Daniel W. Drezner

China’s hard landing

In my last post I mentioned how China was encountering resistance to its rising power.  Now, via Kindred Winecoff, I see a whole mess of reportage about China’s mounting internal difficulties.  In no particular order:  1)  Nouriel Roubini has focused his Dr. Doom-O-Vision on the Middle Kingdom, and doesn’t like what he sees: China’s economy ...

In my last post I mentioned how China was encountering resistance to its rising power.  Now, via Kindred Winecoff, I see a whole mess of reportage about China’s mounting internal difficulties.  In no particular order: 

1)  Nouriel Roubini has focused his Dr. Doom-O-Vision on the Middle Kingdom, and doesn’t like what he sees:

China’s economy is overheating now, but, over time, its current overinvestment will prove deflationary both domestically and globally. Once increasing fixed investment becomes impossible – most likely after 2013 – China is poised for a sharp slowdown. Instead of focusing on securing a soft landing today, Chinese policymakers should be worrying about the brick wall that economic growth may hit in the second half of the quinquennium….

[N]o country can be productive enough to reinvest 50% of GDP in new capital stock without eventually facing immense overcapacity and a staggering non-performing loan problem. China is rife with overinvestment in physical capital, infrastructure, and property. To a visitor, this is evident in sleek but empty airports and bullet trains (which will reduce the need for the 45 planned airports), highways to nowhere, thousands of colossal new central and provincial government buildings, ghost towns, and brand-new aluminum smelters kept closed to prevent global prices from plunging.

Commercial and high-end residential investment has been excessive, automobile capacity has outstripped even the recent surge in sales, and overcapacity in steel, cement, and other manufacturing sectors is increasing further. In the short run, the investment boom will fuel inflation, owing to the highly resource-intensive character of growth. But overcapacity will lead inevitably to serious deflationary pressures, starting with the manufacturing and real-estate sectors.

Eventually, most likely after 2013, China will suffer a hard landing. All historical episodes of excessive investment – including East Asia in the 1990’s – have ended with a financial crisis and/or a long period of slow growth. To avoid this fate, China needs to save less, reduce fixed investment, cut net exports as a share of GDP, and boost the share of consumption.

The trouble is that the reasons the Chinese save so much and consume so little are structural. It will take two decades of reforms to change the incentive to overinvest.

Now, Roubini is enough of a persistent doomsayer that it would be easy to discount this argument — if it wasn’t for the fact that this jibes with the opinion  of other China economy-watchers.  This coming-bust prophesizing comes on top of arguments made by Barry Eichengreen, Donghyun Park and Kwanho Shin that as China hits middle-income status, it will hit a "middle income trap" of slower growth.  (One interesting question is whether, as China encounters rampant inflation, its eventual decision to let the RMB appreciate will help ease some of these pressures). 

2)  Meanwhile, China’s political leadership appears to be engaged in a full-fledged freakout over the Arab revolutions and any whisper of a similar phenomenon happening in China.  Rising food prices are leading to price controls and an anxious government monitoring if/when more expensive staple goods lead to political unrest.   That said, Chinese authorities seem to be on top of the whole crushing dissent thing

According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an NGO, by April 4th some 30 people had been detained and faced criminal charges relating to the so-called “jasmine revolution”—an inchoate internet campaign to emulate in China recent upheavals in the Middle East and north Africa. Human Rights Watch, another NGO, reports that a further 100-200 people have suffered repressive measures, from police summonses to house arrest. This has been accompanied by tighter censorship of the internet, the ousting of some liberal newspaper editors, and new curbs on foreign reporters in China, some of whom have been roughed up….

Even more worrying, however, is the increasing resort to informal detentions, punishments and disappearances. These are outside the law, offering the victim no protection at all. The government now dismisses the idea that one function of the law is to defend people against the arbitrary exercise of state power. On March 3rd a Chinese foreign-ministry spokeswoman told foreign journalists: “Don’t use the law as a shield.” Some people, she said, want to make trouble in China and “for people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them.”

3)  As for China’s assessment of its external security situation, the  State Council released its 2010 White Paper on defense last month.   As this East Asia Forum summary suggests, there’s a slight change in tone from the 2008 white paper:

The introductory assessment of the ‘security situation’ section notes that the ‘international balance of power is changing,’ that ‘international strategic competition centring on international order, comprehensive national strength and geopolitics has intensified,’ and that ‘international military competition remains fierce.’  Despite this sense of turbulence, and as was the case in 2008, the 2010 paper assesses that ‘the Asia Pacific security situation is generally stable.’ But the additional observation in the 2008 paper, namely, ‘that China’s security situation has improved steadily’ does not appear in 2010. One possible reason is that the 2010 paper reports that ‘suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside are on the increase.’ 

In light of all these developments, yesterday’s Economist editorial should come as no surprise:

The view from Beijing, thus, is different to the view from abroad. Whereas the outside world regards China’s rulers as all-powerful, the rulers themselves detect threats at every turn. The roots of this repression lie not in the leaders’ overweening confidence but in their nervousness. Their response to threats is to threaten others.

Now, as someone who’s pointed out these problems on occasion on this blog, you might think I’m pleased as punch about these developments.  Nope.  First, from an economic standpoint, a recessionary China eliminates a vital engine of global economic growth.  Second, as I wrote back in January

Exaggerating Chinese power has consequences. Inside the Beltway, attitudes about American hegemony have shifted from complacency to panic. Fearful politicians representing scared voters have an incentive to scapegoat or lash out against a rising power — to the detriment of all. Hysteria about Chinese power also provokes confusion and anger in China as Beijing is being asked to accept a burden it is not yet prepared to shoulder. China, after all, ranks 89th in the 2010 U.N. Human Development Index, just behind Turkmenistan and the Dominican Republic (the United States is fourth). Treating Beijing as more powerful than it is feeds Chinese bravado and insecurity at the same time. That is almost as dangerous a political cocktail as fear and panic. 

Developing…. in very disturbing ways. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner