Imagine living in the capital city of a major country, and suffering the level of pollution shown in the above photo on a regular basis. We used the photo in chapter 6 of Boom, Gloom and the New Normal when we highlighted how pollution was inevitably going to move up the political agenda in China. Controversial at the time, it warned:
“Recent growth in China and India has come at a price: Poor air quality, chronic water shortages and deforestation.”
By February 2014, the pressure to act was becoming almost overwhelming as:
“The problems have worsened, to the point where almost everyone now agrees that they are creating a major political problem. The new leadership simply has to solve this, if it wants to remain in office. Beijing and the 6 northern provinces have now been shrouded in smog for 6 days, and on Wednesday the US embassy reported that the levels of PM2.5, the small particles that pose the greatest risk to human health, were “beyond index” at 512.”
Guangdong province, close to Hong Kong, had already moved to clean up. But other provinces did little or nothing, as officials worried about the likely impact on jobs. A major part of the problem was that the economy is the Premier’s responsibility, and Premier Li has been more worried about maintaining growth via stimulus programmes.
This year, however, Xi finally lost patience ahead of next month’s 5-yearly People’s Congress – at which he will be renominated for another 5-year term. Having signed China up to the Paris Agreement on climate change in December 2015, he seized control of the economic agenda, as I noted in the Financial Times:
“Xi knows that reducing pollution, rather than maintaining economic growth, has become key to continued Communist Party rule. The recent rapid elevation of Beijing’s mayor, Cai Qi, to become party chief for the city is further confirmation of the high priority now being given to tackling air pollution and stabilising house prices.
“Taken together, these policies represent a paradigm shift from those put in place 40 years ago by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death in 1976. This shift has critically important implications, as it means growth is no longer the main priority of China’s leadership. In turn, this means that stimulus programmes of the type unleashed in 2012, and on a more limited basis by Premier Li last year, are a thing of the past.”
Since then, the Beijing area, and surrounding provinces such as Hebei and Henan, have become a centre of the battle against pollution. One key development has been the use of thousands of drones to spot, and measure air and water pollution, and then identify and photograph the culprits. As state-controlled Xinhua reported last week:
“A total of 599 companies, mainly construction materials, furniture, chemicals, packaging and printing, were relocated out of the capital, said the Beijing municipal commission of development and reform. Beijing also closed 2,543 firms and ordered 2,315 firms to make changes. About 73% had pollution issues.”
Similarly, a senior chemical industry executive told me last week:
“I was in/near Cangzhou the other day (another city on the list) where the government have created a large National Level Economic Zone including a dedicated chemical “park” to accommodate the companies that are being cleared out of Beijing and surrounds. This was an otherwise nondescript flatland whose only previous claim to fame was a Mao era collaboration with then Czechoslovakia to make tractors.”
The war on pollution has another side to it, of course, as it marks the end of the “growth at any cost” economic model.
As a result, realism is finally returning to discussion about China’s real growth potential. As last month’s IMF Report on China noted, GDP growth had only averaged 7.3% over the 5 years to 2016 because of stimulus: without this, growth would have been just 5.3%. As a result, the IMF also highlighted an increasing risk of “a possible sharp decline in growth in the medium term”, as well as a need to boost domestic consumption by reducing savings.
This is a welcome development. Too many companies and analysts have indulged in wishful thinking, wanting to believe China had suddenly become middle-class by Western standards. In reality, as the second chart shows, the growth surge was due to $20tn of stimulus lending via official and shadow banking channels.
At its peak, between 2009 – 2013, this lending reached 3.2x official GDP. And GDP itself was probably also over-stated for internal political reasons, as Communist Party officials were routinely judged for promotion on their success in generating GDP growth. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, as the Caixin business magazine has reported:
“In a document jointly released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and nine other ministry-level bodies, if a city does not achieve 60% of the emission reduction target, the city’s vice mayor will be held responsible. If the city achieves less than 30% of its target, the mayor will be held responsible; and if the PM2.5 level ends up increasing instead of falling over the winter, the party secretary of the city will be held responsible.
“Possible punishment includes party disciplinary or administrative punishments, the document says.”
Large economies are like super-tankers, they take a long time to change course. As I noted nearly 2 years ago, China is now attempting to move in a radically new direction, away from export-driven growth and infrastructure spending – and towards a New Normal economy based on the mobile internet:
“The winners are developing services-led businesses focused on China’s New Normal markets – such as those aimed at boosting living standards in the poverty-stricken rural areas, or for environmental clean-up. The losers will be those who cling to the hope that more stimulus is just around the corner, and that China’s Old Normal will somehow return.”
Those who have done well under the old regime, like the Party heads focused on job-creation and the opportunities that it created for large-scale corruption, will inevitably fight hard to preserve their way of life. Next month’s Congress will therefore be critical in assessing just how much power Xi will have to pursue his reform policies in his second term.
As I noted a year ago, this Congress will settle key questions. Will Premier Li gain a second term, and continue to be able to obstruct reform? Will anti-corruption tsar Wang maintain his position on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, despite being over the nominal age limit?
The Congress is therefore likely to the most important meeting since 1997, when Jiang Zemin gained re-appointment for his second term as President and led China out of poverty via membership of the World Trade Organisation. Now, as set out in the China 2030 Report (published when Xi became President), Xi has to led China in a new direction.
Otherwise, he will be unable to achieve his twin goals of
□ Making China a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021 (the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party)
□ Making it a “fully developed, rich and powerful nation” by 2049 (the centenary of the People’s Republic), and returned to its historical status as the Middle Kingdom via his ‘One Belt, One Road’ project.