Arthur Kroeber

Not a dropping growth is China’s problem, as some economists predict, but income equality is hurting and might offer one of the country’s real challenges, argues economist Arthur Kroeber in Foreign Policy.

Arthur Kroeber:

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…

[T]he housing market also illustrates China’s true problem: not that growth is unsustainable, but that it is deeply unfair. The overall housing shortage coexists with an oversupply of luxury housing, built to cater to a new elite. Although most Chinese have benefited from economic growth, the top tier have benefited obscenely — often simply because of their government or party connections, which enable them to profit immensely from land grabs, graft on construction projects, or insider access to lucrative stock market listings. A 2010 study by Chinese economist Wang Xiaolu found that the top 2 percent of households earned a staggering 35 percent of national urban income. A handful of giant state firms, secure in monopoly positions and flush with cheap loans from state banks, has almost unlimited access to moneymaking opportunities. The state-owned banks themselves earned a staggering $165 billion in 2011. Yet private firms, which produce almost all of China’s productivity and employment gains, earn thin margins and suffer pervasive discrimination.

At the root lies a political system built on a principle of unfairness. The Communist Party ultimately controls the allocation of all resources; its officials are effectively immune to legal prosecution until they first undergo an opaque internal disciplinary process. Occasionally a high official is brought down on corruption charges, like former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai. But such cases reflect elite power struggles, not a determined effort to end corruption. In a few years’ time, China will likely surpass the United States as the world’s top economy. But until it solves its fairness problem, it will remain a second-rate society.

More in Foreign Policy.

Arthur Kroeber is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

More on Arthur Kroeber’s views on China’s economy at Storify.

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