Wednesday, 8 October 2008

China going backwards? Economist discusses

The Economist considers whether China is becoming more or less "capitalist". There is a certainly irony about this article written on October 2nd. You can bet that the US and Europe have become less capitalist very quickly as banks become nationalised at an increasing speed.

It is interesting that the reliability of the data is considered such an important element of the story. I have published a number of papers on China are always have this nagging doubt about the quality of the official data I am using.

This is therefore a potentially important book to come out of MIT.

The long march backwards [The Economist]

MOST people, particularly those living outside China, assume that the country’s phenomenal growth and increasing global heft are based on a steady, if not always smooth, transition to capitalism. Thirty years of reforms have freed the economy and it can be only a matter of time until the politics follows.

This gradualist view is wrong, according to an important new book by Yasheng Huang, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Original research on China is rare, largely because statistics, though plentiful, are notoriously unreliable. Mr Huang has gone far beyond the superficial data on gross domestic product (GDP) and foreign direct investment that satisfy most researchers. Instead, he has unearthed thousands of long-forgotten pages of memoranda and policy documents issued by bank chairmen, businessmen and state officials. In the process he has discovered two Chinas: one, from not so long ago, vibrant, entrepreneurial and rural; the other, today’s China, urban and controlled by the state.


True, China’s cities sprouted gleaming skyscrapers, foreign investment exploded and GDP continued to grow. But it was at a huge cost. As the state reversed course, taxing the countryside to finance urban development, growth in average household income and poverty eradication slowed while income differences and social tensions widened. Rural schools and hospitals were closed, with the result that between 2000 and 2005 the number of illiterate adults increased by 30m. According to Mr Huang, the worst weaknesses of China’s state-led capitalism—a reliance on creaking state companies rather than more efficient private ones, a weak financial sector, pollution and rampant corruption—are increasingly distorting the economy.

The role played by Hong-Kong and Tawain should not be underestimated. The official data also show this. Here is the book's view on this:

But what about the growing cohort of Chinese companies starting to strut the world stage? Surely that is evidence of a healthy and expanding private economy. Mr Huang’s evidence shows that, on closer inspection, these firms are either not really Chinese or not really private. Lenovo, a computer group, has succeeded because it was controlled, financed and run not from mainland China but from Hong Kong (a happy legacy of the founder’s family connections there—not something enjoyed by most Chinese businessmen). The subsidiaries of Haier, a white-goods maker, were also put out of reach of mainland bureaucrats early on. Wahaha, a food producer, Galanz, a maker of microwave ovens, and many others all depended on foreign protection and capital to grow and escape state strictures.

Indeed one of the main, and underappreciated, functions of foreign investment in China has been to play venture capitalist to domestic entrepreneurs. As for Huawei, a telecoms group and one of China’s much vaunted “global” companies, its structure and links to the state are so convoluted that the most diligent China-watchers have little idea if it is a private or state firm. They do, however, agree that Huawei’s opacity is a microcosm of China’s distorted economy.

A book worth reading.



cufflinks said...

well i remember i read an interesting book . all roads to china

Anonymous said...

selling china by same author is also good too. i do share his views more so than any others.