise from 32.5 years in 2005 to 37.9 years in 2020. The percentage of the population 60 and over will increase from 11 percent in 2005 to 17.1 percent in 2020. By 2030, according to the Chinese minister of labor and social welfare, 351 million Chinese, or 23 percent of the population, will be over 60, and the elderly-dependency ratio will increase from 5.2 to 1 in 2006 to 2.2 to 1 in 2030. The worker-to-retiree ratio will fall from 3 to 1 in 2006 to 2 to 1 in 2030. The rapid aging of the Chinese population will unavoidably increase health-care, pension and labor costs, eroding China’s competitive advantage. More important, this will also cause China’s savings rate to fall. One World Bank estimate suggests that old-age dependency could depress private savings by six percentage points of GDP by 2025. Another study of demographic change, without population-policy adjustment, estimates that per capita income growth would fall from 5.3 percent a year in 2000 to 2.9 percent a year by 2020.