The Diminishing Path to Growth: Can Xi Jinping Avoid Crisis during China's Economic Transition
A worker at a construction site of a new bridge project on June 20, 2009 in Guiyang of Guizhou Province, China. (Photo by Wu Dongjun/Visual China Group via Getty Images)
A worker at a construction site of a new bridge project on June 20, 2009 in Guiyang of Guizhou Province, China. (Photo by Wu Dongjun/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

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Since Deng Xiaoping changed the trajectory of Chinese economic policy in 1978, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has amassed an impressive record of economic growth. Starting as a poverty-stricken agricultural society under rigid socialist rule, the country has grown steadily and rapidly to become the second largest economy in the world and carved out a growth path whose strength and longevity is historically unprecedented.

As the 21st century has unfolded, the PRC has become a near peer competitor to the United States and other developed countries in terms of economic and political power. It is deploying this power in multiple ways that explicitly challenge US leadership in both the economic and global political spheres. If the PRC manages to maintain recent growth rates of around 6 percent per year, it will soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy and enhance its ability to challenge the global US leadership position, which has been a pillar of stability since World War II. The US and its allies had hoped that the PRC would become a responsible stakeholder in a liberal international order, but these hopes have been undermined in recent years by China’s increasingly apparent mercantilist economic policies, its aggressive expansion of political power, the resurgent dominance of state-owned enterprises, and the ever-more evident suppression of political liberties and traditional cultures in its sphere of influence.

Many economists and political analysts, however, have come to question whether the top-down, mercantilist economic system in the PRC is sustainable in the medium to long term. A number of trends suggest weaknesses in the traditional economic and political structures that have propelled growth in China: growing private and public sector debt, adversely shifting demography, the return to prioritizing state-run enterprises over private firms, the continued reliance on an export-oriented economic system, growing weaknesses in the financial system, dependence on external commodity and technology suppliers, persistent economic and geographic inequality, and continued reliance on external financing. Recent economic data show that bankruptcies are growing, returns on investment are shrinking, and capital controls are contributing to unrealistic valuations of internal capital stock and housing stock.

Additionally, regulations are stifling innovative sectors of the economy, and opaque and unregulated consumer financing products are undermining central bank monetary policy and contributing to over-leveraged balance sheets among consumers and small businesses. Consumer purchasing power that is consistently too weak to absorb domestic production, along with incentives to increase that production, has resulted in sustained trade surpluses that create a closed loop of increased investment in manufacturing and the need for growing markets. More recently, US-led efforts to deny China access to certain high-technology products and materials have underscored Chinese vulnerabilities in key sectors like telecommunications and semiconductors.

This dynamic results in trade tensions with developing countries and in economically questionable investment in the developing world. These tensions, along with the undermining of developing world markets through subsidized PRC production, are increasingly causing costly disruptions in trade flows and placing pressure on the state banking system, which is the source of most external financing.

If the mounting problems with the current Chinese economic model result in material slowing of growth or even sustained recession in the PRC, this would have substantial impact on the United States and its allies in two important ways. First, given that the PRC is the second largest (or in some measures the largest) economy in the world and has been an engine of growth for economies in Europe and the rest of Asia, slower growth or recession in China would likely lead to a global slowdown or recession. Second, because growth has immense political salience in the PRC—it justifies the authoritarian system of governance—a significant slowdown or recession could lead to political instability. Given Chinese nationalist rhetoric and revanchist ambitions toward Taiwan, political instability could in turn motivate risky military activities that escalate into confrontations with democratic, market-oriented countries. From the perspective of the United States, a slowdown could exacerbate the already serious trade and economic tensions, especially if nationalist forces in China sought to cast the US as the scapegoat for its internal problems.

In sum, a better understanding of the weaknesses within the PRC growth model and its potential frailties would allow policymakers to craft targeted tools when needed to support US policy objectives, either economic or political, and to deter PRC aggression or the undermining of US economic interests. Policy tools such as trade tariffs, export controls, and limitations on direct investments and access to US financial markets could have material impact on Chinese performance. A more robust understanding of the impact of these tools would help the United States and its allies craft overall strategies to meet the Chinese economic and political challenge.

Even while operating in a time frame longer than twelve months, many financial analysts have begun to describe the unfolding economic challenges in the PRC. The general public, including political opinion leaders and government analysts, have not generally understood the extent of the danger of economic crisis in China. Instead, the common assumption is that growth in the PRC, albeit a continuing economic threat to the US economy, is not in danger of faltering.

This white paper takes a different view, exploring the structural weaknesses characterizing the current Chinese economic model and the recent policy changes initiated by President Xi Jinping. Its working assumption is that the combination of these two factors will result in a material weakening of the dynamic growth China has enjoyed since Deng Xiaoping set his country on a more Western-style growth path in the late 1970s. At a minimum, various factors will slow growth to levels more characteristic of modern developed economies; and at the extreme these factors may possibly lead to negative growth and weakening of the political strength that underpins the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

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