If the property bubble bursts, it will directly hurt millions of middle-class Chinese, and the economic growth chain will be broken. Chinese leaders acknowledge that, but the bubble still cannot be controlled. They proposed a new property tax on the middle class. The middle class will probably revolt politically if that happens. This dilemma is really destabilizing for China’s sociopolitical situation. If you do not have a tax, the property bubble will probably continue to grow. But if you tax, you will hurt the middle class. It’s a difficult policy choice.
Another important challenge is unemployment. In the last few years, about 20 to 30 percent of China’s 6.6 million college graduates have not been able to find jobs. Of today’s middle class, 70 percent had parents who were farmers, and for around 55 percent of middle-class Chinese, their first job was as a farmer or manual laborer. This has been a story of upward social mobility. But now [without economic reform and increasing upward mobility], the middle class will shrink.
S+B: What effect could this have on the political system?
LI: The middle class wants to have freedom of the press, but China has severe censorship. Also, China is now moving toward greater innovation. For innovation to take hold, you need to have a spirit of freedom, but in China this is lacking. Civil society in the U.S. can share the burden of governance with the government and other interest groups, but the government in China has repressive policies toward NGOs, domestic and foreign. So fundamental change is needed in the political arena.
I don’t mean that China should adopt some kind of foreign model of democracy. Chinese democracy will have its own characteristics, like Indian democracy, Japanese democracy, and Brazilian democracy. But some fundamental elements, such as regular elections, rule of law, and a certain degree of openness and freedom, are necessities in any democracy. When you have a middle class, political change is inevitable.
Look at what happened in other Asian countries, such as South Korea and Indonesia — you see similar development. In the early stage, the middle class sides with an authoritarian regime because they want to maintain social stability. The government makes favorable policies to support the emerging middle class. That takes two or three decades of growth. Then, yesterday’s allies can become today’s rivals. Remember that the middle class is not a monolithic group. They divide. As financial power increases, they form different interest groups.
S+B: What should Western executives keep in mind as this transition continues to unfold?
LI: This is a tremendous opportunity. We’ve already seen China become the number one market in automobiles, and the number two market in luxury goods. The middle-class lifestyle is wonderful news for foreign companies. But they have to really look at the Chinese market. Last year, the top two fastest-growing areas of consumption in China were surprising. Number one was religious tourism, because China never had this tradition before. The second-largest was pet care products. The service sector, including healthcare, consulting, and environmental products for the Chinese market, has many opportunities for growth. But the market always presents some difficulties — including China’s lack of legal systems and intellectual property rights.
China’s current leadership transition will take two years to complete. The 18th Party Congress will be held in the fall of 2012, but the government transition will be completed in the spring of 2013 with the National People’s Congress. After that, the new leadership will be consolidating power. That period could be quite tough. How it unfolds could have implications for global economic development. But China will not collapse, as some have predicted. Its development will not be linear — there will be ups and downs. It’s dangerous to think that everything is good. But if you think everything is bad, you will miss opportunities.