Are China’s three decades of impressive economic growth coming to an end? Is China going to succumb to the same malaise which has trapped Japan in a prolonged period of ultra-slow growth for the last two decades? Zhang Jun, Professor of Economics and Director of the China Center for Economic Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, argues that China can maintain its growth momentum but only if its economic system is open to institutional reform.

China’s ‘Two Sessions’ – the annual gatherings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference held every March – have always drawn global attention. But the meetings this year seemed particularly significant, owing not only to the country’s leadership transition, but also to its economic slowdown amid calls for deeper reform. How, then, will China’s new leaders respond?

The problem is simple: no one can predict accurately how long the slowdown will last. The authorities, lacking confidence in their ability to restore pre-2009 rates of annual GDP growth, have lowered the official target to 7.5%.

Many economists are becoming even more pessimistic, pointing to Japan as evidence that, after three decades, China’s breakneck growth may be coming to an end. Japan’s economy, they point out, achieved more than 20 years of sustained rapid growth; but, in the 40 years since 1973, annual growth has exceeded 5% only a handful of times, and output has stagnated for the last two decades.

But today’s pessimists need to account for some fundamental differences between the two economies. For example, Japan was already a high-income country in 1973, with per capita income (in terms of purchasing power parity) at roughly 60% of the US level. The ‘Four Asian Tigers’ (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) experienced a slowdown in GDP growth at a similar relative income level. By contrast, China’s per capita income is only about 20% of the US level. In other words, we should not underestimate the Chinese economy’s potential to converge toward developed countries.

The pessimists, however, doubt that China can maintain catch-up economic growth. They argue that the current growth model, if not the economic system more broadly, is driving the country into a ‘middle- income trap’.

Attributing problems to systemic causes is a typical habit of thought in China. But can a system that has sustained 30 years of hyper-growth really be worse than those systems adopted in Japan and the Four Tigers?

China’s economic system, which developed from the institutions of central planning, must have had some merits during this period. But the development and ultimate structure
of economic institutions are closely related to a country’s income level or stage of economic development. If some aspects of the current system cannot be adapted to support further economic development, they could end up hindering it. What really matters for economic growth is not whether a system is the ‘best’, but whether it can be adjusted to serve a new phase of economic development. From this perspective, it is vital to ensure that an economic system is open to institutional reform.

No economic system, however ‘optimal’, can sustain long-term growth once it is no longer reformable. After its extraordinary post-1945 economic miracle, Japan fell into a pattern of ultra-slow growth because it lacked the flexibility to adapt its institutions for a new phase of economic development, characterised by heightened global competition. By contrast, South Korea has maintained its growth momentum since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Western economists often criticise its economic system, but the key point is that its institutions are flexible and open to change, which implies a high degree of economic resilience.

Why is one system amenable to reform, while another is not? In recent years, research has indicated that vested interests and powerful lobbies distort economic policies and cause governments to miss good opportunities. A system receptive to reform requires the government to have greater power or wealth than any interest group, thus enabling it to pursue long-term policy goals and ensure the success of reform.

For example, Yao Yang of Peking University has argued that the Chinese government is able to decide the right policies at critical points because it is not unduly swayed by any interest group. It is this neutrality, he says, that explains the success of China’s economic transition and its three decades of rapid economic growth.

But what about now? China is entering a new phase of development, and institutional reform in key areas – particularly the public sector, income distribution, land ownership, the household registration system, and the financial sector – has become imperative.

Obviously, reform is more difficult today than it was when China began its economic transition. State-owned enterprises, for example, currently account for 40% of total corporate assets, but only 2% of research has indicated that vested interests and powerful lobbies distort economic policies and cause governments to miss good opportunities all firms, which implies significant policy influence. But China seems unlikely to go the way of, say, Russia. On the contrary, the accumulation of wealth in the Chinese government’s hands should enhance its ability to press ahead with reform.

Institutional flexibility has been the key to China’s economic transition and rapid growth over the last three decades, and it is vitally important that the Chinese government remains neutral and avoids being captured by interest groups. In short, the authorities must ensure that the system remains open to change in the long run. Successful implementation of another round of far-reaching reform depends on it.

Zhang Jun

Professor of Economics and Director of the China Center for Economic Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.


中國經濟迅速發展三十年後,是否已成強弩之末?日本過去二十年長期處於極低增長的 狀態,中國是否也會面臨同樣困境?上海復旦大學經濟學教授兼中國經濟研究中心主任 張軍表示,中國可以維持增長勢頭,但經濟體制必須經歷制度上的改革。

上海——中國的“兩會”(每年三 月召開的一年一度的全國人民代 表大會和中國人民政治協商會議)一 直吸引著全球的目光。但今年的兩會 似乎尤為重要,這不僅因為國家領導 人換屆,也因為中國的經濟增長放緩 提出了深化改革的要求。那麼,中國 的新任領導人該作何對策?

問題非常簡單:沒人能準確預測這輪 經濟放緩會持續多久。當局對將年度 GDP增長恢復到2009年前的水平缺乏信 心,因此將官方目標調降至7.5%。

許多經濟學家甚至更為悲觀,指出經過 三十年的快速發展,中國經濟的高速增 長期可能像日本那樣結束。他們認為日 本經濟實現了超過20年的持續快速增 長;但在1973年後的40年中,日本年度 經濟增長超過5%的情況屈指可數,並且 20年來產能一直處於停滯狀態。

但今天的悲觀主義者需要就兩個經濟 體間最根本的差異做出解釋。比方 說,日本1973年就已經進入高收入國 家行列,其人均收入(按購買力平價 計算)相當於美國60%的水平。“亞洲 四小龍”(香港、新加坡、韓國和台 灣)也在達到類似的相對收入水平後 出現了GDP增長放緩的過程。相比之 下,中國的人均收入仍只相當於美國 的20%。換句話講,我們不應低估中國 經濟向發達國家靠攏的潛能。

但悲觀主義者質疑中國能否在經濟發 展上繼續保持追趕勢頭。他們認為即 使廣義的經濟制度問題不大,現有的 發展模式也會使中國陷入到“中等收 入陷阱”之中。

將問題歸咎於體制原因是中國式思維的 典型。但已經實現了30年高速增長的體 制難道真的比不上日本和亞洲四小龍?

高速發展期內,從中央計劃體制演變 而來的中國經濟體制無疑有其過人之 處。但經濟體制的發展及其最終結構 與一個國家的收入水平或經濟發展階 段密切相關。如果現有體制的某些方 面無法支撐經濟進一步發展,就有可 能反過來產生阻礙作用。經濟增長並 不一定需要“最好”的體制,而要看 體制能否調整適應新的經濟發展需 求。從這個角度講,關鍵是要確保經 濟體制能夠許可全面的制度改革。

如果拒絕改革,沒有哪種“最優”經濟 體制可以保證經濟長期發展。創造了後 1945年的經濟奇跡後,日本因其體制不 夠靈活、無法適應以全球競爭加劇為特 點的經濟發展新階段而進入到超慢增長 階段。相比之下,20世紀90年代亞洲金 融危機後,韓國經濟增長勢頭就一直非 常強勁。西方經濟學家經常批評韓國經 濟體制,但關鍵問題在於這種體制非常 靈活,也就是說具有很強的經濟彈性。

為什麼一種體制能夠改革而另一種則 不能?近年來的研究結果表明,既得 利益和強大的遊說勢力會扭曲經濟政 策,致使政府錯過千載難逢的發展機 會。改革體制需要政府權力和財力壓 倒一切利益集團,才能堅持長期的目 標政策,並確保改革取得成功。

比方說,北京大學的姚洋認為中國政 府能夠在關鍵時刻做出正確決策,因 為任何利益集團都不會過分左右政府 的行動。他說正是這種中立能力能夠 解釋中國經濟三十年的快速增長和經 濟轉軌成功。

但現在怎麼樣?中國正在進入新的發 展階段,公共部門、收入分配、土地 所有制、戶籍制度和金融部門等關鍵 領域的制度改革已經成為當務之急。


顯然,今天的改革比中國剛開始經濟轉 型時難度更大。比方說只佔公司總數2% 的國有企業目前卻擁有企業總資產的 40%,國企的政策影響力也因此十分巨 大。但中國似乎不太可能走俄國走過的 道路。恰恰相反,中國政府手中累積的 財富可以令其改革能力大幅增強。

體制靈活性三十年來一直是中國經濟 轉軌和快速成長的關鍵,重要的是中 國政府繼續保持中立、不受利益集團 的脅迫。簡言之,政府必須確保體制 從長遠看能夠保持開放。只有這樣才 能最終落實新一輪意義深遠的改革。


上海復旦大學經濟學教授兼中國經 濟研究中心主任

翻譯:Xu Binbin

版權所有:Project Syndicate, 2013