China on the Move

BEIJING – The debate is over. After six years of weighing the options, China is now firmly committed to implementing a new growth strategy. At least, that’s the verdict I gleaned from the just-completed annual China Development Forum, long China’s most important dialogue with the outside world.

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There were no surprises in the basic thrust of the strategy – a structural shift in China’s investment- and export-led growth model toward a more balanced consumer-based and services-led economy. The transformation reflects both necessity and design.

It is necessary because persistently weak global growth is unlikely to provide the solid external demand for Chinese exports that it once did. But it is also essential, because China’s new leadership seems determined to come to grips with a vast array of internal imbalances that threaten the environment, promote destabilizing income inequality, and exacerbate regional disparities.

The strategic shift is also a deliberate effort by Chinese policymakers to avoid the dreaded “middle-income trap” – a mid-stage slowdown that has ensnared most emerging economies when per capita income nears the $17,000 threshold (in constant international prices). Developing economies that maintain their old growth models for too long fall into it, and China probably will hit the threshold in 3-5 years.

Three insights from this year’s China Development Forum deepened my confidence that a major structural transformation is now at hand that will enable China to avoid the middle-income trap. First, a well-articulated urbanization strategy has emerged as a key pillar of consumer-led rebalancing. This was emphasized by China’s new senior leaders – Executive Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli and Premier Li Keqiang – in the Forum’s opening and closing remarks, and considerable detail was provided in many of the working sessions.

Urbanization is a building block for consumption, because it provides powerful leverage to Chinese households’ purchasing power. Urban workers’ per capita income is more than three times higher than that of their counterparts in the countryside.

The urban share of the Chinese population reached 52.6% in 2012 – up nearly three-fold from 18% in 1980, and is expected to rise toward 70% by 2030. If ongoing urbanization can be coupled with job creation – a distinct possibility in light of China’s emphasis on developing its embryonic labor-intensive services sector – the outlook for household-income growth is quite encouraging.

The pace of urbanization should dispel Western doubts stemming from concerns over so-called ghost cities and chronic over-investment. According to research by McKinsey & Company, with the annual influx of new urban residents totaling 15-20 million, China will need more than 220 large cities (at least one million people) by 2030, up from 125 in 2010. Moreover, because urbanization is a capital-intensive endeavor and China’s capital stock per worker – a key driver of productivity growth – is still only 13% of the levels in the United States and Japan, China has good reason to remain a high-investment economy for years to come.

What is new today is the focus on urbanization’s negative externalities – especially the thorny issues of land confiscation and environmental degradation. A well-developed “eco-city” framework was presented at this year’s Forum to counter both concerns, and features incentives promoting a new urbanization model that stresses compact land usage, mixed modes of local transportation, lighter building materials, and non-carbon energy sources.

The second insight from the 2013 China Development Forum is the new government’s focus on strengthening the social safety net as a pillar of a modern consumer society. In particular, owing to the hukou (China’s antiquated household registration system), access to public services and benefits is not portable. As a result, migrant workers – an underclass numbering roughly 160 million – remain shut out of government-supported health care, education, and social security.

Holes in the social safety net have led to high and rising levels of precautionary saving – driving a wedge between increases in labor income and any impetus to discretionary purchasing power. Significantly, there were strong hints from senior Chinese leaders at the Forum that hukou reform is now under active consideration.

While that would be welcome, such efforts need to be accompanied by an expansion of benefits. China’s retirement system has only about $430 billion of assets under management (national and local government social security and private-sector pensions). I pressed newly appointed Finance Minister Lou Jiwei on this point, suggesting that China deploy some of its excess foreign-exchange reserves to fund such an effort – the same tactic used to provide a $200 billion start-up injection for the China Investment Corporation, the sovereign wealth fund that he ran for the previous five and a half years. Unfortunately, he did not favor this suggestion.

© Project Syndicate

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