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Sunday, 6 October 2013

The psychology of grand gestures

These days many people approach China through the lens of superlatives - massive buildings and infrastructure, dynamic fast paced growth and grand government visions.  Local press Caixin had a photo series of some of the more opulent government offices which had been built in recent years in some of the more deserted parts of China.  This correspondent can recall travelling to Shanghai in the late 1990s and being impressed by the opulence of the central square and museum and the comparative poverty of the shopping mall below - which no doubt has long since been renovated.  Perhaps, as suggested by the Independent newspaper it is easy to misinterpret what is going on in China simply by being an outsider.  Nevertheless there does seem to be some insight from reviewing what will be termed the "grand gestures" being made by the Chinese in administration (and their possible view of events through this perspective).

To start with the US however, many have argued that the Chinese administration places great weight in its actions by what is happening in the US and arguably much of China's recent policy is seen to have been calibrated with big shifts in US policy.  Hence many analysts point to the US-led financial crisis in 2008 as having caused a pivot in Chinese fiscal policy - when the administration not only decided to embark on the massive stimulus in 2009 and 2010 which saw more money lent out by the state-directed banking system than delivered by the US administration in the TARP (troubled asset relief program) which preceded the recapitalisation of the US banking system.  More particularly, those analysts note that in addition to the decision that was made at the time, it was also a time in which the top of China's government interpreted that the US economic model itself was defunct - that no serious government would let its banking system collapse and that China was wasting its time trying to emulate the US (as it had been doing for many years since its own banks had been cleaned up in the 2000s).

Of course, such an interpretation fundamentally misunderstands capitalism, and it has been noted that in seeking to construct a capitalist economy China still hasn't taken to heart the idea that businesses need to fail (such that, although pain in the solar industry, one of the worst performers is being delayed, at some point the domestic debt market will have its first default and certain poorly performing big enterprises will go bankrupt).  Nevertheless until a day of reckoning, the Chinese are doubling down on their existing policies and no doubt continuing the status quo (or trying to).  

Free China love zone
And hence the suggestion that China is drawing the same conclusions as to US decline.  As the US government went into lockdown with the impasse over the debt ceiling, reports of frustrated Chinese tourists in Washington corresponded with the response in China itself - decrying the "ugly side of partisan politics" (here). And, as per the headline, the Chinese presidential administration was responding with one grand gesture - Chinese president Xi Jinping undertaking a charm offensive to South East Asia (as Obama's trip was cancelled).  The linked article didn't touch on the delicate nature of China's relations with South East Asia following disputes in the South East China Sea, which no doubt complicate the picture.

Likewise on the economic front, China's opening of a free trade zone in Shanghai (immediately offering customs and warehousing facilities but with the suggestion of financial reform) was launched with uncertainty as regulations were still being drawn up, while many commentators, including the Economist concluded the measures were likely to disappoint (and a damp squib in fact).  For this author the significance of the recent zone opening is more in the gesture than the outcome - many other cities around China are seeking to open free trade zones which may do brisker trade than Shanghai (including Dongjiang which is seeking to become a major aviation leasing and offshore centre) and more significantly the step is being promoted as a new track of reform mirroring the opening of the Special Economic Zones in the 1980s.

The success of the zones will remain to be seen but it is unclear whether they constitute the reforms China needs.  As a gesture though, the announcement of the Shanghai zone has had an impact and that may be enough to keep positive news going for now.  On the other hand the gesture seemed to highlight current problems rather than hide them - property prices in Shanghai around the proposed zone have risen dramatically on the opening even as the included activities were not announced and there was no indication it will be successful.

If the real problems - property boom and collapse and strain in the banking sector do flare up then as a guide we must expect significant actions such as the credit squeeze of June 2013 - of which there will undoubtedly be more significant gestures to reassure confidence as real measures.  

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