Time and again, China has defied the skeptics who claimed its unique mixed model -- an ever-more market-driven economy dominated by an authoritarian Communist Party and behemoth state-owned enterprises -- could not possibly endure. Today, those voices are louder than ever. Michael Pettis, a professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management and one of the most persistent and well-regarded skeptics, predicted in March that China's economic growth rate "will average not much more than 3% annually over the rest of the decade." Barry Eichengreen, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, warned last year that China is nearing a wall hit by many high-speed economies when growth slows or stops altogether -- the so-called "middle-income trap."
No question, China has many problems. Years of one-sided investment-driven growth have created obvious excesses and overcapacity. A weaker global economy since the 2008 financial crisis and rapidly rising labor cost at home have slowed China's vaunted export machine. Meanwhile, a massive housing bubble is slowly deflating, and the latest economic data is discouraging. Real growth in GDP slowed to an annualized rate of less than 7 percent in the first quarter of 2012, and April saw a sharp slowdown in industrial output, electricity production, bank lending, and property transactions. Is China's legendary economy in serious trouble?
Not just yet. The odds are that China will navigate these shoals and continue to grow at a fairly rapid pace of around 7 percent a year for the remainder of the decade, overtaking the United States to become the world's biggest economy around 2020. That's a lot slower than the historical average of 10 percent, but still solid. Considerably less certain, however, is whether China's secretive and corrupt Communist Party can make this growth equitable, inclusive, and fair. Rather than economic collapse, it's far more likely that a decade from now China will have a strong economy but a deeply flawed and unstable society.
China's economic model, for all its odd communist trappings, closely resembles the successful strategy for "catch-up growth" pioneered by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan after World War II. The theory behind catch-up growth is that poor countries can achieve substantial convergence with rich-country income levels by simply copying and diffusing imported technology. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, Japan reverse-engineered products such as cars, watches, and cameras, enabling the emergence of global firms like Toyota, Nikon, and Sony. Achieving catch-up growth requires an export-focused industrial policy, intensive investment in enabling infrastructure and basic industry, and tight control over the financial system so that it supports infrastructure, basic industries, and exporters, instead of trying to maximize its own profits.
China's catch-up phase is far from over. It has mastered the production of basic industrial materials and consumer products, but its move into sophisticated machinery and high-tech products has only just begun. In 2010, China's per capita income was only 20 percent of the U.S. level. By most measures, China's economy today is comparable to Japan's in the late 1960s and South Korea's and Taiwan's around 1980. Each of those countries subsequently experienced another decade or two of rapid growth. Given the similarity of their economic systems, there is no obvious reason China should differ.
For catch-up countries, growth is mainly about resource mobilization, not resource efficiency, which is the name of the game for lower-growth rich countries. Historically, about two-thirds of China's annual real GDP growth has come from additions of capital and labor. Mainly this means moving workers out of traditional agriculture and into the modern labor force, and increasing the amount of capital inputs (like machinery and software) per worker. Less than a third of growth in China comes from greater efficiency in resource use.
In a rich country like the United States -- which already has abundant capital resources and employs all its workers in the modern sector -- the reverse is true. About two-thirds of growth comes from efficiency improvements and only one-third from additions to labor or capital. Conditioned by their own experience to believe that economic growth is mainly about efficiency, analysts from rich countries come to China, see widespread waste and inefficiency, and conclude that growth must be unsustainable. They miss the larger picture: The system's immense success in mobilizing capital and labor resources overwhelms marginal efficiency problems.