Chinese economic growth slows as population declines and Marvel returns : The Indicator from Planet Money What's up with China's GDP, what's down with China's population numbers, and what Marvel's return tells us. Indicators from China to bring in the Lunar New Year.

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, “WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong, here with Darian Woods.

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

Hey. Hey.

WONG: And Adrian Ma.

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

Hey.

WONG: And it is time for indicators of the week.

MA: (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WONG: And today I brought something special for you guys.

WOODS: Wow. OK, what do we have?

WONG: It's a red envelope.

MA: Oh.

WOODS: Thank you.

WONG: (Non-English language spoken).

MA: So you've pulled out a lucky red envelope. And, well, I think I know why, but why don't you tell the people?

WONG: Well, it is Lunar New Year this weekend. And so a tradition for Chinese New Year is to hand out these red envelopes with cash to give as gifts to people.

MA: Lucky money, which is - which begs the question, Wailin, how much did you get us?

WONG: Let me see what's inside. Oh, it's empty.

MA: Oh (laughter).

WONG: 'Cause this is...

MA: OK.

WONG: How about instead of cash, I bring you stories about the world's second largest economy - China?

WOODS: Yes. Today on the show, we have indicators of Chinese GDP, its population, which is doing strange things at the moment, and also something for folks to marvel at on the silver screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: Adrian Ma, start us off.

MA: OK. My indicator is 3%, and 3% is how much China's economy grew last year in 2022, which makes last year the second slowest year for economic growth in China in about 4 1/2 decades.

WOODS: That is a lot of decades.

MA: Yeah. With the exception of 2020, last year was the slowest year for China's economy since 1976, the year that Mao Zedong died.

WONG: Oh, wow.

MA: It's a long period of time.

WOODS: Right - a different era.

WONG: And just to be clear, when you say economy, you're talking about GDP - right? - gross domestic product.

MA: Right - using those two kind of interchangeably here. For some historical context, the past decade before the pandemic, China typically saw its gross domestic product grow by, like, 6-, 7-, 8% each year. That took a dip in 2020 for obvious reasons. The GDP in China went down to about 2% growth. In 2021, it seemed like they were making a comeback, right? It sprung back up to 8%. And then last year, the economy ground to a slowdown again. Any guesses as to why?

WOODS: COVID zero.

MA: Bingo. So this was a huge drag on China's economy for the past year. Their zero COVID policy meant they were locking down apartment buildings and businesses and even whole ports and cities. Obviously, it was harder for people to go about living their lives and, you know, go shopping and go to work and all that. But also, it was harder for China-based companies to deliver their products to the rest of the world or for foreign-based companies to deal in China.

WONG: And, you know, recently we've seen the government do this big about-face, and it now has dropped its zero COVID policy. But then I feel like it just led to more problems 'cause now they're having this really scary outbreak.

MA: Right. And according to the Chinese government's official numbers, 60,000 people died last month. But the actual number is probably a lot worse. The World Health Organization has accused China of underrepresenting how bad things are getting there. And so a lot of people think this will continue to weigh on China's economy for at least the next few months. And how long this lasts actually has implications for the rest of the globe. And so what some economists and financial analysts are looking for is that if China can pull through COVID, the economic bounce back that it experiences could actually act as a sort of counterweight to a slumping global economy, you know, sort of pull the rest of us along.

WONG: OK. So GDP is still growing but slowing down. My indicator is about China's population, which is actually going down. So my indicator is 1.4 billion people. That is the population of China as of the end of 2022. And compared with 2021, the Chinese population is down 850,000 people. The government released these figures this week.

MA: Now, you say it's decline, but, like, 1.4 billion people sounds - still sounds like a ton of people, right? Like...

WONG: Are you Googling?

MA: I am actually - I'm Googling this right now. And that's about 18% of the planet.

WONG: Yeah. I mean, China and India are, like, neck and neck in terms of which one is the most populous country on the planet. But this population decline is really significant because the last time that it was believed China had population decline was over 50 years ago. So this marks a really big moment and maybe a big turning point that could have consequences for both their domestic economy and the world economy. This aging population requires having, you know, social safety nets and a good pension system and have, like, all of the supports that older people will need as they keep aging.

WOODS: All right. And I guess we're seeing this all over the world with people aging, living longer? This is all great news, but our model kind of relies on younger people supporting them.

WONG: Yes. Like, many countries are dealing with this now. China, of course, stands out because decades ago it tried to limit population growth by implementing the one-child policy. So that was in the late '70s and early '80s. And it got relaxed in 2016, but it wasn't enough to keep this massive demographic shift from happening.

WOODS: Right. And it's not just China itself that this has implications for. But, you know, the cliche is that China is the world's factory, and the world's factory had this young workforce.

WONG: Exactly. And then those same workers are also the consumers that the rest of the world needs to buy, you know, Nike sneakers and iPhones and Louis Vuitton bags.

MA: So China has relaxed its one-child policy, but it looks like that is not enough. Are they, like, trying anything else to encourage, you know, people to have babies?

WONG: Yeah. So one barrier that keeps people from having more children is rising costs for things like childcare and housing. So in China, some local governments have expanded how much maternity leave moms can get. And the city of Shenzhen is giving subsidies to couples who have a third child. But, you know, we have to wait and see whether these individual measures will add up to be enough or whether the government will try something kind of even bigger.

MA: OK. So, so far, we have two, slightly ominous China economic indicators. But Darian, I think yours maybe the happy ending that we're hoping for on this Friday.

WOODS: That's right - a Hollywood ending. I am talking about Marvel, and my indicator is two, as in two Marvel movies are going to start playing in Chinese theaters next month. We've got the new "Black Panther" movie as well as this upcoming film with Ant-Man and the Wasp. And I'm going to argue that this is a very important and big indicator. You know, China is, of course, a big market for Hollywood. It makes up around 10- or 20% of Marvel box office movie revenue when it has been allowed in the past. But to me, this indicator is important because of what it says geopolitically. It's been years since the last Marvel movie was approved in China. At the time, it was the Spider-Man movie in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME")

TOM HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) MJ, I...

ZENDAYA: (As MJ) Am Spider-Man?

HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) No. Of course I'm not.

WOODS: And, look, it wasn't, like, an official ban. It was kind of just these movies just weren't getting approved by the authorities in China. So let's just call it a de facto ban. And it likely had a few reasons behind it - like, Beijing was trying to grow the local Chinese movie-making industry, LGBTQ references the authorities didn't like, stars and directors were speaking out against China's human rights records. Behind all this was the backdrop of rising tensions between China and the U.S. So, you know, climactic scenes of Spider-Man in front of the Statue of Liberty didn't go down very well with a Chinese Communist Party that was messaging the superiority of its authoritarian system compared with the West's.

MA: So what did they have to do? Have they, like, digitally changed that?

WONG: They put Chairman Mao's face on the Statue of Liberty.

MA: (Laughter).

WOODS: Yeah, no. For that particular movie, they did nothing, and so it didn't get approved. But, you know, there has been this reversal, and I personally don't think it's a coincidence that it's coming out at the same time that China has abandoned its policy of trying to stamp out COVID-19. A number of commentators are saying that Marvel coming back is one symbol that China is reopening for global business. We're seeing China quietly start allowing Australian coal imports again after unofficially banning that for the last two years. And just this Wednesday, Janet Yellen met with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, and the dialogue was reportedly constructive, like, an improvement over the last few years. And so whether this trend continues is anybody's guess. But it's at least hopeful for international trade and for cooperation that people from China and the U.S. can sit in the same room, and they can share ideas and movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "MARVEL STUDIOS INTRO")

MA: All right. Well, that is a wrap for another indicators of the week. Happy year of the rabbit/cat, everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: This show was produced by Brittany Cronin with engineering by Katherine Silva. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR's a production of NPR.

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