Why China Is Too Scared to Spend

With lower growth rates and exports down, China’s economy faces a shaky future. But it’s not as if China doesn’t have the money to jumpstart its own recovery; money accumulated thanks to its high savings rates can provide the needed economic boost. However, as Mary Hennock reports, without a strong social safety net from the government, China will have a difficult time increasing . From Newsweek:

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in China. But rather than celebrating, officials are in a panic. The global economic crisis has rammed home the message that China’s old export-driven development model won’t work forever; last month exports were down for the first time since February 2002, and overall GDP growth has dropped from nearly 12 percent last year to a projected 8 percent in 2009. Economists and party leaders now agree: the only way to keep China humming is to boost domestic consumption. That means getting Chinese people spending. But there’s a problem. China’s social-security network is broken, badly, and nowhere are the problems worse than in . A serious illness can still wipe out a family’s . As long as that’s the case, ordinary citizens will keep sticking large chunks of their income under their mattresses. And while that lasts, consumer demand will lag.

It’s not that China doesn’t have the money. Just the opposite: Chinese householders currently sit on savings worth $3 trillion, thanks to a savings rate of more than 25 percent, or about 16 percent of GDP—which is higher than all OECD countries, according to the World Bank. In theory, that cash could help China out of its conundrum. “We have a large domestic market. Savings are high, economic reserves are high,” Vice Commerce Minister Yi Xiaozhun told a nervous gathering of elite Chinese entrepreneurs on a recent weekend. The government has already tried to allay fears with a stimulus package worth $586 billion, which Beijing will use to counter the effects of factory closures. But it plans to do this largely through infrastructure spending. According to the cabinet-level National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), some 45 percent of the package will go to projects such as new railways, ports and power stations. Meanwhile, only one percent of the total stimulus spending is pegged for health care, culture and education.

A growing pool of experts argue that that represents a missed opportunity and is unlikely to help China long-term. Huang Ming, a Cornell professor who teaches at Beijing’s Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, sums up a widely held view when he says, “It’s in the interest of the government to develop the social safety net fast. It will stimulate consumption. [Chinese] save because they are frightened of getting sick.” The costs of illness can be ruinous. A better health-care system would unleash domestic spending and thereby boost employment, especially in retail and services. It could even offset the social unrest Chinese leaders fear will come with slower growth. “If you have nationwide health care, people are less likely to go on the street,” says Huang.

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