The only thing rising faster than China is the hype about China. In January, the People's Republic’s gross domestic product (GDP) exceeded that of Britain and France, making China the world's fourth-largest economy. In December, it was announced that China replaced the United States as the world's largest exporter of technology goods. Many experts predict that the Chinese economy will be second only to the United States by 2020, and possibly surpass it by 2050.
Western investors hail China’s strong economic fundamentals -- notably a high savings rate, huge labor pool, and powerful work ethic -- and willingly gloss over its imperfections. Businesspeople talk about China's being simultaneously the world's greatest manufacturer and its greatest market. Private equity firms are scouring the Middle Kingdom for acquisitions. Chinese Internet companies are fetching dot-com-era prices on the NASDAQ. Some of the world's leading financial institutions, including Bank of America, Citibank, and HSBC, have bet billions on the country's financial future by acquiring minority stakes in China's state-controlled banks, even though many of them are technically insolvent. Not to be left out, every global automobile giant has built or is planning new facilities in China, despite a flooded market and plunging profit margins.
And why shouldn't they believe the hype? The record of China's growth over the past two decades has proved pessimists wrong and optimists not optimistic enough. But before we all start learning Chinese and marveling at the accomplishments of the Chinese Communist Party, we might want to pause for a moment. Upon close examination, China's record loses some of its luster. China's economic performance since 1979, for example, is actually less impressive than that of its East Asian neighbors, such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, during comparable periods of growth. Its banking system, which costs Beijing about 30 percent of annual GDP in bailouts, is saddled with nonperforming loans and is probably the most fragile in Asia. The comparison with India is especially striking. In six major industrial sectors (ranging from autos to telecom), from 1999 to 2003, Indian companies delivered rates of return on investment that were 80 to 200 percent higher than their Chinese counterparts. The often breathless conventional wisdom on China's economic reform overlooks major flaws that render many predictions about China's trajectory misleading, if not downright hazardous.
Behind the glowing headlines are fundamental frailties rooted in the Chinese neo-Leninist state. Unlike Maoism, neo-Leninism blends one-party rule and state control of key sectors of the economy with partial market reforms and an end to self-imposed isolation from the world economy. The Maoist state preached egalitarianism and relied on the loyalty of workers and peasants. The neo-Leninist state practices elitism, draws its support from technocrats, the military, and the police, and co-opts new social elites (professionals and private entrepreneurs) and foreign capital -- all vilified under Maoism. Neo-Leninism has rendered the ruling Chinese Communist Party more resilient but has also generated self-destructive forces.
To most Western observers, China's economic success obscures the predatory characteristics of its neo-Leninist state. But Beijing’s brand of authoritarian politics is spawning a dangerous mix of crony capitalism, rampant corruption, and widening inequality. Dreams that the country's economic liberalization will someday lead to political reform remain distant. Indeed, if current trends continue, China's political system is more likely to experience decay than democracy. It’s true that China's recent economic achievements have given the party a new vibrancy. Yet the very policies that the party adopted to generate high economic growth are compounding the political and social ills that threaten its long-term survival.
COMMAND AND CONTROL
After a quarter century of gradual economic reform, has China succeeded in transforming its old command economy into a genuine market economy? Not nearly as well as most people would guess. Although China was one of the earliest socialist economies to begin serious reform, recent data on the country's regulation, international trade, fiscal policy, and legal structure place China in the bottom third of 127 countries surveyed for economic freedom, below most Eastern European countries, India and Mexico, and all of its East Asian neighbors, save Burma and Vietnam.
The Chinese state remains deeply entrenched in the economy. According to official data for 2003, the state directly accounted for 38 percent of the country's GDP and employed 85 million people (about one third of the urban workforce). For its part, the formal private sector in urban areas employed only 67 million people. A research report by the financial firm UBS argues that the private sector in China accounts for no more than 30 percent of the economy. These figures are startling even for Asia, where there is a tradition of heavy state involvement in the economy. State-owned enterprises in most Asian countries contribute about 5 percent of GDP. In India, traditionally considered a socialist economy, state-owned firms generate less than 7 percent of GDP.
But China's tentacles are even more securely wrapped around the economy than these figures suggest. First, Beijing continues to own the bulk of capital. In 2003, the state controlled $1.2 trillion worth of capital stock, or 56 percent of the country's fixed industrial assets. Second, the state remains, as befits a quintessentially Leninist regime, securely in control of the "commanding heights" of the economy: It is either a monopolist or a dominant player in the most important sectors, including financial services, banking, telecommunications, energy, steel, automobiles, natural resources, and transportation. It protects its monopoly profits in these sectors by blocking private domestic firms and foreign companies from entering the market (although in a few sectors, such as steel, telecom, and automobiles, there is competition among state firms). Third, the government maintains tight control over most investment projects through the power to issue long-term bank credit and grant land-use rights.
China's business cycle is therefore driven by Beijing. Private-sector firms have very limited access to finance or new markets. The state even dominates many ostensibly deregulated sectors, such as the brewing industry, the retail sector, and textiles. Of the 66 publicly traded retailers in the country, only one is private. There are only 40 private firms among the 1,520 Chinese companies listed on domestic and foreign exchanges.