China’s $10,000-12,000 Question

Whether political reform is an inevitable consequence of China’s economic reform has been a longstanding question. Ilian Mihov, an economics professor at INSEAD,  the Paris-based business school, flips the question on its head. He asks whether the country’s ability to develop its economy rapidly can continue without institutional reforms regarding the rule of law, governance and accountability.

In a recently published report of a session on China at an INSEAD symposium in Singapore last November, Mihov said China needs “deep structural reforms”. Command economies can only sustain fast growth with weak institutions for so long. The tipping point comes when per capita income reaches $10,000-12,000 a year, the point at which developing economies tend to stop developing without institutional change (see chart below)*.

“There is not a single country that has good quality institutions and is poor,” Mihov said in Singapore. “The gap between rich and poor is driven by poor productivity that is linked to poor quality institutions and poor business environment.”  As evidence he offers the contrasting experiences of Singapore and Venezuela. Even more dramatically, consider the economies of the old Soviet bloc, which collapsed as per capita incomes hit and then got stuck at the $12,000 a year level (adjusted for current prices).

China’s annual per capital income is $4,000. At current growth rates that gives it less than a decade before it starts bearing down in earnest on that tipping point or The Great Wall as Mihov inevitably dubs it.

What makes for the aforesaid poor quality institutions and a poor business environment includes political instability, government inefficiency and the prevalence of corruption. Those are factors within government’s control. There has been progress, albeit piecemeal, as with, for example, the current anti-corruption campaign and, as Dan Harris from China Law Blog points out, the improving quality of China’s civil, if not criminal courts. There are other reasons than planning for long-term economic development for those changes, but the $10,000-12,000 question is whether that progress continues at a sufficient pace to carry the country through the transformation to a new peak of development. Or will it be left stuck on the plateau of stagnation?

The growing economic and political clout of state-owned enterprises is another possible impediment to progress. Like Japan before it, China has grown fast by replicating and improving on what advanced economies have already done and producing and selling the results much more cheaply. Yet, as Japan found out, there comes a point where innovation has to replace imitation if growth is to be sustained.

China’s state-owned national champions and aspiring multinationals are ambitious, adaptive and fast learners (as were Japan’s). They are developing R&D and product development capabilities but they remain reliant on access to low-cost capital from the state, have rudimentary organizational and financial management skills by the standards of multinationals and have yet to acquire two of the most essential traits of a globalized multinational, managing diversity and allowing the intrapreneurship in which innovation can flourish (traits that few Japanese multinationals were able to acquire).

Beijing is throwing a wall of money and of engineers and scientists at making its national champions more innovative (dealing with diversity isn’t even on the radar). Yet in the process of building up the SOEs it is distorting markets and entrenching vested interests that increase the resistance to reform. It also crowds out small and medium sized companies where growth-generating innovation truly flourishes. Those need a particular business environment which is possible only with good institutions and a regulatory and governance regime that may not be to the taste of big business in the form of the SOEs, who see their (patriotic) role to be competing with other multinationals not fending off pesky upstarts at home.

That sets up a dilemma for the leadership. If the Party’s legitimacy to monopolistic rule depends on continuing to deliver the economic growth that keeps its citizens getting richer and Mihov is right that the country’s rapid economic growth cannot continue beyond a certain point without institutional reform, then managing the role of government in the economy and overcoming state-owned vested interests — in other words reforming itself — becomes China’s policy planners most important concern.

*There is a 2009 research paper on the $10,000-12,000 barrier by Mihov and his colleague Antonio Fatas, The 4Is of Economic Growth, from which the chart above was abstracted. A summary focusing on China, Another Challenge To China’s Growth, was published in the Harvard Business Review of March 2009.

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