For over 25 years, China has been synonymous with rapid development and upward mobility, acting as an inexhaustible engine driving global economic growth. With its 1.4 billion population embracing global products like Hollywood movies, South Korean electronics, and Australian-mined iron ore, the world’s economic engine seemed unstoppable. However, recent events have highlighted a stark shift in this narrative, casting uncertainty over the global economic landscape.
China’s economic slowdown has raised alarms, presenting risks to both its households and economies worldwide. The nation’s economic engine, once the cornerstone of a profit-driven form of globalisation, has now become a significant wild card in an era of extraordinary global uncertainty. Recent weeks have witnessed a series of troubling developments that have further intensified the risks. Initially, news emerged that China’s economy experienced a significant slowdown in the spring, squashing hopes of robust expansion post the easing of severe COVID-19 restrictions. Following this, data indicated a three-month consecutive decline in exports and a five-month consecutive drop in imports, indicating a deteriorating economic outlook.
Prices for various goods, from food to real estate, have also fallen, hinting at the potential of deflation and stagnant commercial activity. Distress in China’s housing market is evident as major real estate developer Country Garden reported missed bond payments and substantial losses in the first half of the year, highlighting the fragility of China’s financial ecosystem. These developments have created a ripple effect, impacting Chinese households and workers while signalling diminished global demand for key goods. China’s reduced appetite for products like Brazilian soybeans, American beef, and Italian luxury goods, coupled with decreased demand for oil and minerals, has widespread implications.
Over the past decade, China has fuelled over 40% of global economic growth, overshadowing the 22% from the US and 9% from the Eurozone countries combined. However, mounting debts, estimated at 282% of national output, now raise concerns over the Chinese government’s ability to stimulate the economy effectively. The Chinese government has introduced spending programs to encourage consumer spending and business investment. However, the lack of transparency regarding these measures has led to scepticism, with local governments potentially left bearing the financial burden. The ballooning debt crisis stems from years of aggressive borrowing by local governments for infrastructure projects.
Stalling the Transition
These challenges arise as China aims to transition from an export-led, state-directed investment economy to one driven by domestic consumer spending. The former model, successful for years, coupled government financing of infrastructure projects with a booming factory sector. The shift in global economic dynamics is not without geopolitical implications. The Trump Administration initiated tariffs on Chinese imports, and the Biden Administration continued this approach, expanding restrictions on key Chinese sectors. This underscores the rising tension between the US and China, with global companies shifting their manufacturing orders to countries like Vietnam and India to avoid potential supply chain disruptions.
To counter these challenges, China must transition toward an economy centered on domestic spending power. Despite the pandemic disrupting this transition, experts believe China can avoid the deflation trap. While falling prices may reverse, government support for private businesses could help reinvigorate the economy. However, there remain concerns about the sustainability of this transition, given China’s debt crisis and the potential for housing market instability. As China navigates this economic evolution, the world watches, understanding that the global economic landscape is inherently tied to the fortunes of the Chinese economy. The shifting dynamics in China’s economy will continue to shape the global economic narrative, making it a pivotal factor in the uncertain times ahead.