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Economy more resilient than deemed

By Zhang Jun | China Daily | Updated: 2020-07-04 09:47


Widespread lockdowns and border closures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus have interrupted global supply chains and largely paralyzed the global economy. Yet the real weakness of today's global economy is not the vulnerability of its globalized production networks, but rather souring attitudes toward globalization-and toward China in particular.

Fear of China's growing economic clout drives many countries' foreign trade and investment decisions these days, and not only in the United States. Concerns about the dependence of global manufacturing on China have prompted calls to "reshore" production and cut the country out of global supply chains. The US is even threatening to stifle the Chinese economy through technological decoupling.

Purchasing power and tech sector power growth

But China's critics are mistaken in assuming that the country's continued economic growth depends almost entirely on the maintenance of the free international trade system and access to Western technology. Although China is a very important global manufacturer, the real drivers of its economic performance over the last decade or so have been rapid growth in its huge purchasing power and fixed-asset investments-including in the country's thriving technology sector.

The world is yet to fully appreciate the significance of China's inward shift of economic gravity away from "external circulation". This is partly because many economists have instead been busy criticizing China's investment expansion and highlighting the potential debt risks arising from it. As a result, politicians in the US and many other countries still think that the most effective way to contain China is to target its position in global trade and supply chains.

To be sure, China has so far been the largest beneficiary of economic globalization over the past decades, mainly because of its integration into the global free-trade system before and after joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. Indeed, by the late 1980s, Chinese policymakers were advocating that the country use global supply chains and international markets to help it industrialize and accumulate capital. China thus took advantage of its abundant cheap labor and adopted a "both ends out" approach, importing parts and components in order to assemble finished products for export.

Structural balance to expand economy

But Chinese policymakers have long since understood that this growth model could not turn China into a fully developed, high-income economy. In particular, the severe impact of the 2008 global financial crisis on Western economies forced China to accelerate its "change of focus" by developing a huge, more closely integrated domestic market and promoting growth through "internal circulation". Such efforts have gained further momentum in recent years as a result of escalating trade frictions with the US and recognizing that China's continued economic expansion requires overcoming structural imbalances.

China has taken several steps to correct these imbalances and boost domestic demand. For starters, it allowed the renminbi to appreciate against the US dollar for at least a decade after 2005, and began to open up its protected market to foreign enterprises in line with its commitments to the WTO. China not only liberalized imports, especially of intermediate and capital goods, but also started allowing foreign penetration in financial markets and other non-tradable sectors. And by establishing an increasing number of free trade zones, China has honored its commitments on foreign portfolio investment and facilitation of cross-border capital flows.

Second, China has increased physical infrastructure and logistics investments at an annual rate of more than 20 percent over the last 15 years, resulting in new and improved domestic highways, railways, airports, and port facilities. During the last decade, for example, China has built a high-speed railway network of more than 35,000 kilometers.

Sound IT networks help foster high-tech firms

Third, since the beginning of this century, the Chinese authorities have consistently supported the construction of large-scale information and communication infrastructure networks, and encouraged private enterprises to innovate in cutting-edge sectors such as mobile payments, e-commerce, the internet of things, and smart manufacturing. This has helped foster the emergence of many China-based global high-tech companies, including Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com. Besides, at the beginning of this year, the government decided to launch a new round of largescale investment in 5G base stations.

And fourth, China has promoted national strategic plans aimed at integrating domestic economic mega-regions and boosting domestic demand. This includes the construction of Xiong'an New Area, where Beijing's non-core capital functions will be moved to expedite the development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. The government has also been developing the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and encouraging closer cooperation among 16 cities in the Yangtze River Belt, while the Yangtze River Delta region is leading the economic integration process among mostly industrialized regions and provinces, headed by Shanghai.

Likewise, two of Southwest China's most important urban centers-Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, and Chongqing, the main city in the upstream section of the Yangtze Riverhave been given incentives to create a "double-city circle" through closer economic cooperation. And the freight railway to Europe from China's western and southwestern regions, and the "new land-sea channel" to the south, will not only boost China's economy but also help stabilize global supply chains.

Further support for globalization

Indeed, despite the ongoing shift in its economic gravity, China will certainly not have an incentive to disengage from global technology supply chains or retreat into isolation. On the contrary, it will remain an active participant in and contributor to global trade and investment. And in opening up more access to its domestic market to foreign investors, China will further support globalization and therefore help correct global trade imbalances. Also, efforts to stimulate domestic demand will create further expansion and opportunities for domestic and foreign investors, thus boosting future global economic growth.

It is therefore naïve to believe that forced technological decoupling, trade sanctions, or forced changes to global supply chains will put an end to China's future economic expansion. If critics are too shortsighted to see this, it will be their loss.

The author is dean of the School of Economics at Fudan University and director of the China Center for Economic Studies, a Shanghai-based think tank.

Project Syndicate

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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