China is widely believed to be immune from the economic shock waves making their way around the world from the U.S. to Europe and Japan. Although it is relatively unaffected by subprime mortgages and the credit crunch, China's economy is actually facing a fundamental structural adjustment that has arrived much earlier than expected.
Decreasing foreign demand for inexpensive manufactured goods, the misallocation of vital investment, and product safety concerns are straining China's manufacturing base and challenging the tenuous linkages between continued economic growth and a rising middle-class.
Conventional wisdom holds that China's domestic demand is increasingly responsible for driving growth, not exports, giving the Chinese economy a natural buffer against wild swings in the world economy. The new middle class, it is assumed, will continue buying television sets, computers, washing machines and cars - all domestically produced with cash derived from large reserves of personal savings. Domestic banks are healthy and the central government is now promoting growth through expansionary fiscal and monetary policies.
At first glance the statistics look promising. Consumer spending is up 22%, inflationary pressures are receding as food prices drop, and strong foreign exchange reserves continue to accrue ($1.8 trillion as of July). Fixed asset investment is rising as well (up 27% in the first eight months of 2008) and China's sovereign debt rating is improving (S&P has raised long term ratings to A+.)
On closer examination, however, a vastly different story emerges. By the end of 2007 almost half of China's GDP growth was attributed to exports and government consumption, a dramatic reversal from 2003 when growth was dominated by investment and private consumption.