By Victor Shih
Double-digit growth can’t hide the fact that China’s state-controlled economy is leaving the vast majority of citizens behind.
During a round table with business leaders during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States in January, US President Barack Obama stated optimistically that ‘With China’s growing middle class, I believe that over the coming years, we can more than double our exports to China and create more jobs here in the United States.’ To be sure, that is a reasonable expectation. When other Asian economies like Japan and Korea grew toward the GDP per capita level of $10,000, sizable middle class populations did indeed emerge.
However, when looking under the bonnet at China’s economic engine, it’s clear that a growing middle class with rising disposable income and consumption is missing. Instead, there’s an economy that is still dominated by state owned firms and state-led investment, as well as by rapidly rising inequality. Instead of an enlarging urban middle class, China is increasingly splitting into a small upper class that spends freely on luxury goods, and a remaining population whose earnings and savings are eroded by inflation and state confiscation.
The underlying dynamics are clear in a recent statistical release by the government. First, real urban disposable income rose a comparatively tepid 7.8 percent in 2010, despite economic growth of nearly 10 percent. However, urban retail sales of consumer goods grew 14.5 percent. While the growth of consumption is good for China's economy, the pattern of this growth suggests rising inequality.
The biggest growth in consumption included jewellery (46 percent), furniture (37 percent), cars (34 percent) and construction material (34 percent). Essentially, these are items related to the spending of the upper class. These ‘consumer’ goods also made up 33 percent of all retail consumption in China. The large size and strong growth in luxury items implies that grey income was substantial in 2010, as suggested by a Credit Swiss report authored by Prof. Wang Xiaolu.
In this report, released last year and based on a survey of urban households in 2009, Wang found nearly 1.5 trillion dollars in grey income unreported in the official household income numbers. He further found that over 60 percent of this grey income accrued to the top 10 percent of households. The latest numbers also suggest that while income of normal households likely grew at around 8 percent, the top 10 percent of households may have seen income growth above 25 percent.
A growing middle class is also absent among recent college graduates. According to the Ministry of Education, only 68 percent of college graduates in 2010 were able to find permanent employment. Even among those who found employment, wages were often no better or sometimes even worse than those for migrant workers in factories. Unlike the rest of the world, however, China enjoyed a spectacular 10 percent growth rate. This impressive growth, however, didn’t translate to high paying jobs for college graduates. In major cities, many college graduates live as an ‘ant tribe,’ packed tightly in small dormitory rooms with four or more roommates.