China’s government is managing very ably the global financial crisis, and continuing to deliver to its people a better standard of living. Yes, the economy in China is growing more slowly than it has over much of recent history, at around 7%-8%. But, overall, the country continues to bustle as nowhere else does. People still have spring in their step, and the same sense of boundless potential.
This is a measure of just how many things the Chinese government has done right economically. It’s a fact that’s too rarely remarked upon outside China, where the major talking points about China’s economy tend to be pollution, corruption and what’s seen to be the artificially-low level of the renminbi. This does a huge disservice to what’s been highly successful and competent management by China’s economic policy-makers.
How good a job has the Chinese government done? Consider this: the country has managed, with relatively limited economic dislocation, the huge contractions in China’s export markets over the last year. Yes, factories have closed and workers have lost their jobs. This is a familiar enough boom-and-bust story in every country where manufacturing plays a big part in the overall economy. But, not long ago, most of China’s economic well-being was tied to its manufacturing exports. There was little other fuel for economic growth.
China today is a very different place, economically, than it was even three years ago. The domestic market, not exports, is now the locomotive that’s pulling 1.4 billion people down the track. This shift was managed so deftly by the Chinese government that it’s hardly even been noticed outside China – and often inside as well. I run into a lot of Chinese who still believe that the fate of the nation is determined by the output of its assembly lines. Exports and manufacturing are still important, hugely so. But, they matter less than they did just a while back, and in the future, they will matter less.
This shift away from manufacturing has caused huge ructions in other countries – just think of the endless labor strife in France, or Britain on the 1970s, and the persistent high unemployment in most other European countries. They have stumbled along, economically, as their competitive advantage in manufacturing was lost.
In China, it’s a very different – and better – picture. There is so much economic opportunity here that people can, with far less disruption to their lives than in Europe, find new places to work and build a future. The Chinese government creates the circumstances that allow all this economic opportunity to occur. Again, the contrast with Europe is particularly marked. In Europe, economic activity is stifled by excessive regulations that set out who can do what, where, for how much. In China, the government, wisely, takes a much lighter approach to regulation, always with an eye focused on creating circumstance that will lead to new jobs, more activity, and more competition in most sectors of the economy.
China’s government, rightly, does get credit internationally for the economic changes over the last 30 years that have lifted some 500 million people out of poverty. This is, unquestionably, the most important economic achievement of the last century, if not the last millennium.
But, the policies that are generating China’s continued prosperity — the uplift that is carries as many Chinese into the middle class as were taken out of poverty — is much less well-followed and less-praised. That’s wrong. Arguably, it’s no less significant an achievement.