Opinion | Evergrande Isn’t China’s Only Economic Worry


The larger question is whether China can maintain a dynamic economy when its government, under Mr. Xi, seems increasingly intent on meddling in the market. The answer: Despite a desire for more state discipline, China has not rejected markets — dynamism will continue.

Some of this state meddling is prudent. The property crackdown is part of a serious drive to cure the economy’s addiction to debt. Similarly, the power shortages that have plagued much of industrial China are due largely to efforts to slash the country’s reliance on coal. China has said that its carbon emissions should peak by 2030 and then decline, with a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060.

One response to the energy shortage has been a long-overdue deregulation of electricity prices. This has allowed generators to pass on some of the impact of higher coal prices to end users. So it is not true that Mr. Xi’s government is implacably anti-market. Beijing, as it has for decades, will continue relying on a combination of state guidance and market forces: The state sets the direction for investment, with day-to-day outcomes dictated by the market.

A more serious concern is the yearlong offensive against privately owned big tech companies, notably e-commerce and the financial technology giant Alibaba, and the ride-hailing company Didi. It’s unclear whether China can ever become a true leader in innovation if it insists on squashing its most successful entrepreneurial businesses.

Yet even here, the story is not black-and-white. The internet crackdown is not really about crushing private enterprise: Private companies in many sectors, including tech hardware, are doing just fine. Rather, the crackdown addresses — in a very authoritarian way — the same anxieties about big tech that governments around the world are grappling with: unaccountable power, monopolistic practices, shoddy consumer protection and the tendency of a tech-heavy economy to drive income inequality.

One final worry is that these moves toward greater state discipline are driven not by economic motives but by Mr. Xi’s desire to reinforce his power, ahead of a Communist Party conference in late 2022 where he expects to gain a third term as the country’s leader. In the long run there is a risk that overly centralized power could degrade the government’s ability to manage the economy. But Mr. Xi also recognizes that his power will not be worth much unless the economy keeps growing.

China will never run its economy in a way that pleases free-market purists. But it has come up with a mixed model that works. And despite the stresses of the moment, it will keep on working.



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