China’s Dead-End Economy Is Bad News for Everyone

On separate visits to Beijing last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen bore a common message: Chinese manufacturing overcapacity is flooding global markets with cheap Chinese exports, distorting world trade and leaving American businesses and workers struggling to compete.

Not surprisingly, China’s leaders did not like what they heard, and they didn’t budge. They can’t. Years of erratic and irresponsible policies, excessive Communist Party control and undelivered promises of reform have created a dead-end Chinese economy of weak domestic consumer demand and slowing growth. The only way that China’s leaders can see to pull themselves out of this hole is to fall back on pumping out exports.

That means a number of things are likely to happen, none of them good. The tide of Chinese exports will continue, tensions with the United States and other trading partners will grow, China’s people will become increasingly unhappy with their gloomy economic prospects and anxious Communist Party leaders will respond with more repression.

The root of the problem is the Communist Party’s excessive control of the economy, but that’s not going to change. It is baked into China’s political system and has only worsened during President Xi Jinping’s decade in power. New strategies for fixing the economy always rely on counterproductive mandates set by the government: Create new companies, build more industrial capacity. The strategy that most economists actually recommend to drive growth — freeing up the private sector and empowering Chinese consumers to spend more — would mean overhauling the way the government works, and that is unacceptable.

The party had a golden opportunity to change in 1989, when the Tiananmen Square protests revealed that the economic reforms that had begun a decade earlier had given rise to a growing private sector and a desire for new freedoms. But to liberalize government institutions in response would have undermined the party’s power. Instead, China’s leaders chose to shoot the protesters, further tighten party control and get hooked on government investment to fuel the economy.

For a long time, no one minded. When economic or social threats reared their heads, like global financial crises in 1997 and 2007, Chinese authorities poured money into industry and the real estate sector to pacify the people. The investment-driven growth felt good, but it was much more than the country could digest and left China’s landscape scarred with empty cities and industrial parks, unfinished bridges to nowhere, abandoned highways and amusement parks, and airports with few flights.

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