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Common prosperity: China’s new course

Published 3 November 2021 in Asian hub • 3 min read

Faced with an inevitable slowing of economic growth, Xi Jinping is driving a sea change in China, says Alicia García-Herrero, Chief Economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis.

 

 

With its clampdown on its tech giants, education firms and other private businesses, plus its adoption of the phrase “common prosperity, is China changing tack from capitalism back to socialism? 

China has never been a truly capitalist country as it has always kept central planning and a large share of the production of goods and services in the hands of the government, central or local. However, Deng Xiaoping’s quest for individual wealth as a way to instill animal spirits in the Chinese economy, together with its reform and opening up policies, was key to the country’s success of the last four decades. 

The question now is how common prosperity changes the equation. Redistribution of income, as such, might not necessarily do away with the animal spirits, although it might mitigate them. However, a redistribution which occurs outside of the fiscal channels and impinges on private property might be much more detrimental for the future of China’s growth.

How do you think this will play out? 

So far, we have not seen clear signals of redistribution policies through the fiscal channel. For example, no inheritance or property taxes have been announced. On the fiscal expenditure side, no announcement has been made on extending pension coverage or making healthcare and education fully universal. Most of the actions seem geared towards regaining control of certain sectors that are dominated by private companies. In other words, it seems as if common prosperity has to take place through the centralization of wealth – or at least the centralization of its control – more than its actual redistribution. 

Guardian Officer at Tiananmen Place, China

What should we be watching out for as the next step in this process? 

Clearly this year’s Party Plenum, due to be held in November, will be crucial. We should see how important common prosperity becomes in terms of guiding policies. We should also look at how much common prosperity ideas percolate in provincial-government regulations in the next few months. One important query in all this is why, if common prosperity is such a well-thought and important concept for China’s direction, was it not introduced in the Five Year Plan earlier this year? In the same vein, foreign providers of services, whether it is high end restauration or education (such as English language learning or prep schools to enter foreign universities) will be curtailed.

How will this affect international business in China? 

International businesses will need to contribute in the same way as Chinese private investors: donations and other types of contributions will move to the forefront of the agenda, obviously reducing their profitability. The pain inflicted by the common prosperity mantra will be more for those foreign companies which have developed a business model on China’s rapidly growing number of wealthy individuals, such as luxury goods. Those individuals will now be much more careful to display signs of their wealth, especially in the case of foreign luxury brands.

So it really is a big switch? 

I do think this is a big switch. China now is more interested in social stability – through redistribution and setting the “right” socialist values in society – than continuing to grow fast. 

For me, the real estate crackdown launched just over a year ago is related to this. Rapidly worsening housing affordability is clearly behind the crackdown on real estate developers through the “three red lines” policy (having a liability to assets ration of less than 70%, a net gearing of less than 100% and a cash to short-term debt ratio of more than 100%).  

This is clearly a big deal given the massive contribution of real estate to growth – about 30% when counting direct and indirect channels. In other words, if Xi Jinping is ready to live with less growth to deal with the negative consequences of a too rapidly growing real estate sector on income distribution, he is probably ready to do anything. 

For me the explanation lies in the fact that China was already doomed not to grow fast anymore – rapid structural deceleration is already happening – so you may as well redistribute better what is left. 

Authors

Alicia García Herrero

Chief Economist for Asia Pacific, Natixis

Alicia García Herrero is the Chief Economist for Asia Pacific at French investment bank Natixis. Her other posts including being a Senior Fellow at European think-tank Bruegel and adjunct professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). 

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