By John Ross
A great deal of highly inaccurate material is currently appearing in the Western media about the ‘crisis’ of China’s economy – an economy growing three times as fast as the US or Europe. This follows a long tradition of similarly inaccurate ‘crash’ material on China symbolised by Gordon Chang’s 2002 book ‘The Coming Collapse of China’.
The fundamental error of such analyses is that they do not understand why China has the world’s strongest macro-economic structure. This structure means that even if China encounters individual problems, such as the fluctuations in the share market or the current relative slowdown in industrial production, which are inevitable periodically, it possesses far stronger mechanisms to correct these than any Western economy. This article is adapted from one published in Chinese by the present author in Global Times analysing the greater strength of China’s macro-economic structure compared to either that of the West or the old ‘Soviet’ model. The original occasion of the article was the next steps in the development of China’s next 13th Five Year Plan. The analysis, however, equally explains the errors of material currently appear in the Western media.
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In October a Plenary Session of China’s Communist Party (CPC) Central Committee will discuss China’s next five-year-plan. This provides a suitable opportunity to examine the reasons for China’s more rapid economic development than both the Western economies and the old Soviet system.
Taking first the facts which must be explained, China’s 37 years of ‘Reform and Opening Up’ since 1978 achieved the fastest improvement in living standards in a major country in human history. From 1978 to the latest available data real annual average inflation adjusted Chinese household consumption rose 7.7%. Annual average total consumption, including education and health, rose 8.0%. China’s average 9.8% economic growth was history’s most rapid.
As China’s ‘socialist market economy’ achieved this unmatched improvement in human living conditions it is this system which must be analysed. Its difference to both the Western and Soviet models explains why China’s economic development is more rapid than either.
China’s is a ‘socialist market economy’ – not a ‘market economy’ as is sometimes imprecisely stated utilising terminology which obscures the structural difference between China’s and Western economies.
The word ‘socialist’ derives from ‘socialised’ – large scale and socially interconnected. China’s economic structure differs from the Western in state ownership of China’s largest companies - those engaged in the most ‘socialised’ production. But simultaneously the largest part of China’s economy, as in every country, is not so large scale, socially interconnected - or state owned. China has billionaires and tens of millions of small and medium companies while China’s agriculture is based on small household farms. However the interrelation of China’s state and private companies fundamentally differs both from the West’s ‘mixed economy’ and the old Soviet system.
In a Western ‘mixed economy’ the private sector dominates. In contrast in China the CPC’s Central Committee in November 2013 explicitly reaffirmed: ‘We must unswervingly consolidate and develop the public economy, persist in the dominant position of public ownership, give full play to the leading role of the state-owned sector.’
But China’s economic structure also differs fundamentally from the old Soviet model in which the private sector was tiny – with even agriculture and local shops state run. Even in Marxist theory there was no justification for Soviet state ownership of small scale, that is non-socialised, companies and such ownership demotivated those working in them, crippling economic efficiency.
This different economic structure of China and the former USSR necessarily determines the different nature of their ‘five-year plans’. As the Soviet economy was essentially entirely state owned the state took even small economic decisions, setting tens of thousands of prices and outputs – it was an ‘administered’ economy.
The majority of China’s economy is not state owned, and China’s five-year plan sets only a few key macro-economic targets – overall growth rate, guidance on investment and consumption, industrial priorities etc. Within these parameters market mechanisms operate and are used to guide the economy. This is the precise sense in which Deng Xiaoping could state: ‘there is no fundamental contradiction between socialism and a market economy’ and ‘if we combine a planned economy with a market economy, we shall … speed up economic growth.’
But China’s macro-economic structure also explains its more rapid economic growth than the West, and avoidance of crises such as the post-2008 ‘Great Recession.’
Western dominance by private companies means no automatic mechanism ensures companies invest even when profitability is high. For example US company operating surpluses rose from 20% of its economy in 1980 to 26% in 2013, while simultaneously private fixed investment fell from 19% to 15%. As Larry Fink, the head of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager noted: ‘More and more corporate leaders have responded with actions that can deliver immediate returns to shareholders . . . while underinvesting in innovation, skilled workforces or essential capital expenditures necessary to sustain long-term growth.’ The US government can appeal for greater private investment but it lacks any mechanism to enforce this. Such falling investment culminated in the US ‘Great Recession.’
Western economists such as Keynes foresaw such dangers, noting: ‘the duty of ordering the current volume of investment cannot safely be left in private hands’ and that it was instead necessary to aim at: ‘a socially controlled rate of investment.’ But the Western privately dominated economy has no mechanisms to control its investment level.
In contrast, if required, China’s state owned sector can be instructed to raise or lower investment. As the Wall Street Journal noted: ‘Most economies can pull two levers to bolster growth: fiscal and monetary. China has a third option. The National Development and Reform Commission can accelerate the flow of investment.’ China therefore possesses far stronger anti-crisis mechanisms than the West.
China’s five year plans, by setting certain key economic parameters but within these using market mechanisms, explains the superiority of China’s economy to both Soviet and Western systems – and therefore China’s economic outperformance of both.