Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dissecting Chinese Growth: How Long Will It Continue?

Academic specialists know a great deal, but they are not good at sharing their results with general readers. What we know about Chinese growth is a case in point.

There is practically no question more important than the future of Chinese growth. If it continues unabated for another decade, its GDP would be fifty percent larger than the U.S., and its per capita GDP would be a third. If growth continued two decades, its GDP would be two and a half times ours, and its per capita GDP would be half. China would be a dominant super power, its people affluent, and an economic powerhouse. As some have argued, affluence may bring with it democracy.

Other countries – Japan, the USSR, Germany – had long episodes of fast growth that came to an end. They were all high savers, but not to the extremes of China today. We all know that China’s growth spurt must eventually end, but it is vitally important to know when.

We can apply growth accounting to explain Chinese growth. (I’ll try to make it simple but the results are important).

Growth accounting divides growth into three sources:

1) The growth of capital and labor,
2) Technological progress, which allows us to produce more from the same inputs, and
3) Reallocation of inputs from less to more productive activities.

Since 1978, China’s output and capital grew at exceptional rates ((9% and 12%, respectively), labor at a more normal (but fast) 2%. According to the growth-accounting formula, some two thirds of Chinese growth is due to fast labor and capital growth. The remaining one third is technological progress.

Japan (1953-1985) is the closest parallel to China. Japan’s output and capital grew 7% and 9%, respectively, and labor at 1%. Less than half of Japan’s growth was from labor and capital; more than half was from technological progress.

Germany, in the early postwar years grew at 7%, capital at 6% and more than 60% of its growth was from technological progress.

China is underperforming Japan and Germany in percentage terms in marshalling new technologies for growth, but its performance is nonetheless impressive.

Japan’s and Germany’s huge productivity growth in the early postwar period was due to the vast technology backlog that had arisen during the war. China also benefits from a backlog, not due to war but to its earlier isolation. Like Japan and Germany, its growth will drop as the backlog is worked off. China was relatively more backward than Germany or Japan when each began their move; it may take longer for China to work off the backlog.

What do such figures tell us about the future, especially in light of the newly released census results?

First, China’s labor force growth has stopped for all practical purposes. This factor should reduce China’s growth by one percentage point, still leaving enough room for continued rapid growth.

Second, urban and rural populations have reached parity and labor migration appears to have peaked. With about one fifth of Chinese productivity growth due to labor reallocation, we can knock off another 2 percent, more or less, from Chinese growth.

Third, improvements in educational achievements have been striking, but they may not be enough to offset the effects of aging in an assembly-line economy such as China.

Fourth, with the destruction of the extended family by the one-child policy, the government will increasingly have to care of the elderly. When this happens, China will suffer the growth declines characteristic of transfer economies.

Fifth, with the “easy growth” of labor expansion and migration behind it, China’s growth will depend increasingly on technology. Technology advances depend on continued inflows of foreign direct investment. If the West decides to switch its FDI to other (lower wage) countries, China will lose it major source of growth.

China is more dependent on us than many think.


  1. Great blog. Robert Robert Fogel should read this as well.

    A short comment: Germany and Japan also enjoyed democracy; but, China does not. Among other things, democracy influences the government's mix of taxes and expenditures (the budget), legitimizes (or shares the blame for) wealth accumulation,.... Richer and more educated Chinese may consider democracy as a superior or luxury good, but not the government that will have to share the power. So, a latent conflict is brewing that attaches a unrealized risk-premium to the observed growth in China. Overall, China may see a big crunch, and re-distribution of wealth, rather than a moderation of growth (i.e., similar to Japan and Germany), in the next few years or so.

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