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Can Asia’s giant ever overtake the US economy? – DW – 07/10/2024

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The idea of China outstripping the United States to become the world’s largest economy has been a fixation for policymakers and economists for decades. What will happen, they argue, when the US — one of the most dynamic, productive economies — is usurped by an authoritarian regime with a three-quarter-of-a-billion-strong workforce?

Predictions of when exactly China would steal the US crown have come thick and fast ever since the 2008/9 financial crisis, which hampered growth in the US and Europe for many years. Before what became known as the Great Recession, China saw double-digit annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth for at least five years. In the decade following the crisis, the Chinese economy still expanded by between 6% and 9% annually. That is, until COVID-19 struck.

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As if the pandemic — which led to strict lockdown measures that brought the economy to its knees — wasn’t enough, the Asian powerhouse was also plunged into a real estate crash. At its peak, the property market was responsible for a third of China’s economy. However, rules introduced by Beijing in 2020 put limits on how much debt property developers could take on. Many firms went bankrupt, leaving an estimated 20 million unfinished or delayed homes unsold.

Around the same time, declining trade relations with the West also weakened growth in the world’s second-largest economy. Having encouraged China’s ascendancy for decades, by the late 2010s, the US shifted to containing Beijing’s economic and military ambitions, if only to delay the inevitable advance.

Has China’s economy peaked?

The apparent change of fortunes for the Chinese economy was so stark that a new term emerged about a year ago: “Peak China.” The theory was that the Chinese economy was now burdened by many structural issues, such as a heavy debt load, slowing productivity, low consumption and an aging population. Those weaknesses, along with geopolitical tensions over Taiwan and a decoupling of trade by the West, sparked speculation that China’s impending economic supremacy may be delayed, or never happen.

But Wang Wen from Renmin University of China’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies told DW that the notion of Peak China was a “myth,” adding that China’s total economic output reached almost 80% of the US output in 2021.

Wang said that as long as Beijing maintained “internal stability and external peace,” the Chinese economy would soon overtake the US. He cited the desire of millions of rural Chinese to move to urban areas, where earnings and quality of life were reportedly much higher.

“China’s urbanization rate is only 65%. If calculated at 80% in the future, it means that another 200 to 300 million people will enter urban areas, which will generate a huge increase in the real economy,” he said.

Productivity growth has ‘disappeared’

Other economists, however, believe that the issues that sparked the Peak China narrative were likely building for several years.

“The Chinese economy grew so fast in the early 2000s because of high productivity,” Loren Brandt, economy professor at the University of Toronto, told DW, adding that productivity was responsible for about 70% of GDP growth during China’s first three decades of reform, initiated in 1978.

“After the financial crisis, productivity growth just disappeared. It’s now maybe one-quarter of what it was before 2008,” the expert in Chinese economy added.

As China’s Communist Party prepares to meet for its most important meeting of the year, the country faces numerous short-term economic headwinds.

Faced with US export curbs, China is ramping up its own chip manufacturingImage: picture alliance / Chu Baorui / Costfoto

China’s total debts have widened to more than 300% of GDP. A large chunk is owned by local governments. Foreign direct investment has fallen for 12 months in a row, dropping 28.2% in the first five months of 2024 alone. Despite huge investments to ramp up production of new technologies, some of Beijing’s trade partners are restricting Chinese imports.

“Here is an economy that has invested enormously in [research and development], people, and first-class infrastructure. But it is not being leveraged in a way that’s helping to sustain growth in the economy,” Brandt told DW.

Unintended consequences of Xi Jinping’s power grab 

Beijing, under President Xi Jinping’s rule, has also moved toward more centralization of the economy through state ownership of industries. China’s leaders decided the next wave of growth would be built on the back of domestic consumption, allowing the country to be less reliant on foreign exports.

However, many social programs haven’t kept pace with China’s economic miracle. Consumers who can no longer rely on low-cost health care, education and more than a basic state pension, are wary of spending more of their savings. Their household wealth has dropped by up to 30% as a result of the property crash, Brandt said.

“[Decentralization] during the first two or three decades gave room for local governments to make decisions,” she added. “China benefited enormously from the autonomy, freedom and incentives that they had, and the enormous dynamism from the private sector. These issues are going to be much harder to reverse, especially under the current leadership.”

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2024-07-10 17:26:15

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