China Economic Update: Further State Control

An apt quote describing Chinese economic reform (my emphasis added):

The analytical community will pore over the entrails [of the reform agenda] to analyse whether the spirit of market-based reforms continues to flourish for the future. Or whether it has begun to fade amidst a more general Chinese political and ideological redirection to the left. Or just as problematically, for economic reform to die at the implementation level because of confusing political and policy signals from the centre, meaning that it is much safer to just keep your head down. Or because there are limited local incentives, either personal or institutional, to actively prosecute reform which inevitably generates local conflict with deeply entrenched vested interests. Or, more likely, an unholy cocktail of the above, collectively reinforcing a natural predisposition towards bureaucratic inertia.

-Kevin Rudd

President of the Asia Society Policy Institute and Former Australian Prime Minister

As this blog has stated many times before, Chinese economic reform is dead. China, for the past decade, has seen a systemic rise in debt as state influenced asset allocation becomes increasingly inefficient. Three years ago Chinese credit growth was 16.6% . With over $40 trillion in bank assets, it will not likely return to previous growth levels. Even so, the current  pace of credit growth, 10%, once again exceeds nominal GDP growth, meaning that China is adding to economy-wide leverage rather than moderating the debt load.

Xi in Davos

In 2017, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi went to Davos to promise to defend globalization and reform the Chinese economy.

The SOE share of listed company revenue in “normal” industries–those that Beijing identified as non-strategic and commercial–increased significantly, to 15.6% in 1Q2019 from 14.8% in 4Q2018. This increase is the first since 1Q2016, and it shows that the state is advancing even in industries where Beijing set out to withdraw influence in the 2013 Third Plenum Decisions. Industrial SOE assets grew by 4% year-on-year in 1Q2019, faster than private asset growth of 1.4%. SOE profitability flattened in 1Q2019, suggesting that past policies framed as reform (e.g., capacity cuts, deleveraging) have failed to improve SOE efficiency. Returns on SOE assets peaked at 4.5% in 3Q2018 and then declined to 4.0% in 1Q2019.

In 1Q2019, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) reviewed 28% of foreign-involved mergers but only 9% of domestic mergers. At the same time, China’s poor judicial transparency has deteriorated further. Courts publish less than 5% of the competition and intellectual property disputes they handle each year, with significant delay. In 1Q2019, the courts even removed previously published cases (400–600 cases a year) from their websites.

Communism Guides the Economy

I recently read through the 国务院关于深化国有企业改革的指导意见 (Guiding Opinions of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council on Deepening the Reform of State-owned Enterprises) which was published in 2015. Here are two interesting quotes with translations following:

1.) 坚持党对国有企业的领导。这是深化国有企业改革必须坚守的政治方向、政治原则.  The Party’s leadership over SOEs shall be upheld. This is the political direction and principle that must be held fast to in deepening SOE reform.

2.) 企业党的建设全面加强…工作体系更加完善,国有企业党组织在公司治理中的法定地位更加巩固,政治核心作用充分发挥.  The Party building of enterprises shall be comprehensively strengthened… In addition, the Party organizations of SOEs shall enjoy a more solid statutory position in corporate governance, and fully display their core political role.

Chinese reform has regressed towards China’s bureaucratic mean- communism and state control. As China releases GDP numbers, quarterly updates, and policy guidelines, readers should put those documents into a clear framework: China is slowing, debt is growing, and the state is consolidating.

Lastly, here is a quote from the EU Chamber of Commerce’s report “18 Months After Davos:”

One of the largest concerns for European players in the healthcare equipment sector is the CM2025 initiative. The China Manufacturing 2025 Key Area Technology Roadmap, which was drafted under the guidance of the China Academy of Engineering, sets domestic market share targets for Chinese players in the healthcare equipment sector. International players are concerned that any available support will only be extended to domestic companies. So far, there has been no obvious effect on the healthcare market, and the European Chamber has been assured by the Chinese authorities that this implementation strategy is not to be taken seriously.

Thanks for reading.


Chinese Government Policy is Not Top-Down

I highly recommend China watchers read this paper by political scientist Lee Jones and Zeng Jinhan. It provides a great look into how Chinese policy is implemented:

Foreign-policy steering happens through several important mechanisms. The first is top leaders’ major speeches, which are usually kept vague to accommodate diverse interests and agendas. Rather than ‘carefully-worked out grand strategies’, they are typically ‘platitudes, slogans, catchphrases, and generalities’, offering ‘atmospheric guidance’ that others must then interpret and implement. Examples include: Deng’s tao guang yang hui, whose meaning is ‘debateable’; Hu’s ‘harmonious world’ – ‘more of a narrative than a grand strategy’; and Xi’s ‘new type of great power relations.’ As discussed below, Xi’s vague 2013 remarks on the ‘silk road economic belt’ (SREB) and ‘maritime silk road’ (MSR) exemplify this tendency. [2]

Xi Jinping thought and Xi Jinping thought-study for communist cadre revolves around applying platitudes to local practice, matching national talking points to local policy initiatives. \Xi Jinping’s Speeches are completely devoid of any significant meaning, but local governments go to great lengths to mirror Xi’s  lexicon. Take the Belt and Road initiative for example.

Xi Book

Disturbing quote from Mark Zuckerberg

The Belt and Road initiative is not driven by Beijing. Provincial governments and local governments have been tasked to create their own BRI projects.

From Lee and Zeng:

In 2013, Guangxi and affiliated business interests agreed  with  Malaysia’s Pahang state  government  to  upgrade  Kuantan  port,  including  by  developing a cross-country railway, road links and a US$3.4 billion industrial park. Guangxi subsequently leveraged  BRI  to  expand  its  involvement.  However,  in  September  2015, Guangdong province  signed  a  rival  agreement  with  Malaysia’s  Malacca  state,  including  a  US$4.6 billion industrial park and a US$10 billion port upgrade.

There is little economic rationale for developing two world-class ports on the Malay Peninsula. These projects reflect not a coherent master plan but  rather competitive, sub-national  dynamics in both countries.  Moreover, these micro-level dynamics clearly do not–indeed, cannot–add up to a coherent, macro-level network of infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, statistical analysis reveals no correlation between Vision and Actions [the official policy document guiding the BRI] six ‘corridors’ and projects on the ground, suggesting that the plan is failing even to guide investment activity in a broad sense.

Foreign policy has an excellent article which, among other things, quotes how the World Bank lauded Turkey’s Marmaray rail tunnel as an example of BRI investment, ” even though it is funded by a Turkey-EU-Japan consortium and appears to have no Chinese involvement.” BRI is less of a national strategy and more of an expansion of a specific part of China’s domestic political economy: local governments borrowing endlessly to fund infrastructure projects.

The thing is, local provinces are agile in aligning to federal programs to push their own initiatives. Again citing Lee and Zeng:

Only 14 provinces were invited to the NDRC’s initial OBOR symposium in December 2013, indicating a relatively tight circle of beneficiaries. Excluded provinces, however, quickly lobbied for inclusion, through  forums  like the NPC. Provincial  universities  and  think  tanks  were  encouraged to demonstrate locales’ historical links to the ancient silk road – generating the aforementioned publications boom. Local media were also enlisted, leading to a profusion of stories mentioning OBOR, from 543 in 2014 to 5935 in 2015, with coverage in virtually every provincial outlet. For example, Shaanxi and Henan provinces waged an intense public battle over which of them contained the start of the historical silk road Competition over the MSR’s ‘starting point’ was even fiercer, with rival claims from Fujian, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Guangxi. Provinces with weaker claims invented ‘starting points’ linked to geographical locations or commodities, like porcelain or tea, then even squabbled over these. Shandong and Hebei, for example, both claimed that their cities, Qingdao and Huanghua, were the ‘northern starting point.’

China is built from the bottom up, from province to federal government. Local media, local SOEs, and local projects are cooked to align to federal buzzwords. Even SOE structure is province-up. Look at CRRC’s subsidiaries pictured below.

CRRC subsidiaries

CRRC is an active holding company comprised of many local companies. These local companies are unique in leadership, future plans, and corporate action. They shape the national SOE, CRRC.

In April of 2015, Xi Jinping declared that China will have a ‘toilet revolution’ (厕所革命). Much of the commentary and media coverage have struck a bemused tone and offered little analysis. China’s toilet revolution is a prism through which to examine how the central government takes account of popular opinion, how bureaucratic interests are championed by China’s top leaders, and how agencies can effectively implement national policy campaigns. The architect of China’s toilet revolution is Li Jinzao, former head of the National Tourism Agency. From 1998 to 2002 he served as mayor of Guilin, where he launched a local ‘toilet revolution’ to increase tourism. In 2000, his city built more than 849 new ‘tourism toilets.’

This is serious business. As head of the NTA in 2014, he designated April 1st as China Toilet Revolution Advancement Day and instituted an annual National Toilet Revolution Meeting on the first workday after the Spring Festival holiday. After catching the eye of Xi, the program went viral.

According to state media, between 2015 and 2017 the NTA was able to get the Ministry of Finance to allocate almost 1.8 billion yuan ($264 million) to subsidize toilet construction, funding which helped spur localities to invest a further 20 billion yuan ($2.9 billion) of their own budgets into toilets over the same period. In November 2017, the NTA declared that 68,000 toilets had already been constructed or upgraded, exceeding its original target by nearly 20%. Consequently, the NTA announced a “New Three-Year Action Plan” that raised its original target of 57,000 to 64,000 new or upgraded toilets by 2020.

The take away here is that localities were quick to jump on a national project with serious merit and invested more than ten times what the ministry of finance allocated.


My photo taken at Tsinghua University. 向前一小步, 文明一大步 (advance one small step, culture/society advances one big step). It is a sign near a urinal telling men to urinate cleanly for the “rejuvenation of the nation.”Really: link

Chinese grand-strategy, from One Belt One Road and SOE structure to the massive amount of money spent on the toilet revolution, is almost always a post-hoc narrative that provinces use to justify their idiosyncratic tendencies and desires. Xi and China aren’t as centralized as commonly thought of.