Monday, December 5, 2011

Additional Thoughts on China's Near and Long-Term Future

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, at The Telegraph has released his predictions for the coming year, including:
China and India are over-heating, faced with a 1970s choice between choking credit or the onset of stagflation. If they choose the latter to buy time, the politics of food will turn on them with a vengeance.
Mr. Evans-Pritchard offers some longer-term analysis as well in a separate article. Some of the salient points:
HSBC’s report also sketches an era of unparalleled prosperity, yet the West does not sink into oblivion. China overtakes the US, but only just, and then loses momentum.

Chimerica, not Chindia, form the G2, towering over all others in global condominium. Americans prosper with a fertility rate of 2.1, high enough to shield them from the sort of demographic collapse closing in on Asia and Europe. Beijing and Shanghai are 1.0, Korea is 1.1, Singapore 1.2, Germany 1.3, Poland 1.3, Italy 1.4 and Russia 1.4.

Americans remain three times richer than the Chinese in 2050. The US economy still outstrips India by two-and-a-half times. This is an entirely different geo-strategic outcome.

My own view is closer to HSBC, perhaps because my anthropological side gives greater weight to the enduring hold of cultural habits, beliefs, and kinship structures, and because of an unwillingness to accept that top-down regimes make good decisions in the end.
As I've noted here before, a key factor is the demographic time bomb.
China’s workforce peaks in absolute terms in four years. While the population keeps growing until the tipping point in the mid 2020s, it is ageing very fast. Hence warnings by Chinese demographers that there may soon be an epidemic of suicides, as the elderly step out on the ice to relieve the burden.

Zhuoyan Mao from Beijing’s Institute for Family Planning said China’s fertility rate had been below replacement level for almost twenty years. “Population momentum” turned negative over a decade ago in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Liaoning, but the countryside is catching up. “The decline speed in rural areas is faster,” he says.

It is bizarre that China should still cling to the one-child policy, though Shanghai’s local authorities have been encouraging couples to have a second child since 2009. The policy is losing its relevance at this stage, though gender picking (female infanticide, at the ultrasound stage) has left the legacy of a male/female ratio of 1.2 to 1, with all that implies for social stability.

China’s fertility rate is collapsing anyway for the same reasons as it has collapsed in Japan and Korea – affluence, women’s education, later pregnancies that stretch generations, in-law duties, and costly housing. You cannot reverse this with a wave of the wand. The lag times can be half a century.

George Magnus, UBS’s global guru, writes in his book “Uprising” that China faces a “triple whammy of ageing”. The number of children under 14 will fall by 53m by 2050; the work force will contract by 100m; and the over-60s will rise by 234m, from 12pc to 31pc of the total.
Mr. Evans-Pritchard also notes the externalized environmental costs:
I might add that China is depleting the non-renewable aquifers of its northern plains at an alarming place, and faces a separate water crisis from receding Himalayan glaciers.

Cheng Siwei, the head of China’s green energy drive, told me a few months ago that eco-damage of 13.5pc of GDP each year outstrips China’s growth rate of 10pc. "We have an intangible environmental debt that we are leaving to our children," he said. That debt is already due.
Meanwhile, China prepares for social unrest.
The ruling Communist party relies on rapid economic growth as its main source of legitimacy and Chinese leaders assume that if the economy slows too much it will be unable to contain the resulting social unrest.

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