China is a success if you consider how economic freedom increased after Mao’s death and hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of unimaginable poverty. But I explain in this interview that China is also a failure because the reforms were too limited and the country may now be drifting in the wrong direction.
All you really need to know is that China only ranks #124 in the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World. To be sure its score is much higher than it was back in the 1970s, but it’s still way behind even nations such as Greece.
And China is paying a price for excessive government. This chart shows data on economic freedom and economic prosperity for Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and China – and you can see how China’s growth isn’t so impressive when compared to the more market-oriented nations of East Asia.
I wrote way back in 2010 that Americans don’t need to fear the “Chinese Tiger, and it seems I’m not the only one to peruse the data and express skepticism about China’s economic outlook.
In an article for the Atlantic, Michael Schuman explains that China is unlikely to catch the United States.
Can China do better? Sure, it will almost certainly continue to gain wealth and influence. But to become No. 1, Beijing must overcome hurdles…the U.S. has retained a host of advantages that are often overlooked or underappreciated. …The total output of the U.S. economy was $20.5 trillion in 2018, significantly larger than China’s $13.6 trillion. Calculated on a per-person basis, the gap is even more glaring. …a much better comparison is of national wealth… By this metric, Americans remain significantly richer than the Chinese. In one estimate, U.S. household wealth was $106 trillion in mid-2019…compared with an estimated $64 trillion for China. …China is vulnerable to falling into the “middle-income trap.” That’s where many high-growth, emerging economies tend to end up: After reaching a comfortable level of income, they stall and struggle to leap into the ranks of the world’s most advanced economies… Only a small handful of developing nations, including South Korea and Singapore, have managed that jump in recent times. …China could get stuck in this snare. The heavy hand of the state in China’s economy—a source of envy for many U.S. policy makers—may be dragging it down. Bureaucrats direct bank loans, subsidies, and other resources to notoriously bloated and inefficient state-owned enterprises, loss-making “zombie” companies, and useless infrastructure projects, amassing a potentially destabilizing mountain of debt and killing off much-needed productivity gains.
In a column for the Wall Street Journal, former Secretary of State George Shultz opines on China’s challenges.
People are justifiably worried about China. It is wrecking Hong Kong… Xi Jinping’s statist economic strategy has returned to the Maoist model, putting private enterprise under the thumb of the Communist Party… China’s next 20 years are unlikely to repeat its past 20. Take the labor force. Growth in gross domestic product is a factor of a country’s labor-force and productivity growth. …But the labor force of Mr. Xi’s China is now declining… local governments and businesses are now swamped in contingent debts, often off-book. An example is high-speed rail. State-owned China Railway took on nearly $1 trillion in debt… we should recall…Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s calls for markets and personal freedom as engines of human prosperity… Mr. Xi’s campaign to stamp out intellectual discourse in China has threatened…the country’s economic prospects.
In another piece for the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, Kevin Rudd (former Prime Minister of Australia) and Daniel Rosen also paint a less-than-optimistic picture of what’s happening in China.
Despite repeated commitments from Chinese authorities to open up and address the country’s overreliance on debt, the China Dashboard has observed delayed attempts and even backtracking on reforms. …An honest look at the forces behind China’s growth this year shows a doubling down on state-managed solutions, not real reform. State-owned entities, or SOEs, drove China’s investment-led recovery. In the first half of 2020, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, fixed-asset investment grew by 2.1% among SOEs and decreased by 7.3% in the private sector. …Perhaps the most significant demonstration of mistrust in markets is the “internal circulation” program first floated by President Xi Jinping in May. …expect more subsidies to producers and other government interventions, rather than measures that empower buyers. Dictating to markets and decreeing that consumption will rise aren’t the hallmarks of an advanced economy. …For years, the world has watched and waited for China to become more like a free-market economy…the multiple gauges of reform we have been monitoring through the China Dashboard point in the opposite direction. China’s economic norms are diverging from, rather than converging with, the West’s. …Though Beijing talks about “market allocation” efficiency, it isn’t guided by what mainstream economists would call market principles. The Chinese economy is instead a system of state capitalism in which the arbiter is an uncontestable political authority.
The most impressive evidence comes from an article in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance.
Authored by Professor Michael Beckley from Tufts University, it’s a comprehensive explanation of why China is lagging.
China’s economy is big but inefficient. It produces vast output but at enormous expense. Chinese businesses suffer from chronically high production costs… The United States, by contrast, is big and efficient. American businesses are among the most productive in the world… China’s economy is barely keeping pace as the burden of propping up loss-making companies and feeding, policing, protecting, and cleaning up after one-fifth of humanity erodes China’s stocks of wealth. …To become an economic superpower, a country needs to amass a large stock of wealth—and to do that it must be big and efficient. It must not only mobilize vast inputs, but also produce significant output per unit of input. …How productive is China’s economy? Remarkably, nearly all of China’s economic growth since 2007 can be attributed to inputs: hiring workers and spending money. China’s productivity growth has not only been unspectacular; it has been virtually nonexistent.5 By contrast, productivity improvements have accounted for roughly 20% of U.S. economic growth over the past decade, as it has for most of the past 100 years.
Here’s some additional data on problems with China’s state-driven economic system.
China’s private sector is relatively efficient, but it is shackled to a bloated state sector that destroys nearly as much value as it creates. Private firms generate roughly two-thirds of China’s wealth and an estimated 80% of its innovations, but the Chinese government prioritizes political control over economic efficiency and thus funnels 80% of loans and subsidies to state-owned enterprises. As a result, state zombie firms are propped up while private companies are starved of capital. All told, more than one-third of China’s industrial capacity goes to waste and nearly two-thirds of China’s infrastructure projects cost more to build than they will ever generate in economic returns. Total losses from this waste are difficult to calculate, but the Chinese government estimates that it blew nearly $7 trillion on “ineffective investment” between 2009 and 2014. …At $40 trillion and counting, China’s debt is not only the largest ever recorded by a developing country, it has risen faster than any country’s, nearly quintupling in absolute size between 2007 and 2019. …the U.S. stock of human capital is several times greater than China’s. China has four times the population of the United States, but the average American worker generates seven times the output of the average Chinese worker. …China also loses 400,000 of its most highly educated workers every year to foreign countries in net terms, including thousands of scientists, engineers, and “inventors” (people that have registered at least one patent). The United States, by contrast, nets one million workers annually from all foreign countries, including roughly 20,000 inventors and 15,000 scientists and engineers, 5,000 of whom come from China. …The United States generates roughly 40% more wealth per unit of energy than China.
We’ll close with this chart from Professor Beckley’s article.
The bottom line is that China is not close to the United States. It’s not even catching up.
To see the chart, click here.
P.S. I want China to liberalize and prosper. That would be good for the people of China and it would be good for the world. I’m simply pointing out we won’t get that happy outcome if China persists is following bad ideas such as central planning and industrial policy.
P.P.S. Sadly, China will move further in the wrong direction if it takes awful fiscal advice from the International Monetary Fund or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
P.P.P.S. If you want an example of sloppy and/or malignant media bias, check out how the New York Times tried to blame free markets for the failure of China’s government-run health system.