Slowed Growth Reflects China's Uphill Battle

No country has enjoyed more spectacular growth in recent decades than China. But the economy that will one day replace America's as the world's largest also faces a lot of challenges. Guest host David Greene talks to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who was a reporter in China in the '90s and returned to Shanghai for NPR last year.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

No country has enjoyed more spectacular economic growth in recent decades than China. But the economy that will one day replace America as the world's largest also faces a lot of challenges. Last week, China released figures showing that between April and June, the economy grew at its slowest rate in more than three years. And most Chinese economists say the heady days of double-digit growth are almost certainly over.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's Shanghai correspondent and he is spending a few weeks in the United States. And so, I get the rare chance to chat with him in a studio. Frank, thanks for joining us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Great to be here, David.

GREENE: So, you covered China as a newspaper reporter back in the 1990s. You got back for NPR last year. And I guess I wonder what economic changes have you seen in that city, in Shanghai.

LANGFITT: It's stunning. You know, if you were back there in the '90s, you used to walk along the Bund which is this beautiful, British colonial section of town along the river. And it was mostly dark. Nobody was even using much of the waterfront. Today, it's all restaurants. If you walk down Nanjing Road, the biggest shopping center on a Tuesday night, you think you're in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

GREENE: And, Frank, there is this survey out there from the Pew Research Center that showed that more people around the world think that China has is the world's dominant economic power than any other country. And I guess I wonder would people inside China agree with that?

LANGFITT: A good friend of mine likes to say, the closer you get to China, the worse it looks. The Chinese people in particular deserve tremendous credit for what they've done. But the question is what's the future? There's a lot of disconnects. I mean, it's a much more sophisticated society. You have higher percentage of property ownership in China than you do in the States right now, but you have no rule of law. So how do you protect all these gains?

You can read people in the government talk about being caught in the middle income trap. And what they mean by that is we're never going to be a rich country. We're going to be a country where a lot of people make kind of middle income. That's not what young Chinese people expect. All they've ever known is 10 percent growth. They expect they're going to become rich.

In five or 10 years, there may be a lot more unhappy, disappointed people in China, with no way to vent their anger at the way to try to change the system.

GREENE: Are Chinese people trying to get out at an increasing rate, given...

LANGFITT: It's fascinating. If you went back in the '90s, like people who didn't have a lot of money were looking to visas to get out, and may be opportunities in America. Now, it's all the winners who are trying to get out. Two of the biggest banks in China did this survey of their high net worth individuals, that $1.6 million in assets or more - which is a lot of money in China. Sixty percent in both surveys said that they were considering emigrating, maybe in the process of getting a green card.

And they said things like education for their children. You know, everybody in America raves about the Chinese education system. Well, Chinese people want for their kids, they want critical learning, which they can't really quite get in the Chinese system.

They're looking for clean air. And the other thing is they're looking for ways to, frankly, protect their assets 'cause there's no rule of law. And everybody sort of feels there that, you know, if something bad happens or if I get on the wrong side of the government, I could lose all that I've made.

GREENE: But 60 percent, that's a stunning number. And this is 60 percent of people who have made a good amount of money are trying to get out of the country.

LANGFITT: Yeah. And let's say you wanted to discount that. Let's say for some reason those two surveys are off by something. That say it's just 30 percent. You couldn't find that in America. Even though the United States has had a really, really rough time in the last few years, you wouldn't find 30 percent who are thinking about emigrating.

GREENE: We said the days of double-digit growth might be over. Why could that be a problem? Why couldn't China carry on with, you know, 6 or 7 percent growth?

LANGFITT: Six or seven wouldn't be too bad. I think 5 gets kind of scary. China is different than a lot of other economies. Its 1.3 billion people. Real unemployment is anywhere from high single digits to mid-teens. That's a lot of unemployed people. The belief of the regime has always been we need to keep it at about 8 percent to keep the place stable. And, frankly, it's kind of buying off dissent.

If you have more and more people who are unemployed, there are a lot of other gripes they have with the regime, they're more likely to press those gripes as people do anywhere.

GREENE: You'll be returning to China shortly?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I'll be going back later this month.

GREENE: As you look to kind of tell this story of the Chinese economy, what sorts of places will you be visiting to kind of learned about what's going on?

LANGFITT: The economy is driven everything in China. It's the reason that we're talking about it right now, this sort of fabulous growth that has helped so many people. But the only way this regime stays on track - and the country, frankly, stay stable, which the U.S. has a real interest in, is if they can figure a future for their economy. And one that distributes wealth more evenly. A system that also controls corruption, 'cause corruption really has people very upset now in China.

GREENE: You said something that caught my interest. The U.S. has a real interest in a stable China.

LANGFITT: Absolutely, I mean, when I went there may be the Chinese economy was the size of the Italian economy. It was like eighth or something, now it's the second-largest economy in the world. It's bigger than Japan and Germany. It plays a very important role. It's very important that this country remain stable and pretty prosperous.

I think the entire world has a stake in this country in a way that wasn't necessarily true 10, 15 years ago.

GREENE: Frank Langfitt, NPR's Shanghai correspondent, making a rare appearance at our studios here in Washington. Frank, thanks. Good to see you.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

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