The end of China’s economic miracle?

Debt and corruption are hobbling the Asian giant.

On a trip to China in 2009, I climbed to the top of a 13-story pagoda in the industrial hub of Changzhou, not far from Shanghai, and scanned the surroundings. Construction cranes stretched across the smoggy horizon, which looked yellow in the sun. My son Daniel, who was teaching English at a local university, told me, “Yellow is the colour of development.”

During my time in Beijing as a Journal reporter covering China’s economy, starting in 2011, China became the world’s No. 1 trader, surpassing the U.S., and the world’s No. 2 economy, topping Japan. Economists say it is just a matter of time until China’s GDP becomes the world’s largest.

This period also has seen China’s Communist Party name a powerful new general secretary, Xi Jinping , who pronounced himself a reformer, issued a 60-point plan to remake China’s economy and launched a campaign to cleanse the party of corruption. The purge, his admirers told me, would frighten bureaucrats, local politicians and executives of state-owned mega companies—the Holy Trinity of vested interests—into supporting Mr. Xi’s changes.

So why, on leaving China at the end of a nearly four-year assignment, am I pessimistic about the country’s economic future? When I arrived, China’s GDP was growing at nearly 10 per cent a year, as it had been for almost 30 years—a feat unmatched in modern economic history. But growth is now decelerating toward 7 per cent. Western business people and international economists in China warn that the government’s GDP statistics are accurate only as an indication of direction, and the direction of the Chinese economy is plainly downward. The big questions are how far and how fast.

My own reporting suggests that we are witnessing the end of the Chinese economic miracle. We are seeing just how much of China’s success depended on a debt-powered housing bubble and corruption-laced spending. The construction crane isn’t necessarily a symbol of economic vitality; it can also be a symbol of an economy run amok.

Most of the Chinese cities I visited are ringed by vast, empty apartment complexes whose outlines are visible at night only by the blinking lights on their top floors. I was particularly aware of this on trips to the so-called third- and fourth-tier cities—the 200 or so cities with populations ranging from 500,000 to several million, which Westerners rarely visit but which account for 70 per cent of China’s residential property sales.

From my hotel window in the north-eastern Chinese city of Yingkou, for example, I could see empty apartment buildings stretching for miles, with just a handful of cars driving by. It made me think of the aftermath of a neutron-bomb detonation—the structures left standing but no people in sight.

The situation has become so bad in Handan, a steel centre about 300 miles south of Beijing, that a middle-aged investor, fearing that a local developer wouldn’t be able to make his promised interest payments, threatened to commit suicide in dramatic fashion last summer. After hearing similar stories of desperation, city officials reminded residents that it is illegal to jump off the tops of buildings, local investors said. Handan officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

For the past 20 years, real estate has been a major driver of Chinese economic growth. In the late 1990s, the party finally allowed urban Chinese to own their own homes, and the economy soared. People poured their life savings into real estate. Related industries like steel, glass and home electronics grew until real estate accounted for one-fourth of China’s GDP, maybe more.

Debt paid for the boom, including borrowing by governments, developers and all manner of industries. This summer, the International Monetary Fund noted that over the past 50 years, only four countries have experienced as rapid a build-up of debt as China during the past five years. All four—Brazil, Ireland, Spain and Sweden—faced banking crises within three years of their supercharged credit growth.

China followed Japan and South Korea in using exports to pull itself out of poverty. But China’s immense scale has now become a limitation. As the world’s largest exporter, how much more growth can it count on from trade with the U.S. and especially Europe? Shift the economy toward innovation? That is the mantra of every advanced economy, but China’s rivals have a big advantage: Their societies encourage free thought and idiosyncratic beliefs.

When I talked to Chinese college students, I would ask them about their plans. Why, I wondered, in an economy with seemingly limitless potential, did so few choose to become entrepreneurs? According to researchers in the U.S. and China, engineering students at Stanford were seven times as likely as those at the most elite Chinese universities to join start-ups.

One interview with an environmental engineering student at Tsinghua University stuck with me. His parents grew wealthy by building companies that made shoes and water pumps. But he had no desire to follow in their footsteps—and they didn’t want him to either. Better that he work for the state, they told him: The work was more secure, and perhaps he could wind up in a government position that could help the family business.

Will Mr. Xi’s campaign reverse China’s slowdown or at least limit it? Perhaps. It follows the standard recipe of Chinese reformers: remake the financial system so that it encourages risk-taking, break up monopolies to create a bigger role for private enterprise, rely more on domestic consumption.

But even powerful Chinese leaders have trouble enforcing their will. I reported earlier this year on the government’s plan to handle one straightforward problem: reducing excess steel production in Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing. Hebei alone produces twice as much crude steel as the U.S., but China no longer needs so much steel, to say nothing of the emissions that darken the skies over Beijing. Mr Xi weighed in by warning local officials that they would no longer be judged simply on increasing GDP; meeting environmental goals would count too.

In late 2013, Hebei staged an event called “Operation Sunday.” Officials sent demolition squads to destroy blast furnaces, and imploding mills made great TV on the 7 p.m. news. But it turned out that the destroyed mills had long been out of production, so blowing them up didn’t affect output. Indeed, China’s steel industry is on track for record production this year.

In China, I have learned, yellow isn’t just the colour of development. It is also the colour of a setting sun.

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