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J U LY 2 0 0 8

China’s Economic Rise—

Fact and Fiction
Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
N China’s domestically driven economic expansion is not limited by export markets and can sustain high
single-digit growth rates for decades.
N Beijing now seems likely to overcome potential stumbling blocks such as economic instability, pollution,
inequality, corruption, and a slow pace of political reform.
N China’s economic size will match America’s by 2035 and double it by midcentury, with unclear but potentially
wrenching strategic implications that demand U.S. economic and military reassessment.
N American policy makers should take this opportunity to enact wide-ranging domestic reforms and rethink
their inherited concepts of global order.

China’s economic performance clearly is no in infrastructure, fighting inflation, shifting

flash in the pan. Its growth this decade has its labor force and opening to foreign trade
averaged more than 10 percent a year and and investment.
is still going strong in the first half of 2008. China’s likely continued success will even-
Because its success in recent decades has not tually bring an end to America’s global eco-
been export-led but driven by domestic de- nomic preeminence, requiring strategic reas-
mand, its rapid growth can continue well into sessment by all major economies—especially
the twenty-first century, unfettered by world the United States, the European Union, Japan,
market limitations. Nor do other problems and even China itself.
China faces jeopardize long-term growth
prospects. China’s Increasingly
China’s problems are in fact consistent Sophisticated Success
with more developed countries’ challenges at Maoist China bequeathed to future genera-
earlier similar levels of economic moderniza- tions high literacy rates and decent public
tion. China’s future success will undoubtedly health but a makeshift economy horribly
also draw on its own thirty years of policy- suited to market-based development. Its
making experience—for example, investing complex system of ration coupons, industry

allocation schemes for physical goods, non- and agencies to address the latest concerns. Its
profit command incentives, and bureaucratic new “scientific development” strategy—based
bottlenecks for even the most basic transac- on government and academic studies—has
tions strangled its economic potential. dethroned growth of gross domestic product
Since then, China has gone through four (GDP) as its overriding policy goal. Instead,
phases of economic change. First, in the it promotes a more promising combination of
1980s, China distributed land and animals economic growth and other important goals,
to farmers, set up the shell of a modern eco- especially environmental protection and social
nomic management system, and created small welfare.
privileged coastal zones to nurture global
commerce and finance. The decade ended in China’s Development Strategy:
Albert Keidel is a senior
protest and violence at Tiananmen Square, as An Old Paradigm Revived
associate at the Carnegie market-driven price inflation helped farmers China’s heavily managed reforms are in some
Endowment for International but hurt urban residents by reducing the pur- respects at odds with Adam Smith’s free mar-
Peace in Washington, D.C. chasing power of their subsidized incomes. ket paradigm of economic success rooted in
Until August 2004, he was Second, in the 1990s, strengthened profit two principles, that less government is best
deputy director and acting incentives and modern management reforms and that policy makers should rely on the
director of the Office of East energized an increasingly privatized corporate market’s “invisible hand.” Instead, Chinese
Asian Nations in the U.S. system. Business cost concerns in the face of theorists—like their nineteenth-century Japa-
Treasury Department. newly market-based wages led to tens of mil- nese predecessors—root their strategy in the
Through the end of lions of urban worker layoffs from overstaffed work of Friedrich List, a less well-known clas-
2000, he served as senior
enterprises. Controlled food prices helped sical economist.
make these reforms politically possible but List insisted that policy must make the
economist in the World
increased rural poverty. Urban layoffs and ru- state an integral player in development. Such
Bank’s Beijing office. Since
ral hardship led to widespread social unrest, strategies include selective protectionism and
the latter 1980s he has
which the government met with a new system promoting champion industries. They also
taught graduate courses on
of urban social safety nets, inadequate rural describe nineteenth-century American eco-
China’s economy variously compensation efforts, well-funded police in- nomic policies. This intellectual approach
at the School of Advanced terventions, and the arrest of ringleaders, vio- conforms with the analysis of economic his-
International Studies (the lent protesters, and some corrupt officials. torians who conclude that countries pass
Johns Hopkins University), Third, from 2001 through 2007, with basic through phases of institutional maturation
the George Washington market institutions in place, China’s surging linked to their level of development—which
University, and Georgetown domestic investment and consumption and is perhaps best summarized by their level of
University. its entry into the World Trade Organization per capita GDP.
Keidel’s recent writings (WTO) stimulated average growth to more Research indicates that China today is in a
include, China’s Economic than 10 percent. Urban job growth and rural phase not unlike South Korea’s in the 1970s
Fluctuations: Implications
tax reforms finally began alleviating hardships or Japan’s in the 1950s. China’s future insti-
inherited from the previous period. But this tutional development, including its political
for Its Rural Economy and
rapid growth also intensified pollution. As ru- institutions, will thus likely mature in coming
The Causes and Impact of
ral and urban incomes rose rapidly throughout decades in ways consistent with its level of eco-
Chinese Regional Inequalities
the country, popular and political attention nomic development—that is, only gradually.
in Income and Well-Being.
turned to social and environmental concerns.
Keidel’s Ph.D. in Economics China’s fourth reform phase began in 2008. Exports: Not China’s
is from Harvard University. Its newly formed government, with junior Engine of Growth
He speaks and reads leadership appointments meant to last for the Skeptics about China’s growth prospects most
Mandarin Chinese. next fifteen years, has restructured its ministries frequently question the sustainability of its

TABLE 1 N Causes of China’s Periods of Fast and Slow Growth, Showing Dissociation from Trade Patterns, 1978–2007


1978–1979 Fast Post-Mao investment surge; price reform; war with Trade deficits; export growth weak
1980–1982 Slow Government budget and investment cuts to fight Deficit turned to surplus; export growth
inflation accelerated
1983–1985 Fast Farmland tenure reform; rapid money supply growth; Deficit increased dramatically; export
negative real bank deposit rates; enterprise investment growth slow; imports surged
1985–1986 Slow Government credit tightening to fight overheating; Deficit shrank dramatically; exports surged;
interest rates rose above inflation; banks’ net new import growth weakened
lending declined
1987–1988 Fast Overstimulation to restore growth; rapid money Deficit increased; export growth slowed;
expansion; price reforms; inflation; interest rates set import growth moderate
below inflation
1988–1990 Slow Anti-inflation credit tightening started in 1988; money Trade surplus and exports both expanded
supply decline in early 1989; social unrest; credit dramatically; import growth mixed
tightening hardened by 1990
1991–1996 Fast 1989–1990 anti-inflation period officially ended; 1991 Surplus became deficit in 1991–1993; 1994
credit expansion; 1991 investment real growth jumped surplus contribution to growth was modest;
to 15 percent; 1991–1992 food price increases; ration export share in GDP declined 1995–1996
coupons ended; 1994–1996 rural boom overpowered
urban anti-inflation tightening
1997–2000 Slow Absolute declines in rural consumption overpowered Surplus and exports increased in 1997;
urban safety net gains; increasingly severe government imports shrank 1997–1998; imports and
credit tightening after 1993 finally took hold; high exports recovered 1999–2000 as small
interest rates and low or negative inflation; inventory surplus shrank; no trade impact from
declines; banks re-capitalized to cut corporate debt 1997–1998 Asian financial crisis
and bad loans
2001–2003 Fast Lower interest rates; 2001 bank lending surge; 2001 2001 surplus was zero; export share in GDP
inventory jump; WTO accession stimulated investment declined; 2001–2003 surplus share in GDP
in 2002; 2003 anti-SARS investment stimulus caused was negligible; in 2002–2003 both export
overheating; real investment growth rate up from 5 and import growth were rapid for assembly
percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2003 and processing trade with little Chinese
value added
2004–2005 Pause Government cooling-off policies cut 2005 domestic Large surplus appeared as investment
real demand growth from 10 to 8 percent; investment imports slowed significantly; rapid export
growth rate fell from 17 to 9 percent; grain price growth rate little changed; 2005 surplus
adjustments boosted rural consumption growth surge contributed 2.5 percentage points to
10.4 percent total GDP growth
2006–2007 Fast Inflation initially controlled; domestic demand real Trade surpluses grew 35–40 percent,
growth recovered to 10 percent; trade surplus contributing just over one-fifth of 2007 total
contributed 2.6 percentage points to 11.9 percent GDP growth of 11.9 percent
total GDP growth; interior provinces, many with little
trade, all had double-digit growth; inflation threat
appeared in 2007
Sources: Albert Keidel, China’s Economic Fluctuations (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2007),;
National Bureau of Statistics, People’s Republic of China, China Statistical Abstract 2008 (in Chinese) (Beijing: National Bureau of Statistics, 2008), various
tables, with supplemental calculations.

export performance. In recent years, its exports By June 2008 the dollar cost of the RMB
and trade surplus have ballooned, leading to had risen nearly 19 percent compared to ear-
the common assumption that its growth is lier in the decade, when its value was rigidly
export-led and that limited global markets pegged to the dollar. But during this same
will curtail its expansion sooner rather than period, the RMB’s cost in terms of the euro,
later. But this assumption is not supported by Europe’s principal currency, had fallen sharply.
the data on the sources of Chinese growth, As the dollar weakened and the euro strength-
which are overwhelmingly domestic. ened, China’s RMB shifts thus roughly split
In fact, a detailed study of each of China’s the difference between the currencies of its
five macroeconomic booms and slowdowns two major trading partners.
since 1978 reveals that domestic shifts in It is therefore a common error to refer only
investment and consumption have been to “the RMB’s appreciation,” as if its link to
responsible for China’s growth (table 1). Even the dollar were all that mattered. A better
in recent years, the contributions to growth focus is China’s global trade and its overall
from the country’s trade surplus have had sec- exchange-rate position, not just its trade and
ondary importance. currency vis-à-vis the United States. This RMB
global exchange-rate pattern is consistent with
China’s 2005 break with the RMB’s peg to
China’s success will end America’s global
the dollar in favor of a more flexible exchange
economic preeminence. rate related to a basket of the currencies of
its major trading partners. In retrospect, the
Moreover, though growth in Germany, euro’s strengthening made such an RMB shift
Japan, South Korea, and other countries in all but inevitable. Overall and in this most sig-
recent decades has closely followed U.S. trends, nificant commercial sense, therefore, China’s
China has run completely against the grain, exchange rate has remained fairly stable.
surging as America has slowed and slumping But misalignment of China’s currency ex-
as America has boomed. Because China has change rate is, in any event, an unconvinc-
thus become an independent source of global ing explanation for its trade surpluses, even
growth, its imports will likely be an indepen- though the argument is now less straightfor-
dent growth stimulus for others, securing its ward than earlier in the decade. Until recently
own long-term trade expansion and overall and despite claims at the time that its cur-
sustainable growth. rency was undervalued, China’s world trade
surplus was quite small. In 2003, Germany,
China’s Currency Exchange Rate: Japan, and Europe’s group of euro-currency
A Secondary Influence at Best countries each had individual global surpluses
Many critics contend that improper Chinese equivalent to roughly 20 percent of the total
commercial practices have made its currency, U.S. trade deficit, versus only 8 percent for
the renminbi (RMB), cost too little in dol- China. By 2007, however, China’s global trade
lars, making all of China’s exports to America surplus had increased dramatically, to 43 per-
unfairly inexpensive and hence artificially sus- cent of the U.S. trade deficit, compared with
taining Chinese growth. The domestic origin 33 percent for Germany and 12 percent for
of China’s growth success undermines this Japan. What caused such a shift?
line of thinking, but critics continue their China’s large surplus appeared suddenly
arguments and interpret recent strengthening in the second half of 2004 and had domestic
of the RMB in dollar terms as a sign that its economic—not exchange-rate—origins. More
value all along has been too low. than a year before, in early 2003, China and its

neighbors faced the Severe Acute Respiratory fluctuations, exchange-rate adjustments must
Syndrome (SARS) pandemic crisis. Fearing at best have a secondary short- and medium-
dramatic damage to economic growth from term significance.
SARS, Beijing pumped cash into the econo-
my. When the disease quickly subsided, China How Big Is China Now,
faced an inflationary overheating crisis, with and How Big Could It Become?
investment levels and real estate prices soaring. Conservative estimates are that China will
Higher guaranteed grain prices in 2004 only overtake the United States as the largest econ-
added to the inflationary threat. omy in the world in thirty years’ time. How-
In response, Beijing dramatically tightened ever, in 2007 China’s commercially relevant
credit and curtailed investment. Through GDP was barely more than $3 trillion, com-
2003, China’s exports and imports had both pared with $14 trillion for the United States.
been growing at the same rate, with no increase Hence, today, China’s commercial GDP is
in the small surplus. But when Beijing’s tight- less than one-fourth of America’s.
ening policies slowed imports of investment An alternative purchasing power parity
goods by the second half of 2004, a large trade (PPP) measure—using survey-based price ratios
surplus opened up. China’s export growth had to correct low labor-cost distortions—results in
not sped up; its import growth had slowed in a China GDP figure roughly half of America’s
response to domestic policies, not exchange GDP, 2.4 times larger than China’s GDP by
rates (table 1). commercial calculations (table 2). But this PPP
More fundamentally, exchange-rate expla- GDP is only relevant for assessing China’s stan-
nations for China’s recent trade surplus dard of living; it says little if anything about
ignore the asymmetry of its WTO accession. China’s commercial or military significance.
Investments in export production surged even Despite this low starting point, if China’s
before accession, while China’s opening to expansion is anywhere near as fast as the ear-
imports was phased over many years and still lier expansion of other East Asian moderniz-
has a long way to go to reach its full potential. ers at a comparable stage of development, the
In fact, China’s imports are once again power of compound growth rates means that
increasing rapidly, especially those from China’s economy will be larger than America’s
the United States. In 2007, China became by midcentury—no matter how it is converted
America’s third-largest export market, after to dollars. Indeed, PPP valuation distinctions
Canada and Mexico, buying more than $65 will diminish and eventually disappear.
billion in imports from the United States. Table 2 shows one conservative scenario.
U.S. exports to China are broad-based. In the When Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were at
seven years since China joined the WTO, 406 China’s current level of per capita GDP of just
of the 435 U.S. congressional districts have over $2,000 and growing to the $10,000 level,
seen triple-digit growth in exports to China. they all sustained growth rates of between 8
These national and local trends suggest good and 10 percent. A long-standing principle
potential for further expansion. of economic development (first deduced for
At this point, therefore, it is not possible economies in the nineteenth and twentieth
to say what the ultimate, balanced impact of centuries) is that the later an economy begins
China’s WTO accession on its trade surplus its “catch-up” modernization drive, the more
will be several years hence. Compared to such rapid this drive will be. In keeping with this
powerful and rapidly shifting WTO accession principle, China should grow more rapidly
influences, however, and further consider- than Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan when
ing Chinese, U.S., and global GDP demand they were at this stage.

Thus, the projected growth rates for China Implications of China’s Growth for
in column 2 are, if anything, a little low. Global Commerce and Institutions
Conversely, the U.S. growth rates in column A Chinese economy more than double the
1 may be too generous. With the exception of size of America’s will almost certainly give
the near term (2005–2010), the U.S. assump- China global commercial and institutional
tion basically extends America’s 1985–2005 leadership. In commerce, China will take the
average growth rate on into the century. lead in shaping trade and investment patterns.
Even with these conservative assumptions, Fluctuations in its domestic demand will send
the results are striking. The world will be a ripples around the world, including in the
very different place by midcentury. In terms United States. Market surveys will focus on
of commercial exchange rate conversions to China first. Its monetary policies will affect
dollars, China’s total economy will be twice as liquidity and interest rates everywhere. Its
large as America’s (columns 3 and 4), while its securities markets will be the world’s largest
standard of living will be higher than America’s and will heavily influence global standards for
is today though only two-thirds of America’s due diligence. Finally, its commercial and fis-
at that time (columns 6 and 8). cal largesse will give it entrée to national capi-

TABLE 2 N U.S. and China GDP Growth Potential, Twenty-First Century

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Real Growth (annual percent) Total GDP (trillion 2005 dollars a) GDP per Person (thousand 2005 dollars a)
YEAR United States China United States China (X-rate $a) China (PPP $a) United States China (X-rate $a) China (PPP $a)

2005 3.0b 9.6b 12 2 5 41 1.7 4.1

2010 2.0 9.5 14 4 8 43 2.9 6.1

2020 3.0 8.5 18 10 18 52 6.9 12.7

2030 3.0 7.5 24 22 35 64 15 24

2040 3.0 6.5 33 45 63 78 30 42

2050 3.0 5.5 44 82 104 95 53 67

2060 3.0 4.3 59 131 152 116 83 96

2070 3.0 3.0 80 178 199 142 109 123

2080 3.0 3.0 107 244 262 174 146 159

2090 3.0 3.0 144 335 348 214 197 208

2100 3.0 3.0 194 466 466 262 271 271

a. “2005 dollars” means future current-valued dollars—either domestic U.S. values or converted from current China
RMB values by either commercial exchange rates (X-rate $) or PPP conversion (PPP $)—deflated to 2005
constant dollars with assumed future U.S. inflation rates.
b. Growth rate figures for 2005 represent historical 1985–2005 average real growth rates.
Note: All growth rates after 2005 are projected. PPP = purchasing power parity.
Sources: 1985-2005 GDP growth rates from IMF International Financial Statistics and China State Statistical Bureau
2008 Statistical Abstract of China (in Chinese); 2005 PPP values from World Bank ICP Report (2007 and 2008);
projections from a computational model using author’s assumptions about growth rates, GDP composition, and
domestic relative price changes for each country.

tals in all hemispheres. Thus, China’s finan- China’s accumulated weapons systems must
cial clout will spill into every conceivable have been worth in comparison to America’s
dimension of international relations. by 2005, based on historical budget data, pro-
Leadership of international institutions curement patterns, and obsolescence assump-
will gravitate toward China. This movement tions, give the United States the advantage
could include the equivalents at that time by more than a trillion dollars—a ratio of as
of the United Nations, the World Bank, the much as thirteen to one.
International Monetary Fund, regional inter-
national development banks, and more spe-
China could also become the world’s
cialized bodies. Various headquarters could
shift to Beijing and Shanghai. The United leading military power.
States will have an important secondary influ-
ence, like Europe, but it will need to compro- These estimates of the U.S. military capabil-
mise, and its sphere for unilateral action will ity further ignore the value of the United States’
be increasingly curtailed. bases around the world, especially those that
are found near China in central Asia, Southeast
China’s Future Military Potential Asia, Guam, Japan, and South Korea. China
The military repercussions of China’s rapid has no such system of bases or agreements.
economic expansion are more difficult to The United States today thus enjoys substan-
gauge, but should it want to, China by later tial military advantages. It is not clear whether
in the century could become a major—and or how quickly China’s future economic suc-
possibly the leading—global military power. cess can change this imbalance. America’s
Whether it chooses to pursue this goal more than a half-century of technological
depends in part on the international environ- advances, especially in space, might prove
ment thirty or more years from now. Today, an insurmountable advantage. But the near
while China’s military resources are still a certainty of a midcentury Chinese economy
small fraction of America’s, the United States more than twice the size of America’s, driven
has time to lead the development of a system by the economic and political trends described
of international institutions and coalitions in below, should persuade American policy mak-
which America can prosper when it is no lon- ers to consider their options wisely.
ger the world’s largest economy.
China’s relative military capabilities today Can China Sustain Its Growth?
are even weaker than indicated by estimates The scenarios described above depend on
of its annual military budgets like those in China’s continued rapid, large-scale economic
the Pentagon’s recent report to Congress on growth. How likely is this? China’s recent
Chinese military power. Conservative esti- record shows a maturing, increasingly sophis-
mates show the U.S. 2005 military budget was ticated decision-making system that is results-
at least eight times China’s. But another indi- oriented. China faces numerous challenges in
cator of China’s global military strength is not sustaining its growth. But historical compari-
annual budgets but rather the dollar value of sons show that China’s current and impending
accumulated stocks of sophisticated weapons. difficulties are consistent with the challenges
Over the past several decades, China’s mili- faced and surmounted by other fast-growing
tary expenditures were not only lower than Asian economies when they were at China’s
America’s, but its ability to produce or acquire lower-income level of development.
sophisticated weapons was also significantly Since 1978, China’s economic booms
weaker. Conservative calculations of what all ended with inflation crises that triggered

sharp corrective slumps in its growth. As its More fundamentally, even if some unex-
economic booms lengthened, those crises also pected price surge does require cooling-off
became more severe. Will this past pattern policies, China has shown itself able to cool
of increasingly severe economic crises repeat off and then recover again or even maintain
itself and prevent the growth projected in rapid growth—as after the SARS epidemic of
table 2? 2003. Even earlier, in 1991 and 1999–2000,
A careful analysis suggests that the answer its policy shifts capably reinvigorated growth.
is probably no. China’s earlier crises reflected Cyclical ups and downs are inevitable. China’s
policy makers’ inexperienced management of policy makers have increasingly shown an
adjustment problems that were more severe ability to manage them, which should only
than what it now faces. The outbursts of seri- become more effective in the future.
ous inflation in 1988 and 1993–1994 both
involved major increases in low Maoist-era POVERTY AND GROWING INEQUALITY—
farm prices originally meant to benefit urban SIGNS OF POLICY FAILURE?
residents. The resulting urban inflation re- Measures of inequality in China have in-
quired higher urban cash subsidies and cas- creased dramatically since 1978, raising the
caded through the economy. Moreover, in the possibility that dissatisfied groups left behind
1980s and early 1990s, China relied heavily by its booming economy will eventually pose
on statistical measures of growth and infla- problems serious enough to derail its long-
tion that only compared a month or a quar- term growth. At the same time, however,
poverty in China has been in rapid decline.
This latter trend may be more significant than
China’s policy makers have effectively
what could prove to be temporarily increased
managed cyclical ups and downs. gaps between regions and social groups.
Comparing standards of living for different
ter’s data with the same period twelve months countries best relies on PPP conversions, but
earlier. These so-called year-on-year data were even at higher PPP values, minimally accept-
a major handicap for making timely policy able consumption standards in countries like
decisions, because they accumulated all the China and India defy credulity for rich-country
change over a year, rather than telling policy residents.
makers what had just happened. Nowhere in America do we find families
Today, China’s food price adjustments, living in unheated caves or huts, eating only
though significant, are milder and more eas- home-grown grains and greens but almost no
ily absorbed in urban citizens’ higher average meat, with few sets of clothing and consum-
spending levels. Furthermore, since the late ing almost no medical or other supplementary
1990s, policy makers have learned to use sea- services to speak of. But poor-country govern-
sonally adjusted month-to-month data (even ments and international institutions calculate
though they still continue to publish only “poverty lines” in order to identify just such
year-on-year statistics). They are therefore conditions.
aware, for example, that what looks like sus- World experts, initially using Asian con-
tained inflation over the past year (2007–08) sumption levels and PPP costs, settled in the
in fact represents only a few discontinuous 1980s on one PPP dollar per day as a minimum
months of price rises. Inflation in June 2008, consumption standard for international com-
despite higher fuel prices, should remain sta- parisons. By 2005, inflation had raised this to
ble or even come down. This is an important $1.45 per day, but after reassessing local pov-
advance in macroeconomic management. erty standards, experts now prefer $1.25 per

day. A family of four’s minimally acceptable lower-income interior. But all regions experi-
annual spending is thus just $1,825. Families enced more than twenty years of rapid income
living below this poverty line, of course, con- improvement averaging at least 6 percent a
sume even less. year. Such rapid gains everywhere markedly
It is hard to overemphasize how poor weaken the significance of the modest increase
China was 30 years ago. In the 1980s, China in interregional gaps. Census data indicate that
independently established its own standard to interregional migration is heavily from poorer
identify regions and families most in need of to richer areas, promising a gradual ameliora-
assistance. This made sense, because we now tion of such disparity trends.
know that, at that time, more than 70 percent China’s rural–urban gap is statistically its
of its population, over 700 million people, most serious source of inequality. Yet the over-
lived below the recently revised “dollar-a- all importance of the rural–urban gap has risen
day” standard. In 1985, 15 percent of China’s largely because of the rapid pace of rural-to-
population, or 125 million persons, lived be-
low China’s own near-starvation poverty line. Growing inequality in China reflects a successful
Today, only 1.6 percent of the population is
dynamic of reforms and high rates of investment.
still below this line, while the population share
below a “dollar-a-day” has dropped below
15 percent—to 200 million persons. Globally urban migration. A once heavily rural economy
speaking, this is an extraordinary poverty re- is now more evenly split between poor rural and
duction accomplishment. But the fact that wealthier urban populations. In other modern-
a population equivalent to two-thirds of the izing economies, measures of inequality have
whole United States still lives at such low stan- tended to peak when such urban migration is
dards of living is a sobering reminder of the in midstream. Once a population’s urban share
development challenge China’s leaders know becomes predominant and almost all families
they still face. enjoy higher urban-style living standards, over-
While poverty incidence has declined dra- all inequality usually declines. Urban migra-
matically, inequality measures for China—gaps tion in China has not yet reached the halfway
between regions, between city and countryside, point, but it will within a decade or so at cur-
and between social groups—have risen steeply. rent trends, and eventually this aspect of over-
The widely used Gini coefficient, according all inequality can also be expected to decline.
to which 0.3 and 0.5 represent low and high Indeed, urban migration is also the ultimate
inequality, respectively, has gone from 3.3 to solution to rural poverty.
4.5 in just twenty years. The most basic expla- Inequality between different groups in
nation is that some groups and regions have Chinese society, inequality’s third major
been able to capitalize more quickly than oth- component, reflects China’s recent success
ers on opportunities from China’s economic in rewarding with higher incomes those in-
reforms and opening to world commerce. As dividuals who get a better education, who
benefits spread more widely, historical devel- work harder, who take entrepreneurial risks,
opment experience indicates a period of grow- and who voluntarily change jobs or locations
ing inequality is often followed by a second to capitalize on more productive and hence
period of declining inequality. better-paying opportunities. Older and less
Regional inequality clearly increased between educated workers or those conditioned by an
1985 and 2005 as coastal areas in China with earlier subsidized and less demanding work
most of the trade, foreign investment and tra- regimen have fared poorly. With generational
ditional financial centers outpaced the already change, increased educational opportunities

and continued speedy job creation through One of Beijing’s greatest challenges in com-
high investment rates, the gap between haves ing decades is to strengthen dramatically its
and have-nots in this dimension also promises capabilities for distinguishing different kinds
eventually to moderate if not decline. of social unrest and handle each category of
Unlike in other parts of the world where dissatisfaction or injustice in the most appro-
serious and worsening inequality is a sign of priate way. Its new “Scientific Development”
failing income-making opportunities, recently strategy needs to apply significantly more
growing inequality in China reflects a success- resources for professionalized courts, more
ful dynamic of reforms and high rates of in- even-handed judicial proceedings, and
vestment. Beginning from a poverty-stricken local government oversight—by both cen-
tral authorities and increasingly empowered
nongovernmental civil society actors. These
Pollution is unlikely to undermine China’s
changes must include both more sophisticated
growth in coming decades. and rules-based crowd-control capabilities and
more adequate systems of compensation for
condition, Chinese reforms have allowed those legitimate grievances.
taking the most initiative to improve their lots For a country with China’s rapid pace of
more rapidly than others. Opportunities for change, social unrest seems inevitable. China’s
individual upward mobility are thus a key in- new crop of leaders and its publicized focus
gredient in China’s national upward mobility on social welfare are promising indications
among the global family of nations. that more flexible even-handed remedies will
This pro-development dynamic is a notable continue to strengthen broadly, although re-
achievement, and recently increasing inequal- sponses to temporary crises may lead to appar-
ity in China can be considered a sign of policy ent setbacks.
success, not policy failure—although its effect
on social stability requires monitoring. POLLUTION: LIKELY TO CHOKE GROWTH?
Domestic pollution in China is a growing
SOCIAL UNREST—THE COMMUNIST source of citizen dissatisfaction and public
PARTY’S ULTIMATE NIGHTMARE? health concerns. With respect to air pollu-
Social unrest in China has posed serious chal- tion, sixteen of the twenty most polluted cit-
lenges for over twenty years. In most cases the ies in the world are in China. Whole urban
underlying cause is some form of dissatisfac- water supply systems have been shut down by
tion over perceived economic injustices, fre- major chemical spills. In rural areas, indus-
quently worsened by local corruption. Some trial wastewater and chemical effluents have
of the clearest examples are the impact of ruined croplands and sparked social unrest.
inflation on student and urban resident sub- This pollution reflects rapid industrialization
sidies in the 1980s, large-scale urban layoffs and weak emissions controls. Is it bad enough
in the 1990s, low food prices and high ru- to slow China’s long-term growth?
ral taxes and fees at the turn of the century, The record for several other East Asian
and the combination of land confiscation and economies argues that pollution is unlikely to
worsening pollution in this decade. In many undermine China’s growth in the coming de-
cases the complaints of corruption and unfair cades. In particular, Japan, South Korea, and
treatment are legitimate, while in others they Taiwan all passed through similar periods of
reflect disgruntled reactions to the impact of serious pollution associated with rapid indus-
markets and competition on accustomed and trialization. In these cases, policy responses
often subsidized lifestyle expectations. were also delayed but eventually reduced pol-

lution levels that in some dimensions were cy received de facto cabinet status in 1971. In
worse than China’s today. 2008, the China Environmental Protection
A 1977 report by the Organization for Agency, already ten years old, was given min-
Economic Cooperation and Development isterial status.
called Japan in the late 1960s “one of the most For China, we can ask, will pollution stop
polluted countries in the world.” In Beijing by growth or will growth eventually reduce pol-
2004, ambient sulfur dioxide levels had fallen lution? Given the shifts already under way in
rapidly from their peak in the mid-1990s and China’s environmental policies and the rapid
were already far below peak levels in Japan in year-by-year increase in available resources, the
the middle 1960s and even below levels in chances seem good that sooner or later higher
Seoul in the early 1990s. Levels of suspended incomes and greater public concern will win
particulate matter in Beijing by 2004 were out, despite China’s reluctance to strengthen
already lower than those in Tokyo in the mid- democratic politics.
1970s and Seoul in the mid-1990s—although
the comparability of China’s particle measure- DOES THE STATE STIFLE ECONOMIC
ments is open to question. Nitrogen dioxide INITIATIVE AND PRODUCTIVITY GAINS?
levels in Beijing, however, had by 2004 not yet Many critics claim that China’s state-owned
reached Tokyo’s and Seoul’s levels in 1980 and enterprises symbolize the intrinsic inefficien-
1985, respectively. cies of what they say is still a “socialist” sys-
Other pollution challenges will likely be tem. But one of the clearest results of China’s
more difficult to fix. China has serious water market-friendly reforms is the strength of its
shortages beginning north of the Yangtze River, corporate and individual profit incentives.
where nearly half its population lives. It lags
behind other countries in its income class in One of the clearest results of China’s market-
providing potable water. Heavy chemical pol-
friendly reforms is the strength of corporate
lution settled on lake bottoms will be expensive
to neutralize—if it can be cleaned up at all. and individual profit incentives.
Research covering a range of countries
confirms a strong link between successful eco- After 25 years of these reforms, beginning
nomic development and eventual reduction with the competitive recruitment of factory
in three pollutants: sulfur dioxide, suspended managers in 1983, profit-making enterprises
particulate matter, and nitrogen dioxide— now dominate China’s economy. Even the
although the link for nitrogen dioxide is the largest state-controlled corporations have
weakest of the three. Abatement of other pol- modern, for-profit structures and reward man-
lutants has a less clear-cut relationship with agement accordingly. Small and medium-sized
successful development, especially ozone and state enterprises have all been sold outright to
carbon dioxide. Water quality, conversely, their managers, workers, and outside inves-
strongly improves in developing countries as tors. Small-scale enterprises, now universally
per capita GDP increases. Such patterns of privatized, reward entrepreneurial risk taking,
decreasing pollution have been the result of in both cities and the countryside.
public demand, international pressures, pres- Other reforms have complemented these
sure from nongovernmental organizations, profit-seeking incentives. The commune
and government policy shifts. land reform of the 1980s awarded land rights
Shifts in China’s environmental policies and revenues directly to household farmers.
mirror those in Japan in the late 1960s and Price reforms in the 1980s and 1990s raised
early 1970s. Japan’s first environmental agen- prices and wages for scarce goods and skills.

The privatization of housing in the late 1990s especially in infrastructure like roads, ports,
spawned a market-based renovation scramble water supply, sanitation, and telecommunica-
to maintain home values. tions. Government-set deposit interest rates
Incentive reforms have also powerfully are low—and sometimes even negative when
affected China’s international commerce. inflation is taken into account. The govern-
China encouraged early improvements in the ment channels these low-cost funds through
business climate for foreign investment that loans for crucial infrastructure projects that
Japan and South Korea never allowed. And benefit growth and require rapid comple-
its WTO membership provides incentives for tion but have low—or uncertain—long-term
foreign technology transfers. financial returns.
In just a few decades, China’s economy has Most poor countries fail to finance even
become a multi-tiered moneymaking machine. minimally necessary infrastructure. China’s
solution resembles earlier similar schemes in
CHINA’S FINANCIAL SYSTEM— Japan and the other rapidly developing East
AN INSOLVENT THREAT TO STABILITY? Asian countries. A premature dismantling of
Some of the fiercest criticism of China’s econ- this financial system, as urged on China by
omy is leveled at its financial sector, calling foreign governments and financial interests,
its banks insolvent, its bond markets pathetic, would probably present the greatest danger for
and its overall performance inefficient. Yet, its sustained economic development.
Other elements of the financial sector—
banks and capital markets—are still immature
Corruption will abate as per-capita and urgently require decades of investment in
incomes rise. human talent and regulatory rigor to meet in-
ternational standards. In the meantime, com-
panies and individuals are directly reinvesting
while enjoying the full financial backing giv- their cash profits and savings in either their
en to major state-owned institutions, China’s own businesses or those of close associates.
financial sector also outperforms India’s in This funding has become the single largest
promoting GDP growth. During the past fif- and at the same time the most market-oriented
teen years, China has needed less additional aspect of China’s financial system.
investment for additional GDP output than China’s financial system, rather than a li-
India, even though India has a more market- ability, is on the whole a source of confidence
oriented financial system, a lower and hence in optimistic growth scenarios.
less demanding growth rate to sustain, and a
services economy that is less capital-intensive THE COMMUNIST PARTY AND
than China’s. How can this be? CORRUPTION—AN ACHILLES’ HEEL?
China’s taxation system is reforming rap- The role of the Communist Party is a spe-
idly, and its revenues from increasingly diver- cial feature of China’s governance. Critics
sified sources are growing quickly. But even describe it as a jealous, rigid opponent of
these growing public revenues and their pub- participatory practices that resists the policy
lic debt-servicing capabilities will remain in- flexibility needed for modernization. But
adequate for China’s large public investment recent academic research has revealed a rap-
needs for a long time—indeed, for decades. idly evolving, increasingly sophisticated body
Instead, the strength of Chinese finance is a of party officials and intellectuals who have
bank-based system for supplementing the bud- been largely freed from ideological blind-
get resources needed for public investments— ers and are now seeking practical leadership

solutions. The party continues to successfully Western-style democracy based on direct pop-
recruit talented youth and professionals, and ular elections as the only way to strengthen
its reach into virtually every corner of Chinese the checks, balances, and sensitivity to public
life remains long and strong. demands required for governing a more afflu-
On the positive side, the Communist Party ent and politically vocal population? Or can
provides a second line of authority, parallel it continue to evolve participatory institutions
to government and corporate chains of com- more gradually?
mand, which can strengthen policy coordi-
nation and operational stability. But it also
China is a corporate technocracy—no longer
represents a backdoor network with old-boy
risks for the system’s integrity. One of the most a one-man authoritarian system.
damaging consequences of this backdoor au-
thority is corruption. China no longer has a one-man authori-
Many officially reported corruption cases tarian system. Its government now is perhaps
involve not only government officials but also best described as a corporate technocracy.
Communist Party secretaries at one level or Its direction is set by the Communist Party
another. News media and academic reports Central Committee, with its various leader-
of corruption in China are full of egregious ship bureaus, standing committees, subcom-
examples of official corruption that not only mittees, so-called leading groups, and com-
siphons off outrageous sums of money but missions. The Central Committee appoints
also, and more seriously, results in deadly and supervises implementation by manage-
health care scandals and poisonous pollution ment, which is China’s government adminis-
disasters. tration—its president, premier, and cabinet
Is corruption in China serious enough to (State Council).
threaten the country’s prospects for sustained The system has a high degree of overlap be-
high-speed growth in future decades? Expert tween party leadership and government. But
opinion acknowledges that, although it is an leaders now have term limits and mandatory
issue, corruption has clearly not prevented retirement ages. Leadership advancement ap-
rapid growth in the past and is unlikely to pears to require reviews of candidates’ abili-
do so in the future. More objectively, the two ties, performance (judged in part by opinion
most authoritative global surveys of corrup- surveys), and political loyalties. The selection
tion, by Transparency International and the process for new leaders is reportedly increas-
World Bank, put China’s level of corruption ingly based on consensus and compromise
close to where it would be expected to be, rather than one man’s decisions.
given the country’s level of development—far Looking ahead, experiences in other coun-
better than that of Indonesia, Thailand, the tries indicate that China has a real chance of
Philippines, or even Argentina; similar to or continuing its introduction of participatory
better than India’s; but not as good as Poland’s. governing mechanisms, including an even-
In this framework, and given the vigor of tually more broad-based system of elections.
China’s reported prosecutions for corruption, Other government regimes have gradually
its level of corruption will likely continue to evolved from authoritarian arrangements to
abate as per-capita incomes rise. more participatory systems. The experiences
Seen as an extension of the Communist of post–Francisco Franco Spain, post–Augusto
Party, China’s political system is for many the Pinochet Chile, post–Park Chung-Hee South
greatest barrier to sustained rapid economic Korea, and post–Chiang Kai-shek Taiwan
expansion. Must China quickly introduce may be relevant. The decades-long evolution

of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is also POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS:

often mentioned as offering potentially useful Maximizing the
lessons. Benefits of China’s Rise
In the span of history, many democratic gov- The likelihood that the overall size of China’s
ernments, including Britain’s and America’s, economy will enable it commercially to be the
began with a narrowly enfranchised source of largest on the globe by midcentury calls for
authority and only gradually, and much later a range of policy initiatives and even funda-
in their economic development, shared that mental shifts in course for the United States
authority more broadly. The United States and other major global actors:
only passed a definitive voting rights act in
the 1960s. Of course, the Communist Party’s
N Reforms in the United States: China’s rapid
economic emergence in the coming de-
cade will increasingly reveal America’s need
China’s emergence reveals America’s for broad reforms, especially in its public
need for broad reforms. investment systems. China’s legitimate
challenge can motivate U.S. reform initia-
complete political control in China is so un- tives that would otherwise be difficult to
like any stage in U.S. political evolution that achieve—such as for infrastructure, pri-
potential parallels are tenuous at best. Indeed, mary and secondary education, health care
China could conceivably slide into a paranoid finance, and pensions.
mode of Party power conservation—leading N The benefits of broad-based engagement:
to stagnation and instability. This appears not China’s meteoric growth over the last three
to be the current trend, however. decades and its likely continuation argue
Is China’s Communist Party at all inter- for intensified U.S. engagement with China
ested in pursuing such a gradual devolution over as broad a spectrum as possible. Along
of its authority? A tantalizing but far from with its technical and commercial advan-
authoritative 2008 book by some faculty of tages for all parties, engagement serves
the Communist Party School—once headed at least three important functions. First,
by China’s current president, Hu Jintao—pro- it more clearly transmits information to
poses just such a gradual process of democrat- China about its alternative choices for solv-
ic reform. It describes a decades-long process ing social and political challenges. Second,
through midcentury. This pace, though seem- it increases American appreciation for the
ingly slow, follows what economic historians complexity and depth of the problems
describe as a consistent link between measures China has to cope with as a lower-income
of economic development and the emergence country. Third, it reduces the risk that ei-
of effective parliamentary systems. Its success ther side might misinterpret the other’s be-
is an objective worth encouraging. havior or intent as hostile.
The U.S.–China Strategic Economic
Dialogue (SED), initiated by U.S. Treasury
Secretary Henry Paulson and Chinese Vice
Premier Wu Yi in 2006, has improved

short-term communication on such issues with broad-based engagement, keeping an

as currency and product safety, while set- eye on potential benefits several decades
ting the stage for addressing longer-term hence.
challenges, like energy, climate change, and
N Modes for promoting poor-country devel-
bilateral investment demands. Its potential
for an even greater role is significant, even if opment: China’s remarkable economic
semiannual meetings are replaced with an- achievements since 1978 suggest new alter-
nual meetings. natives for reversing the economic failure
of many poor countries around the world.
N An “SED Club” Combining China’s SED rela- Policy makers and social scientists should
tionships: China has developed three ad- focus on exploring the potential lessons of
ditional SED relationships, with Japan, China’s development success. At a mini-
the European Union, and the United mum such lessons could form an essential
Kingdom. The United States should pro- supplement, not necessarily an alternative,
pose that Chinese and foreign counterparts to the “Washington consensus” on eco-
in all four SED relationships meet together nomic development.
to discuss global economic and financial
N Adjustments to long-term plans for global
developments of common interest. This
security cooperation: China’s military ca-
four-country “SED Club” would be smaller
yet potentially more useful than less repre- pacity is now relatively quite weak and
sentative or at times more unwieldy gath- will remain so for some time. The United
erings such as the Group of Seven finance States therefore still has time to prepare for
ministers’ meetings and the Asia-Pacific the longer term, when China’s potentially
Economic Cooperation forum. much-enhanced military capabilities could
make China globally competitive and even-
N The payoff from engagement with autocratic tually even the world’s leader. The United
regimes: Contrary to popular understand- States should not wait until it is too late to
ing, China did not “open itself ” to reforms shape the character of broad-based security
and global commerce in the 1970s. Rather, arrangements around the world that can
the United States, which had “closed” best serve its national interests in what will
China during the Korean War, decided likely be very different circumstances after
under President Richard Nixon to engage 2050. N
the highly autocratic authorities in Beijing.
It might thus be more accurate to say that The Carnegie Endowment normally does not
the United States and China both con- take institutional positions on public policy
tributed to “opening” China. The subse- issues; the views presented here do not
quent benefits are obvious, including the necessarily reflect the views of the Endowment,
evolution of China’s more sophisticated its officers, staff, or trustees.
and decreasingly autocratic economic and
political structures. This experience argues © 2008 Carnegie Endowment for International
for considering the replacement of blan- Peace. All rights reserved.
ket U.S. sanctions against other countries

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Cynthia Taft Morris (World Development vol. 25, no. 6 [1997]; 831–840) <http://are.berkeley.
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