Opinion
Keith Crane 22 Jan 2019 03:37pm

China's economic outlook 2019

Marking forty years after former President Deng Xiaoping launched China's opening and reform, 2018 was a landmark year for the country

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Caption: The country is under assault from outside like never before

It was celebrated nationwide, from a sound and light show in the southern city, Shenzhen, where it all began, to an awards ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, honouring all those who have contributed to the success

But as the year changed, so did the mood.

Locked in a bitter trade war with the US and with one of its top company executives – the chief financial officer of Huawei – under arrest in Canada for allegedly breaking Iran sanctions, the country is under assault from outside like never before.

This week it was revealed that China’s economy grew 6.6% in 2018, its slowest pace in almost 30 years – confirming a slowdown in the world’s second largest economy that could threaten global growth.

The full outcome of the trade war will become clearer by March 2nd at the end of a 90 day deadline set between the two countries to resolve their differences. So I spoke to three people in China with their own unique perspectives on what 2019 holds.

Ray Ng

Ray Ng, the founder of corporate services provider, Unipro HK, says the trade war comes on top of key domestic issues.

A member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, his company helps business start-ups on the Chinese mainland and can see at first hand the drop in confidence.

The main threat at home he says is the property bubble, which could burst this year. Prices are already falling in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

"The 2019 magnitude could be even bigger. The trade war is hitting a lot of people. Every sector, [from] factories to big and small retailers. It is gloomy everywhere unless you're only focused on the domestic market. But even there, consumption is also down."

Ng says as the Chinese government tries to move the economy from a reliance on exports to domestic consumption, its hands are tied by the property bubble.

"One of the problems is that young people maybe only earn 5-8000 RMB a month, (£570-912), they have to pay housing costs of 4-5000 RMB a month which doesn't leave a lot for other spending. If the property bubble bursts it will be a good thing in the long term by starting a new economic cycle, although of course it will be bad for a while. But right now there are too many uncertainties."

Figures from numbeo.com show the price of an apartment in the centre of the southern boomtown city of Shenzhen, neighbouring Hong Kong, at 90,000 RMB per square metre (£10,287) in December, compared with £13,265 in inner London. Shenzhen has a price-to-income ratio of 42.47 compared with 20.73 in London.

Steven Shya

Steven Shya, an assistant manager at the China Resources Bank in Shenzhen, says irresponsible personal lending is also a worrying trend.

"There are personal loan companies everywhere now in China offering money to everyone from farmworkers to students on just the presentation of an ID card at interest rates of up to 50% compared with a bank rate of 6%. However there is no personal bankruptcy policy in mainland China, so how to recover the money has become a new business.

"And where there's debt claims there's undoubtedly organised crime and violence."

But despite the clouds on the horizon, the Chinese government is unlikely to be detracted from its long-term projects.

Top of these is the Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-trillion Dollar infrastructure investment to build new roads, railways and ports to create new trade routes from China to the west and beyond. The weekly freight train from the manufacturing city of Yiwu to London is one visible result of the project.

Investment is also flowing into the southern regions and provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan says Ng, building links with neighbouring Vietnam where low-end manufacturing is now moving.

Following the completion of the world's longest sea bridge linking Hong Kong with Zhuhai on the mainland and Macao, the Greater Bay area including Shenzhen is being developed into a high-tech hub with a population of 70 million to rival California's Silicon Valley.

But while Shenzhen-based telecoms giant Huawei comes under increasing western scrutiny, Ng says China will not be deterred.

"There are just too many people here to stop. If Huawei dies, there will soon be another one. In terms of tech innovation, China will be a leading player with companies such as Alibaba (China's all-in-one-equivalent to Amazon and eBay) ploughing on like a supertanker."

Currently, China only lets foreign firms operate in the country with Chinese partners but Ng says this is beginning to change as the country continues to open up.

German carmakers have been among the first to take sole control and he sees the service sector, including accountancy, reforming in due course.

"The big four expanded in China quite a long time ago but they are still not as dominant as local firms but I think the market will open up."

TJ Weber

For a view from the shop floor, I spoke to an American businessman, TJ Weber, who has been running a digital products company in Shenzhen since 2011.

He says the situation for foreign businesses is the worst he's ever known, with staffing recruitment issues, tightening internet restrictions and continuing low-level corruption despite the country's high profile cleanup.

"It's horrible," he says. "I hate it. Part of it is the trade war but the climate for foreign businesses in general is terrible. Many businesses are looking to move out."

Weber closed his factory last year after losses to work instead with suppliers from cheaper locations such as the Philippines and India.

But one incident in particular annoyed him and his wife.

"After we closed the factory we had to apply for a new business license in the local neighbourhood. You cannot bribe anyone else these days, but these quasi-government officials are a law to themselves. It's taken from October to December to get approval which has cost us 2000 RMB (£230).

"We probably weren't paying enough. Every time they came to see us they were just trying to squeeze more money out of us knowing we are a foreign company until finally my wife lost her temper with them.

"My patience with China is now wearing thin."

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