Masks aside, the crowds in train stations and airports across China this month, as tens of millions criss-crossed the country for the Lunar New Year, were almost indistinguishable from those before the pandemic.
Normalcy is finally returning to China, after years of some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 policies, which were finally, and surprisingly, relaxed in the final weeks of 2022. But as the sense of whiplash – and resulting infections – begins to fade, the question is whether the country can get its economy back on track.
Initial data for 2023 has been positive: On Tuesday, the National Bureau of Statistics said January saw a rebound in economic activity, with the official purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for the manufacturing sector hitting a four-month high of 50.1, up from 47 in December. Any score over 50 indicates growth.
The non-manufacturing PMI, which measures activity in the construction and services sectors, reached 54.4 in January, up from 41.6 the month before and its highest level since June, 2022.
The Lunar New Year period saw a return to near-prepandemic levels of travel and spending. Revenue for the hospitality and tourism sectors was at 80 per cent of 2019 levels, up 130 per cent from 2021, according to official data, with the number of trips also nearly matching prepandemic figures.
Stock markets were closed for the holiday, but have seen a boost this week, with at least one board entering bull market territory as traders reacted to the end of China’s zero-COVID policy and early indications of an economic recovery.
“All indicators point to a relatively healthy recovery,” said Zhu Tian, a professor of economics at the Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School. “The government has put economic growth back at the centre of policy.”
An official GDP target will not be set until a meeting of the National People’s Congress in March, but most expect it to be around 5.5 per cent, similar to last year’s target. GDP fell well short in 2022, however, with the economy officially growing just 3 per cent, the second-lowest rate since the 1970s, and many analysts questioning if it even did that well.
While having the “annus horribilis” of 2022 as a base year will make a 5.5- or even 6.5-per-cent growth target easier to hit, China will continue to face a challenging global environment, with concerns about recession or lacklustre growth in Europe and North America, as well as ongoing geopolitical tensions.
For years, China has sought to build up its domestic markets in order to reduce its reliance on foreign demand. In 2020, President Xi Jinping promised that in the future domestic consumption would play a “dominant role,” and at a meeting of the State Council over the weekend, Premier Li Keqiang called for the restoration of “the structural role of consumption in the economy.”
“The greatest potential of the Chinese economy lies in the consumption by the 1.4 billion people,” Mr. Li said.
That is easier said than done, however, and has been said many times before. Household spending accounted for 38 per cent of Chinese GDP last year, almost half that of the United States. Even with the economic struggles of the pandemic, many Chinese boosted their savings, but they have so far declined to part with that money.
“There’s all this cash sitting in bank accounts,” said Paul Schulte, a Singapore-based analyst and founder of Schulte Research. He noted that there have been “powerful disincentives to spend,” not just the pandemic, but also the poor performance of Chinese stocks and the relative stalling of the real estate market in recent years.
The most obvious way to get that cash out of accounts is to lower interest rates and encourage people to invest their money, but that takes time, said Mr. Schulte, who worked for years as an investment banker in Hong Kong. A short-term solution would be introducing tax or spending incentives, such as vouchers.
According to Caixin, a Chinese financial publication, at least 25 of 31 provincial governments have listed increasing household consumption among their policy goals for 2023, part of their overall growth targets of 5 to 6.5 per cent. Guangdong, the southern province bordering Hong Kong that has long been a manufacturing powerhouse, has set particularly aggressive targets, promising its GDP will exceed three trillion yuan ($590-billion) in 2023, an increase of 6 per cent, with consumption as a major driver.
“It’s impossible to continue competing on land, price and labour,” Guangdong Communist Party chief Huang Kunming said in a speech. “The whole province needs to be aware of this issue.”
Wang Zhenzhong, a former senior economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told The Globe and Mail he expected to see a renewed focus on boosting employment, which dropped over the pandemic and is a particularly acute problem for young people. As part of this, he said, there will likely be more policies geared toward entrepreneurs.
“The biggest concern for both families and individuals in China right now is employment, which will directly affect domestic demand and consumption,” he said.
Prof. Zhu agreed, saying that “if employment goes up and salaries go up, then people’s income will as well, and naturally consumption and domestic demand will increase.” He added that China’s high savings rate was not a negative, as it could help drive domestic investment in the long run, which will reduce dependence on foreign cash.
As well as boosting the domestic market, China’s leaders have sought to reassure foreign investors by tamping down some of the more Marxist rhetoric of recent years. A meeting of the Central Economic Work Conference in December repeatedly emphasized the need for “reform” and “openness,” a message that was echoed by Vice-Premier Liu He in Davos this month, where he promised that “China’s door to the outside will only open wider.”
“More focus will be placed on expanding domestic demand, keeping supply chains stable, supporting the private sector, reforming the state-owned enterprises, attracting foreign investment and preventing economic and financial risks,” Mr. Liu said.
According to an assessment by the New York-based Asia Society Policy Institute, such statements are designed “to assure the private sector that Xi Jinping is not ideologically hostile to its growing role in the Chinese economy and that the Party does not politically prefer state-owned enterprises.”
Even the tech sector, which has been battered by a years-long regulatory and political crackdown that has wiped billions off the valuations of several companies, appears to be exiting the storm. But whether this is enough to restore investor confidence, both domestic and foreign, remains to be seen.
“Do we believe this turn?” Mr. Schulte asked. “I think the answer is: We believe it for now.”
With files from Alexandra Li