What if most of what we think about government spending was wrong? What if government money causes, rather than cures, pollution, unaffordable and substandard housing, impossible traffic, more expensive and less available healthcare? Sounds impossible, right? Not if you live in or have traveled to Beijing lately. The city’s now infamous urban problems are at least in part the result of a deluge of government spending since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. Direct central government funding doubled to over Rmb 14 trillion ($2.2 trillion) over this period while local governments borrowed an additional Rmb 13 trillion ($2.1 trillion) to finance their spending.
The government money, of course, wasn’t meant to turn Beijing into an urban sprawl with a population larger than every state in the US except California. In fact, most of the government stimulus was targeted for big projects outside the capital. But, in China, the nature of things is that much of government spending travels on a round-trip ticket. It is dispensed in Beijing and then a big part of it eventually returns home. And no, this isn’t all in kickbacks. A large part is from the build out of a huge new infrastructure in Beijing to support, steer and encourage the distribution of more government cash.
In the last five years, it seems like everyone rushed to open or expand offices in Beijing： companies of all sizes from all part of China and the world; governments from the smallest local hamlet 3,000 kilometers away to provinces with populations larger than every country in Western Europe also staffed up. Result: commercial and residential real estate prices skyrocketed to the point now where they are among the highest anywhere in the world.
More people begets more cars, more cars begets more traffic, more traffic begets restrictions on the days-per-week any car can be on the road, which in turn begets Beijingers buying an extra car to get around the prohibition. End result: pollution that is now substantially caused by auto emissions, not as in the old days by nearby-factories burning coal. Many polluting factories have been shut down, which added to the available land for development into commercial and residential property in and around Beijing, particularly in areas you need a car to get to.
Here are the two charts, showing residential real estate prices and cars registered in Beijing from 2008 through last year. The numbers are likely underestimates. But, they show the trend.
The torrent of government cash had all kinds of spillover effects that have altered Beijing permanently. More restaurants, higher prices, more wining and dining, leading to prohibitions last year, as part of the big anti-corruption crusade, on government officials accepting invitations to party outside the office. This then drives the behavior underground, so high-end restaurants empty out, while more expensive and exclusive “members only” clubs flourish.
Beijing has morphed into the financial capital of China. That’s attracted a large group of players to move from Shanghai and Hong Kong to get a piece. PE funds, private bankers, lawyers, consultants, so-called “guanxi merchants” who arrange access to government officials. Among my circle of friends in PE industry, I can count 15 who have moved to Beijing in recent years, to get closer to the action, and only one who left, who finally couldn’t take the crowds, pollution, high cost.
Beijing’s precise population is unknown. The official number is 21.1 million. Some in government say 25 million. Others claim the real number is closer to 30 million, when you count more recent migrants living rough, plus the huge throngs in Beijing for shorter periods, either for work or pleasure.
Since 2008, far more of China’s total economic activity is decided by government bureaucrats in Beijing. Overall government spending has more than doubled. Result, more people need to travel to Beijing more often.
Look at passenger numbers at Beijing’s Capital Airport. Between 2008 and 2013, this already crowded-facility saw passenger numbers increase by a remarkable 50%. It is, as of March this year, now the busiest airport in the world, eclipsing Atlanta’s Hartsfield. Capital Airport is now breaking under the load, and so Beijing is about to embark on building an even larger new airport in the southern part of the city. This mammoth $11 billion project by itself could support a lot of Beijing’s gdp growth in the coming few years. But, it will be just the cherry on top.
Beijing has the best hospitals in China, so people come from all over the country to try to get admitted for medical treatment. This has led to price increases and longer waiting times. Equally, those with a serious grievance about their local government, or who feel maltreated, will often gather up their documents go to Beijing to try to get redress. This trek to Beijing has been around since the days of the Emperors. As China’s government grows in power and economic clout and ordinary Chinese have the money to fight back, those seeking to petition central government’s help increase.
To serve all the new arrivals and visitors, Beijing continues to expand its Metro system. The average daily ridership is now 10 million, about triple London’s, and also triple the amount five years ago in Beijing. Waits at rush hour to get into some stations can be horrific, so the government recently proposed to raise fares. Beijing currently has the cheapest public transportation of any big city in China. While some may leave Beijing, the likely result of higher Metro fares will be more people trying to buy a car.
How bad is traffic in Beijing. Horror stories abound. A more reasonable evaluation: the manager of a big telecommunications company I know told me recently if he doesn’t leave his house by 7am, it will take 90 minutes to drive 10 km from his house to his office. That’s about speed of sedan chairs used to carry emperor and his cohorts within the Forbidden City.
To be sure, Beijing is not Dhaka. Since 2008, many aspects of the city’s infrastructure have been upgraded. It is a thoroughly modern city, with scarcely a trace of either poverty or blight. When I first visited the city in 1981, Bactrian camels were still occasionally seen on the streets hauling cargo.
For first time since 1949, the leader of the country, Xi Jinping, is Beijing born and bred. Since he was a boy, Beijing’s population has about quadrupled, while China overall has almost exactly doubled. Will he try to shift gears, slow or even reverse the growth in the city’s population? It won’t be easy. Government stimulus spending, once turned on is notoriously hard to scale back in any serious way. Do so and overall GDP growth will likely suffer.
In its 3,000 years as China’s major urban outpost on the country’s northern perimeter, Beijing has experienced countless invasions, barbarian pillages, conquests, uprisings. But, nothing in history has altered Beijing as quickly, deeply, and perhaps permanently as five years of bounce-back and kickback from trillions in government pump-priming.