Viewpoint: China, the 'leading dragon' of the world economy

Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank
Image caption Justin Yifu Lin's new book is called "Demystifying the Chinese Economy"

Whether we are on the verge of an "Asian Century" or not, one thing is clear: there has already been a dramatic shift in the geographic centre of the global economy.

China is now front and centre, and its role as a leading dragon can be beneficial for growth prospects for the world economy.

The world desperately needs engines of growth right now, and fortunately - with continued strong and pragmatic economic policy making - China can provide that impetus.

China is now the world's second biggest economy and the largest exporter of goods, with 9.6% of the global share, followed by Germany, the United States and Japan. China has an income per capita of $4,400 in current dollars and is well established as a high-middle income country.

China's foreign reserves, which now exceed $3 trillion, are the largest in the world.

Behind this rise, there has been a dramatic structural transformation entailing rapid industrialisation, a massive movement out of agriculture, and an impressive stretch of trade-related growth.

The 'advantage of backwardness'

China has the potential to grow dynamically for another 20 years. This is in part because, as of 2008, the country still had a capita income that was just 21% of US per capita income - measured in purchasing power parity terms. This US-China income gap is evidence that a big technological gap still exists between China and the industrialised countries.

China can continue to enjoy the advantage of backwardness before closing the gap.

By 2030, China's income per head (measured in purchasing power parity) may reach about 50% of that in the United States. By then, China's economic size (in purchasing power parity terms) may be twice as large as the US; and measured at market exchange rates, China may be at least the same size as the US two decades from now.

The challenges

Image caption China's economy is set to become a "lead dragon", says Justin Lin

Yet China and other emerging markets must confront several serious challenges in the coming years. First, contagion from the Euro area and sagging demand in high-income countries could dampen hopes for moderate world growth over the next few years. Indeed, a double-dip recession in advanced countries cannot be ruled out as a downside risk.

Nationally, China must tackle what amounts to a triple imbalance.

Engineering a shift towards domestic demand and moving from an over-reliance on export-led growth represents the first rebalancing.

The process should be balanced between consumption and continued strong growth in investment. The latter is critical for industrial upgrading, raising incomes, as well as developing "green economy" sectors and protecting the environment.

The second rebalancing entails a structural transformation to reduce income disparities. In spite of the general improvement of living standards, China has shifted from a relatively egalitarian society in 1979 to a country with alarming income inequality. The Gini index [a common measure of social inequality] reached 41.5 in 2005, approaching the level of Latin American countries. The widening of disparity may threaten social stability and hinder economic growth.

The third imbalance relates to environmental costs that have accompanied rapid growth. China needs to shift its stance vis-a-vis short-term growth and long-term environmental sustainability. The future structure of production must shift towards cleaner technologies.

China's growing reach

As a result of superior growth in the developing world, we are now in a multi-polar growth world, with economic weight shifting from the G7 economies [of seven leading industrialised nations] to developing economies.

China's contributions to the multi-polar world are manifold. For high-income countries, China's growth will expand markets for their capital goods and intermediate goods exports.

Many developing countries are still major producers of agricultural and natural resource commodities. Chinese consumption and production growth will continue to support adequate commodity prices and thus help these exporters.

In addition, the Chinese government and Chinese firms will also provide funds for natural resource and infrastructure investment in emerging markets and low-income countries. This is already happening, and it is likely to continue. In particular, there is a growing role of Chinese finance in the Africa region - the developing region with the most constrained access to finance.

Also, as China undergoes industrial upgrading, it will leave space for other developing countries to enter the more labour-intensive industries. Chinese enterprises are expected to relocate their existing production to other lower wage countries as they upgrade to higher value-added industries - just like Japan and East Asian economies did a few decade ago.

The difference is that, because of its size, China may become a "leading dragon" for other developing countries instead of a "lead goose" in the traditional flying geese pattern of the international diffusion of industrial development.

Over time, there is also the possibility of the gradual emergence of the Chinese Renminbi as a global reserve currency.

This is something that would require many fundamental reforms in the Chinese economy; however, it is almost inevitable given the growing relative strength of China in the multi-polar world.

Justin Yifu Lin is the author of Demystifying the Chinese Economy, the 18th book to his name. He is the World Bank's chief economist and senior vice president for Development Economics. Before joining the World Bank he served as Founding Director and Professor of the China Centre for Economic Research (CCER) at Beijing University.

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