China's Tricky Economic Transition: From Steel Mills To E-Commerce : Parallels Shanghai's stock market rose Friday and investors are relieved. That doesn't change the fact that China's economy is undergoing a wrenching transition away from manufacturing, with more pain to come.
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China's Tricky Economic Transition: From Steel Mills To E-Commerce

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China's Tricky Economic Transition: From Steel Mills To E-Commerce

China's Tricky Economic Transition: From Steel Mills To E-Commerce

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After a huge drop in the past couple of weeks, Shanghai stocks rose for the second day in a row. Now, for many, that's a relief, but China's economy has a long way to go. It's in the midst of wrenching transition, from an economy based on investment and manufacturing to a higher income one built on services and consumer spending. As NPR's Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt reports, the stakes are high - not just for China, but for the rest of the world.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Economic growth is slowing in China in a way it hasn't in a long time.

ARTHUR KROEBER: I think you have to be honest and say, look, there are big, big chunks of the economy that are in recession right now.

LANGFITT: This is Arthur Kroeber, head of research at Gavekal Dragonomics, a Beijing-based research firm. And he used a word you almost never hear in China - recession. He says the impact on China's coalfields and rustbelt are already painful and will get worse.

KROEBER: That will create unemployment problems. It will create bankruptcy problems. It'll create non-performing loan problems.

LANGFITT: Kroeber says China's shifting away from an economy built on things like investment in infrastructure and housing.

KROEBER: The big deal has been that China, for years, was just in this incredible housing boom. Every year, they were building more units than the year before. Basically what happened was that people said, oh, well, we're going to keep going up (laughter) forever. So people built too many steel plants and too many cement plants and too much of everything. And then it stopped growing.

LANGFITT: Faced with falling demand and too much capacity, mines have shut down in western China. And, Kroeber says, in the country's northeastern rustbelt...

KROEBER: ...Instead of the steel plant or whatever closing down, they'll put their workers on, like, one or two day a week shifts.

LANGFITT: That's all part of a punishing, if inevitable, path to a new economy. Where some analysts in the West see calamity, though, Andy Rothman sees progress. Rothman's a longtime China economist and investment analyst with Matthews Asia.

ANDY ROTHMAN: People just don't seem to understand how much change has happened in the Chinese economy. So you can go to China's rustbelt and say that manufacturing or construction-related industries are doing quite poorly - which they are - but you also have to pay attention to the consumer and services part of the economy, which is doing quite well, and the fact that income growth in China, adjusted for inflation, is still rising by 7 percent.

LANGFITT: Andy Rothman's right, consumption is a bright spot in this economy. And, in fact, if you want to get a sense of it, you just come to a place like Super Brand Mall, where I am right now. It's in the heart of the financial district. It's eight stories high. And it's noon and the place is packed. I'm watching people going up and down the escalators all the way up to the top where the IMAX movie theater is. I've passed restaurants where there are lines outside. So even with all that's going wrong with China's economy and the market, people - at least in big cities like Shanghai - are still out spending.

But making China's economy a lot more like Shanghai and a lot less like the country's rustbelt won't be easy. And for one thing, consumer spending isn't growing fast enough yet to replace the old economy, and analysts say the government needs to give up monopolies in finance and telecom and create a freer environment for innovation to boost growth.

Xu Bin is a professor of economics and finance at the China Europe International Business School here in Shanghai.

XU BIN: You know that innovation cannot be planned. Innovation has to be done by people. And so you need to really allow people to think more freely, to have more intellectual property rights. And all this would require the government to abandon certain targeted, you know, favored, you know, sectors.

LANGFITT: Is this, fundamentally, attention over control?

BIN: I think so, I think so.

LANGFITT: Arthur Kroeber says the government next needs to begin laying off millions from state-owned industry in the northeast. He's not certain officials, who traditionally fear economic unrest, are prepared to do that, but the cost of failing to do so could be dire.

KROEBER: We could wind up in a situation like, essentially, what Japan was in in the '90s, where they never do it, and China winds up growing at a very slow rate and all of these stories about China taking over the world go away.

LANGFITT: If China's economy slows dramatically, that would be awful for much of the rest of the world, which has come to depend on China for so much of global growth. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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