A Split in the Party? Contradictory reports raise questions on China's economic direction

Ed Bithell

When asked to name a country with a lively political debate in its newspapers, few would name China. And so, when even indirectly expressed, political tensions in the leadership may indicate serious fault lines.

An anonymous but "authoritative person" was interviewed on Monday in Communist Party standard bearer the People's Daily, playing down expectations of any imminent economic upswing. The source leaned heavily on "supply-side structural reform" and reduced state intervention in markets, as well as debt-led growth, rather unlike the emphasis from Premier Li Keqiang in March that failing to meet growth targets was "impossible for me to say". 

It is thus easy for the editorial to be interpreted as an attack on Li and the State Council's management of the economy, with inflationary measures in place throughout early 2016 for growth that is now flagging. However, it can also be read as instead supporting the wider message of the key reform meeting of the 3rd Plenum in 2013, with its commitment to market-driven growth. Whichever the true intent (and it may well be a combination of the two, if not more, factors), the article has widely been taken as a move by actors loyal to President Xi Jinping, who has made further moves towards greater overall control of the Party with proposals to abolish the powerful Politburo Standing Committee by 2017.

"You can’t have both 6.5 percent growth and painless reform, even in China" - Michael Every, Rabobank HK

In its phrasing, the article ties in closely to recent policy statements by Xi himself, who the same day hosted a meeting in which he emphasised again "supply-side structural reform", a policy dedicated to state-sponsored improvement of the economy through efficiency, quality and cutting excess capacity - and explicitly not neoliberal in its outlook. Last week, he outlined his vision for improving Chinese economic performance, bemoaning that "the problem in China is not about insufficient demand or lack of demand, in fact, demands in China have changed, but supplies haven’t changed accordingly". In managing private companies and state-owned enterprises to meet the new demand, says Xi, supply-side structural reform will be achieved.

However, commentators both within and without China have been questioning this official narrative, that until now has been consistent from all parties - that the economy will be both radically transformed and also continue to comfortably grow. "We have the promise of a painless reform process with no mass bankruptcies or layoffs, and without radical liberalisation of the services sector to boost growth there," said Michael Every, head of financial markets research at Rabobank Group in Hong Kong, back in March. "You can’t have both 6.5 percent growth and painless reform, even in China." It appears that despite Li's recent promises of a "win-win" growth projection, Xi is determined to make sure his reform agenda remains the top priority.

The State Council, however, issued a rebuttal the same day, asserting that growth remained stable, and Li personally hit back with a statement framing the economic future in terms of necessary evil, declaring that the reforms "must be endured for the country, for the good of the people". While these comments hardly seem to be the inflammatory rhetoric we expect of political rivals in the West, even before the most recent personal politics of the EU referendum and US presidential election, such subtle variations in official policy statements can reflect major differences in viewpoint, especially between the marked ideologue Xi and his reserved and technocratic premier. In a time marked by the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, and state galas hailing Xi as the heir of Mao, such tensions in the Chinese leadership may merely be the beginning of major storms to come. 

Bull in a China Shop: Trump's Frightening Take on Asia

Taylor Yu

Videos like this are why the internet is a great, great thing. For those of you too lazy to click the link, it’s a three-minute clip of Donald Trump - the billionaire/reality TV star/’politician’ whose unbearable personality and equally unbearable hairdo have somehow propelled him into the forefront of the US elections race – just saying the word ‘China’. Over and over again.

I’ve no shame in saying that I found this way funnier than I should’ve, but it did get me thinking: what does this man actually want from China? Beyond all the jokes and the weirdly hilarious video-compilations that currently constitute the only media coverage of Trump that I actually care about, was there much substance or practicality behind Trump’s very much explicit dislike for China? Would China-bashing make America great again?

No, not really. In fact, it’s so unlikely to help the United States that the China Press, a Chinese-language newspaper based in the States, recently referred to Trump as ‘China’s secret agent in America’.

Let’s start with the 45% tariff on exports that Trump has proposed as part of his campaign. In theory, this would protect American jobs and promote American business; in reality, the implementation of such a drastic measure would set in motion an avalanche of global economic consequences. Basic economic intuition suggests that higher import taxes equate to higher prices, especially in a large open economy like that of the United States. Shrinking sales of Chinese products would not only hurt the average American consumer, but also damage American businesses who are actually heavily involved in the production and distribution process of goods that are ‘made in China’. Hufbauer and Lowry at the Peterson Institute for International Economics studied the impact of a 35% tariff imposed on Chinese tire imports by Washington in 2009 and discovered that for American consumers had to spend $900,000 dollars more on tires for every job saved - a trade-off scary enough to keep policymakers up at night.

If Trump’s wish is to strengthen the United States by weakening China, then this policy might work in an alternate universe in which the major economies weren’t connected in any way – one only needs to look at the relationship between the recent performance of the financial markets and China’s declining growth to comprehend the influence that China’s economic downfall may have the global economy. All of this, in addition to the fact that there would be nothing to stop the notoriously impulsive and unpredictable Chinese government to set up tariffs of its own on American goods and services, clearly suggest that Trump’s proposed tariff would only serve to undermine the United States.

What about in the wider context of the Wild Wild East arena? As a recent article in The Diplomat suggested, ‘the United States simply cannot be made great again by defining its closest global relationships purely in transactional terms or by insisting on going it alone while making others pay’. For years, Trump has argued for colder relations with Japan, who currently serves as the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner’, as well as South Korea, claiming that the United States should consider withdrawing its troops if Japan and South Korea don’t pay more for their upkeep. I don’t know what’s more concerning: the fact that the $2 billion Japan pays annually toward the upkeep of U.S. troops isn’t enough, or the fact that Trump cannot see that withdrawing from Asia would only play to China’s favour, giving it more leverage in future negotiations and allowing it to dictate terms in the Asian sphere.

The United States have spent years trying to build up a strong presence in Asia – with Trump at the helm, all of this may potentially vanish for the sake of ‘making America great again’ and at the expense of stability between two of the world’s great powers. It’s a thought that makes the video linked above a little less funny and a lot more frightening.

Photograph: Donald Trump via photopin (license)