The Challenge of a Changing China

chinaLower than expected growth numbers from China on Monday have raised worries that China’s economy may be losing momentum.  Forecasted to have a growth rate around 8%, China’s actual growth came in at a lesser 7.7% for the January to March quarter, compared with 7.9% in the previous three months. This slower growth is in part due to lagging recoveries in the US and Europe causing China’s exports to decline. However, it is important to note that major, if understated, structural changes within China’s own economy have also contributed to these unexpectedly low growth numbers.

Rapidly rising wages have led to a systemic shift in the way China’s economy currently operates and have caused the country to move away from its traditional reliance on low cost manufacturing. China is looking towards a transition to a more sustainable economic growth model and these numbers might be indicative of the growing pains that China is currently facing. In fact, according to Ms Yao of Societe Generale,”Given Beijing’s goal of restructuring the economy, a relatively moderate economic growth is not a bad thing in the longer term.” While China will likely remain a manufacturing hub thanks to its relatively mature investment environment, superior infrastructure, and skilled workforce, it is the higher-knowledge industry sector and domestic consumption that will be the future drivers of Chinese growth.

Improving wages and job opportunities have created an optimistic and vibrant consumer class that has demanded both a higher standard of living and higher quality goods and services. Metaphorically speaking, Chinese citizens are emerging from the factories and entering the malls. Rather than being a mere base of production, China has become a prime market to sell into as consumption continues to increase. This massive and complex market holds huge commercial potential for those businesses that can successfully adapt and gain a foothold. Meanwhile, China itself can benefit greatly from increased foreign direct investment as its economy continues to mature.

Despite China’s economic dynamism, it is still a place that is plagued with many dilemmas that limit its potential. Some of the most infamous issues revolve around corruption, which is especially rampant at the local level leading to staggering pollution, serious quality control issues, and enormous levels of inequality. In addition, China’s educational system is stunted by its singular focus on testing and needs to be reworked to foster creativity and innovation, skills that are vital in an increasingly connected global marketplace. These concerns may limit China’s global economic potential, especially when major policy efforts are still needed to address these critical domestic problems.

Overall, China is still dealing with the disorder commonly found during major economic transition. Its switch from a primarily manufacturing economy to a consumer economy may take time as growth rates begin to rebalance. In fact, it is likely that  these declining numbers indicate not economic problems in China, but an economic changing-of-the-guard that will result in less dramatic, healthier, and more reliable economic growth.

Posted by: Matthew Goldberg

Sources: The Economist, BBC News, Bloomberg, CME Group

Photo Credit: China Pavilion courtesy of flickr user Wojtek Gurak

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