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China's Changing Economy And The Great Global "Hangover"

A garment factory in Jiaxing
A garment factory in Jiaxing
Marcelo Cantelmi


BUENOS AIRES — We're now very much in the "hangover" stage, the proverbial "morning after," as countries all over the world face painful adjustments now that the party years when China's booming economy fed a seemingly insatiable appetite for outside products are finally over.

While the pain may not be as intense in every country, all are in the same predicament. The mood spreading across the globe is ominous, particularly in countries such as Argentina and neighboring Brazil, which depend heavily on commodity exports.

In some countries the hangover could be doubly uncomfortable. Not only are they seeing an end to the vigorous demand that fueled their growth of recent years, but they also risk sliding back to where they were years ago — going from bonanza to budget shortfalls, with possible social consequences.

China is the immediate source of concern, though the changes taking place are also the product of eight years of global recession that have reshaped and redirected the capitalist economy.

The modern-day Chinese empire has begun its own transition, from being an export and investment economy to one relying much more on its own, enormous domestic market. It is moving away from the South Korean and German model and instead trying to emulate the United States, whose consumption to GDP rate is double China's.

This change will require modifications, some radical, in some of China's social structures and distribution systems, and enhance the role of the middle class and groups that have prospered recently. These are sectors that see any movement toward the free market model as a qualitative leap toward their own aspirations — at the cost of increasing inequalities in China.

We have already seen signs of the transition in the recent losses incurred by Chinese investors, and in the blow dealt to lower-income groups with the devaluation of the yuan, an adjustment that is set to continue given the resolve to make the yuan a reserve currency alongside the dollar and euro. The sharp readjustment of stock market values there has, for now, brutally ended private investors' hopes of multiplying their savings in a dizzy market.

The painful cascade of pragmatic steps is a response to a world that is not as profitable as it once was. Europe, as China's premier trading partner, is practically static. Japan, another crucial partner, is struggling to attain a 1.6% annual growth rate, amid strong doubts regarding the future of its government. Only the United States seems to hover above the abyss through moderate but solid economic growth, though there is no verdict yet on how it will react to global adjustments.

In our deeply interconnected world, changes in China will inevitably have global effects. The country generates 15% of all products and its booming economy was behind at least a third of the global economic growth in the past couple of years.

With that in mind, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has already cut worldwide growth estimates from 3.5% to 3.3%, which may actually be optimistic given predictions that Chinese growth could drop from its current 7% rate to 3%. Should that come to pass, Europe could see its growth rate sliced by 2% over the next five years.

The picture may be even worse for countries that depend on raw materials exports, especially if and when the United States raises interest rates, either in a month or, at the latest, next year. That would soak up vast amounts of cash that have nourished exporter countries' burgeoning economies in past years.

Chinese leaders agree they will maintain an open economic model while boosting the domestic consumer market, even if the changes to be made provoke social tensions. President Xi Jinping, with solid pro-market convictions, is putting his leadership along with the prestige of the Communist Party at stake. Part of that has come from the spectacular economic returns Deng Xiaoping's reforms have yielded.

Frictions have already emerged in the purges that have combed the Chinese power structure since Xi assumed leadership in early 2013. They have included very senior Party members and personalities associated with the last president, Jiang Zemin. Many were jailed for their purported corruption, but the purges have a markedly political basis.

One of those jailed for corruption at the start of the Xi presidency was Bo Xilai, a leading critic of privatizations and market-set interest rates, as envisaged in the 2012 China 2030 Report. The report encapsulates the president's objectives. Xi Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a close ally of the late premier Deng and creator of China's first free trade zone in 1980. Xi Zhongxun was governor at the time of Guangdong province.

The country's present conditions aren't likely to have much effect on a leader already committed to a liberalizing tradition, even as critics demand interventionism to boost the economy and prevent social tensions.

How will he respond? We can get an idea in a recent People's Daily editorial accusing old Party barons of hampering the government and undermining Party unity.

Still, the concerns of critics may be pertinent if we recall the tensions and later the Tiananmen protestscaused by another, more conservative and less aspirational set of reforms, in the 1980s. Could the same thing happen again? Perhaps.

The hangover, it appears, has taken root in China as well.

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Low-angle shot of three police officers standing in front of the Armenian Government Building in Yerevan on Sept. 19

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