In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a new world order is emerging — with its center gravitating towards China. The statistics speak for themselves. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) will shrink by an alarming 1.3% this year. Yet, defying this global trend, China expects an annual economic growth rate of 6.5% to 8.5%. During the first quarter of 2009, the world’s leading stock markets combined fell by 4.5%. In contrast, the Shanghai stock exchange index leapt by a whopping 38%. In March, car sales in China hit a record 1.1 million, surpassing the U.S. for the third month in a row.
“Despite its severe impact on China’s economy,” said Chinese President Hu Jintao, “the current financial crisis also creates opportunity for the country.” It can be argued that the present fiscal tsunami has, in fact, provided China with a chance to discard its pioneering reformer’s leading guideline. “Hide your capability and bide your time” was the way former head of the Communist Party Deng Xiaoping once put it. No longer.
Recognizing that its time has indeed come, Beijing has decided to play an active, interventionist role in the international financial arena. Backed by China’s $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, its industrialists have gone on a global buying spree in Africa and Latin America, as well as in neighboring Russia and Kazakhstan, to lock up future energy supplies for its ravenous economy. At home, the government is investing heavily not only in major infrastructure, but also in its much neglected social safety net, its health care system, and long overlooked rural development projects — partly to bridge the increasingly wide gap between rural and urban living standards.
Among those impressed by the strides Beijing has made since launching its $585 billion stimulus package in September is the Obama administration. It views the continuing rise in China’s GDP as an effective corrective to the contracting GDP of almost every other major economy on the planet, except India’s. So it has stopped arguing that, by undervaluing its currency — the yuan — with respect to the U.S. dollar, China is making its products too cheap, thus putting competing American goods at a disadvantage in foreign markets.
**The Secret of China’s Success**
What is the secret of China’s continuing success in the worst of times? As a start, its banking system — state-controlled and flush with cash — has opened its lending spigots to the full, while bank credit in the U.S. and the European Union (EU) still remains clogged up, if not choked off. Therefore, consumer spending and capital investment have risen sharply.
Ever since China embarked on economic liberalization under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, it has experienced economic ups and downs, including high inflation, deflation, recessions, uneven development of its regions, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor, as well as between the urban and the rural — all characteristics associated with capitalism.
While China’s Communist leaders have responded with a familiar range of fiscal and monetary tools like adjusting interest rates and money supply, they have achieved the desired results faster than their capitalist counterparts. This is primarily because of the state-controlled banking system where, for instance, government-owned banks act as depositories for the compulsory savings of all employees.
In addition, the “one couple, one child” law, enacted in 1980 to control China’s exploding population, and a sharp decline in the state’s social-support network for employees in state-owned enterprises, compelled parents to save. Add to this the earlier collapse of a rural cooperative health insurance program run by agricultural cooperatives and communes — and many Chinese parents were left without a guarantee of being cared for in their declining years. This proved an additional incentive to set aside cash. The resulting rise in savings filled the coffers of the state-controlled banks.
On top of that came China’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, which led to a dramatic jump in its exports. An average economic expansion of 12% a year became the norm.
When the credit crash in North America and the EU caused a powerful drop in China’s exports, throwing millions of migrant workers in the industrialized coastal cities out of work, the authorities in Beijing focused on controlling the unemployment rate and maintaining the wages of the employed. They can now claim an urban unemployment rate of a mere 4.2% because many of the laid-off factory workers returned to their home villages. Those who did not were encouraged to enroll in government-sponsored retraining programs to acquire higher skills for better jobs in the future.
Whereas most Western leaders could do nothing more than castigate bankers filling their pockets with bonuses as the balance sheets of their companies went crimson red, the Chinese government compelled top managers at major state-owned companies to cut their salaries by 15% to 40% before tinkering with the remuneration of their workforce.
To ensure the continued rapid expansion of China’s economy, which is directly related to the country’s level of energy consumption, its leaders are inking many contracts for future supplies of oil and natural gas with foreign corporations…
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Dilip Hiro is the author, most recently, of Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World’s Vanishing Oil Resources (Nation Books). His upcoming book After Empire: The Rise of a Multipolar World will be published by Nation Books this year.
Copyright 2009 Dilip Hiro