The view in most of the world is that China is indestructible. Shrugging off the crises multiplying elsewhere, China seems to surge from strength to strength, its spectacular growth marching on no matter what headwinds may come. It appears inevitable that China will overtake a U.S. mired in debt and division to become the world’s indispensable economy. Those businessmen and policymakers looking to the future believe China’s “state capitalism” may be a superior form of economic organization in dealing with the challenges of the modern global economy.
My answer to all of this is: think again.
I don’t doubt for a second that China will be a major economic superpower with an increasingly influential role in the global economy. In many respects, it already is a superpower. But that doesn’t mean the economy is free from problems, a good number of them created by the very statist system lauded by pundits in the U.S. and Europe. And in my opinion, if China doesn’t change course, and in a big way, the country will experience an economic crisis.
I’ve been thinking about China’s economic future, and the likelihood it will face some sort of terrible collapse, for some time, but I have until now been reluctant to come out with my views so strongly. The reason is that it is very difficult to tell what’s really going on in the Chinese economy. Data is sparse or unreliable. And China is in certain ways unique in economic terms — has history ever witnessed a giant of such massive proportions ascend so quickly in the global economy? Valid precedents are hard to find. Then there is the issue of timing. It is easy to say China will have a crisis; it is almost impossible to say when that might happen. Next month? Next year? Next decade? The fact is China could continue as it is for some time to come. So, in other words, when you make the type of prediction I just have, you have a good chance of getting it just plain wrong.
But the more time I spend in China, the more convinced I am that its current economic system is unsustainable. Yes, economists who specialize in China can give you all sorts of reasons why the country is supposedly different, and thus the regular rules of economics don’t necessarily apply. But one simple thing I always say about economics is that you can’t escape math. If the numbers don’t add up, it doesn’t matter much how big your economy might be or how fast it is growing or how heavy a role the state might play. And China has lots of numbers that just don’t add up.