Dr. P.V. Viswanath
The hidden costs of state capitalism
The Economist, Sept. 3rd, 2011
AFTER a deadly high-speed train crash in Zhejiang province in July, the authorities sent bulldozers to bury the wreckage. The crash was an embarrassment; a reminder that China’s state-directed rush to modernise has involved cut corners, shoddy safety standards and a staggering amount of corruption. That contradicted the official storyline, in which China has become the world’s second-largest economy thanks to the Communist Party’s wise guidance. Rather than grapple with awkward counter-evidence, the party tried to bury it.
No wonder it is so hard to judge China’s state-led economic model. The government’s actions lie hidden beneath hundreds of tonnes of secrecy, and beyond easy measurement. But as our briefing this week makes clear, China’s semi-privatised companies are both more varied and less admirable than is popularly understood.
Under Mao, it was simple. The government controlled everything and ran it into the ground. Those days are gone. Since 1993 Beijing has encouraged gaizhi for state-owned enterprises, which means “changing the system”. Between 1995 and 2001 the number of state-owned and state-controlled enterprises fell by nearly two-thirds, from 1.2m to 468,000, and the proportion of urban workers employed in the state sector fell by nearly half, from 59% to 32%. Yet gaizhi is not simply a euphemism for “privatisation”; it has also created a variety of public-private hybrids.
At one end of the spectrum are the giant state-controlled enterprises in industries which the government considers “strategic”, such as banking, telecoms or transport. Such firms may have sold minority stakes to private investors, but they operate more or less like government ministries. Examples include China Construction Bank, a huge backer of infrastructure projects, and China Mobile, a big mobile-phone carrier.
Next come the joint ventures between private (often foreign) companies and Chinese state-backed entities. Typically, the foreign firm brings technology and its Chinese partner provides access to the Chinese market. Joint ventures are common in fields such as carmaking, logistics and agriculture.
A third group of firms appears to be fully private, in that the government owns no direct stake in them. Their bosses are not political appointees, and they are rewarded for commercial success rather than meeting political goals. But they are still subject to frequent meddling. If they are favoured, state-controlled banks will provide them with cheap loans and bureaucrats will nobble their foreign competitors. Such meddling is common in areas such as energy and the internet.
A fourth flavour of Chinese firm is fuelled by investment by local government, often through municipally owned venture-capital or private-equity funds. These funds typically back businesses that dabble in clean tech or hire locals.
These firms with their various sorts of state influence have several strengths. They invest patiently, unruffled by the short-term demands of the stockmarket. They help the government pursue its long-term goals, such as finding alternatives to fossil fuels. They build the roads, bridges, dams, ports and railways that China needs to sustain its rapid economic growth.
Crowding out the true bamboo capitalists
But statism has big costs, too. The first is corruption. When local bigwigs can award contracts to firms which they themselves control, graft spreads like bird flu. Sometimes well-connected shell firms take a fat cut and then pass the real work on to subcontractors, with scant regard for standards. The second problem is that big state-backed enterprises crowd out small entrepreneurial ones. They gobble up capital that China’s genuinely private firms could use far more efficiently, amassing bad debts that will eventually cause China big trouble. They rig the game in other ways, too, enjoying privileged access to land and permits. Small private firms are often unsure whether what they do is even legal. The rise of local-government venture funds creates yet more opportunities for abuse. Some of these funds will invest wisely, but many will pursue non-commercial goals, from job creation to crony enrichment.
None of this has stopped China from growing at a dizzying pace. But the quality of growth matters too, as the middle-class protesters in Zhejiang indicate (see article). China’s leaders should beware the hidden costs of state capitalism.