Nicholas R. Lardy – The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China?

Nicholas R. Lardy – The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China?

Lardy’s “core conclusion is that absent significant further economic reform returning China to a path of allowing market forces to allocate resources, China’s growth is likely to slow, casting a shadow over its future prospects.” In this case, Lardy largely echoes other recent works such as Elizabeth C. Economy’s The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State and Ronald Coase and Ning Wang’s How China Became Capitalist.

China has taken a decidedly dirigiste turn under Xi Jinping. If Xi continues down an increasingly statist path, China’s growth will slow. If market reforms continue, China will prosper. Given the outsize amount of power centralized in his person, this choice is up to him more than anyone else. This will remain the case regardless of whether the current U.S.-China trade war ends tomorrow or continues for years. U.S. presidents come and go, but Xi will likely be around for a long time. And if not him, then someone in his inner circle with similar policy views.

Lardy is an excellent economic analyst, parsing through China’s not-entirely-truthful official statistics as well as international data to give as accurate a picture of China’s trajectory as he can, given the sources. One of his major conclusions is that China’s state-run businesses are severely underperforming compared to the country’s private businesses. State-run enterprises consistently make more and larger losses, are more heavily in debt, and the ones that are profitable tend to be less profitable than their private counterparts. They are also concentrated in legacy industries; China’s growth is less in energy and manufacturing and more in services and technology—precisely where China’s private sector is strongest.

This sounds like good news, but the trouble is that under Xi, the poor-performing state-run share of the economy has been growing. Since government tends to make a hash of whatever it does, if Xi keeps this up, China’s growth will slow. This is an avoidable mistake, but it is an open question if Xi will be willing to admit it.

China has several massive white elephant projects that are wasting precious capital, such as its Belt and Road initiative. While this program and others like it scare China hawks in the U.S., they are weakening China. Government infrastructure projects worldwide are late, overpriced, and often of low quality. The Belt and Road initiative is no different, according to available evidence so far. Moreover, the billions of dollars Beijing is putting into it now cannot put into more productive ventures.

Lardy, like everyone else, is unable to guess which path China will take—state-run and poor, or free and prosperous. Unlike many analysts, Lardy is humble enough to admit that he cannot predict the future. He is hoping Xi will eventually decide to turn China’s policy momentum back towards liberalization. The Chinese people share this hope, and China observers of all stripes should hope the same, whether their politics are hawkish or dovish.

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