Why has China as we know it survived? First and foremost, the Chinese central government has managed to avoid adhering to many of its obligations made when it joined the WTO in 2001 to open its economy and play by the rules, and the international community maintained a generally tolerant attitude toward this noncompliant behavior. As a result, Beijing has been able to protect much of its home market from foreign competitors while ramping up exports.

By any measure, China has been phenomenally successful in developing its economy after WTO accession — returning to the almost double-digit growth it had enjoyed before the near-recession suffered at the end of the 1990s. Many analysts assume this growth streak can continue indefinitely. For instance, Justin Yifu Lin, the World Bank’s chief economist, believes the country can grow for at least two more decades at 8 percent, and the International Monetary Fund predicts China’s economy will surpass America’s in size by 2016.

Don’t believe any of this. China outperformed other countries because it was in a three-decade upward supercycle, principally for three reasons. First, there were Deng Xiaoping’s transformational “reform and opening up” policies, first implemented in the late 1970s. Second, Deng’s era of change coincided with the end of the Cold War, which brought about the elimination of political barriers to international commerce. Third, all of this took place while China was benefiting from its “demographic dividend,” an extraordinary bulge in the workforce.

At the same time that China’s economy no longer benefits from these three favorable conditions, it must recover from the dislocations — asset bubbles and inflation — caused by Beijing’s excessive pump priming in 2008 and 2009, the biggest economic stimulus program in world history (including $1 trillion-plus in 2009 alone). Since late September, economic indicators — electricity consumption, industrial orders, export growth, car sales, property prices, you name it — are pointing toward either a flatlining or contracting economy. Money started to leave the country in October, and Beijing’s foreign reserves have been shrinking since September.

As a result, we will witness either a crash or, more probably, a Japanese-style multi-decade decline. Either way, economic troubles are occurring just as Chinese society is becoming extremely restless. It is not only that protests have spiked upwards — there were 280,000 “mass incidents” last yearaccording to one count — but that they are also increasingly violent as the recent wave of uprisingsinsurrectionsrampages and bombings suggest. The Communist Party, unable to mediate social discontent, has chosen to step-up repression to levels not seen in two decades. The authorities have, for instance, blanketed the country’s cities and villages with police and armed troops and stepped up monitoring of virtually all forms of communication and the media. It’s no wonder that, in online surveys, “control” and “restrict” were voted the country’s most popular words for 2011.

 

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