You simply have to read it. Thanks to Bill Stimson for calling it to my attention.
The only thing rising faster than China is the hype about China. In January, the People’s Republic’s gross domestic product (GDP) exceeded that of Britain and France, making China the world’s fourth-largest economy. In December, it was announced that China replaced the United States as the world’s largest exporter of technology goods. Many experts predict that the Chinese economy will be second only to the United States by 2020, and possibly surpass it by 2050.
Western investors hail China’s strong economic fundamentals—notably a high savings rate, huge labor pool, and powerful work ethic—and willingly gloss over its imperfections. Businesspeople talk about China’s being simultaneously the world’s greatest manufacturer and its greatest market. Private equity firms are scouring the Middle Kingdom for acquisitions. Chinese Internet companies are fetching dot-com-era prices on the NASDAQ. Some of the world’s leading financial institutions, including Bank of America, Citibank, and HSBC, have bet billions on the country’s financial future by acquiring minority stakes in China’s state-controlled banks, even though many of them are technically insolvent. Not to be left out, every global automobile giant has built or is planning new facilities in China, despite a flooded market and plunging profit margins.
And why shouldn’t they believe the hype? The record of China’s growth over the past two decades has proved pessimists wrong and optimists not optimistic enough. But before we all start learning Chinese and marveling at the accomplishments of the Chinese Communist Party, we might want to pause for a moment. Upon close examination, China’s record loses some of its luster. China’s economic performance since 1979, for example, is actually less impressive than that of its East Asian neighbors, such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, during comparable periods of growth. Its banking system, which costs Beijing about 30 percent of annual GDP in bailouts, is saddled with nonperforming loans and is probably the most fragile in Asia. The comparison with India is especially striking. In six major industrial sectors (ranging from autos to telecom), from 1999 to 2003, Indian companies delivered rates of return on investment that were 80 to 200 percent higher than their Chinese counterparts. The often breathless conventional wisdom on China’s economic reform overlooks major flaws that render many predictions about China’s trajectory misleading, if not downright hazardous.
Behind the glowing headlines are fundamental frailties rooted in the Chinese neo-Leninist state. Unlike Maoism, neo-Leninism blends one-party rule and state control of key sectors of the economy with partial market reforms and an end to self-imposed isolation from the world economy. The Maoist state preached egalitarianism and relied on the loyalty of workers and peasants. The neo-Leninist state practices elitism, draws its support from technocrats, the military, and the police, and co-opts new social elites (professionals and private entrepreneurs) and foreign capital—all vilified under Maoism. Neo-Leninism has rendered the ruling Chinese Communist Party more resilient but has also generated self-destructive forces.
It comes to the same conclusion I do: China’s moment of truth will be the “stress test,” when a recession or other catastrophe tests the system. That’s when we’ll know whether China’s rise was a lot of hot air or a true economic miracle.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.