Is the Manchurian Recession over?

China’s provinces are reporting economic data for the first half of 2017, and the long-suffering northeastern provinces, where the recent economic downturn was most severe, are putting up some better numbers. The main exception is Liaoning, but this is because an anti-corruption investigation found that the province had inflated some statistics and forced them to be marked down–however the historical figures haven’t been revised so growth rates don’t make any sense right now. While Liaoning’s numbers look worse than the others, in reality it’s probably doing the same or better.

manchurian-recession

The downturn in the northeast prompted a national-level effort to boost growth in the region, so the pickup is getting a lot of attention. At least one article declaring the “worst is over” for the northeast has appeared in print, and this cautiously optimistic tone is common in official channels. Here is how, Sun Donghai, the director of the Anhui provincial Development Research Center, summarized the situation:

In the technology-intensive regions, represented by Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shanghai, economic growth is stable, and there is a lot of momentum for both upgrading traditional industry and developing new industries. … Regions heavily dependent on natural resources, such as the three northeastern provinces, Shanxi, and Hebei, are facing great pressure to transition, but developing new growth drivers will require a long time. At the same time, we can see some positive changes, some resource-dependent provinces have reversed the declining trend since 2013, and economic growth has bottomed out and recovered. Jilin’s GDP grew 5.9% [in the first quarter] for a stable start to the year: economic growth has returned to an appropriate range, and has started to move on a normal track.

A more in-depth view of official thinking comes from Fan Hengshan, a deputy secretary-general of the National Development and Reform Commission who has traveled frequently to the northeast. In May he gave a lengthy interview on the northeast to the China Economic Times. He starts out in the conventional way, attributing the improving indicators to the government’s supportive policies for the region, but also noting the recovery of commodity prices (more significant in my view):

The government’s implementation of the new round of the northeast revitalization strategy is now taking effect, objectively speaking it has provided an effective policy environment and systemic support for the stabilization of the northeastern economy. At the same time, the rollout of supply-side structural reform has had a clear impact on the internal dynamism of economic growth. Following the implementation of supply-side structural reform and the stabilization of international commodity prices, industries that are significant for the northeast, like oil, coal, and steel, gradually returned to stability. For resource-dependent and single-industry cities this alleviated the severe mismatch between fiscal revenues and expenditures.

While maintaining the requisite note of optimism, Fan’s discussion of the problems in the northeast’s economy focuses on deep-rooted structural issues that seem quite difficult to solve. Here are some excerpts (my translation):

The problems faced by the northeast are, on the surface, caused by a lack of external demand and weakness in investment. In fact, they are the manifestation of the institutional, systemic and structural problems of an old industrial base.

From the institutional perspective, the northeast region’s level of marketization is still insufficient compared with the developed eastern region. The decisive role of market mechanisms has not been fully developed, and efforts at economic development still have a pronounced administrative tone. The historical burdens of state-owned enterprises are heavy, their vitality is insufficient, and a modern system of enterprise operation and governance has not been completely established. The old problems of incentives and restraints for state-owned enterprises have not been completely eliminated. Development of the private sector is insufficient, and the spirit of entrepreneurship in society is weak. The northeast has a strong foundation in education and science, but these scientific resources cannot be effectively transformed into real activity.

In terms of economic and industrial structure, out of the three growth drivers of investment, exports and consumption, the northeast’s economy is excessively reliant on investment. The investment rate is too high and the efficiency of investment is relatively low, and this kind of growth model is not sustainable. The industrial structure is not adapted to market demand: the leading industries are mainly the investment-facing sectors of energy, raw materials and heavy equipment manufacturing, while new emerging industries are small and undeveloped. Many cities have undiversified industrial structures with only a single pillar industry or two interrelated industries. From the perspective of industrial organization, there are many gigantic enterprises but few small and medium-sized enterprises. A development model based on industrial clusters and the integration of large, medium and small enterprises has not yet formed.

It’s interesting that Fan talks about the northeast in the same way that many foreigners talk about China: the problem is obvious, their economy is too dependent on investment and state-owned enterprises are stifling the vitality of the private sector. It’s all relative I guess.

But the northeast has an additional burden: people are leaving in droves, and companies can’t get them to stay (see my previous post on the emerging demographic crisis in the northeast). Here is more from Fan:

Many enterprises and research institutions in the northeast have told me that in recent years it has gotten more difficult to attract and retain personnel. Some graduates of top universities choose to go elsewhere for jobs, and some local technical and management personnel also leave the northeast to seek better job opportunities.

The northeast still has a “big government, small market” environment, where local governments are still directly allocating resources and micromanaging. This kind of system is a constraint on the development of enterprises and people. Particularly in recent years companies in many traditionally strong industries and sectors have encountered difficulties, so the salary, benefits and career development opportunities they can offer are pretty limited compared to companies in the east. Objectively speaking, their ability to attract mid- to high-level staff has declined.

In addition to salary considerations, people are also increasingly looking at a city’s level of modernization, the convenience of its transport, and social, cultural, ecological and other “soft” environmental factors. It is worth noting that some local governments and businesspeople report that, because the northeast’s winter is cold and long, the low temperatures are increasingly becoming a reason for some people to choose not to stay in the northeast and work. This creates many challenges for high-tech enterprises in the northeast to attract talent, and some companies have no choice but to set up branch offices in the south in order to attract high-level staff.

This all rings true: the northeast  has a brutal climate and a closed economy where it is difficult to get ahead if you don’t have government connections or an SOE job. This is, in my experience, more or less what Chinese people from the northeast say about their home–it is no mystery why they leave.

So I would lean toward viewing the current recovery in the northeast as reflecting the recovery in commodity prices more than anything else–although if China’s government can succeed in keeping prices stable with its many interventions into commodity demand and supply (policies that go by the somewhat deceptive moniker of “supply-side reform”) that unquestionably will help these provinces.

More broadly, I think the current regional problems in the northeast are another reason to see China’s SOE reforms of the late 1990s and early 2000s as incomplete and only partially successful (see a previous post on this topic). The northeast felt the brunt of the layoffs of that era, but once the commodity boom evaporated so did many of the apparent improvements. Here is a nice piece of oral history that gives a worker’s-eye view of the trajectory of a major SOE in Heilongjiang:

It was with honor that a sprightly 19-year-old Wang Dianyu heeded the central government’s call and joined the ranks of China’s heavy industry workers. Almost 60 years later, his eyes still glow with the pride of having worked for one of his country’s largest state-owned factory groups: China First Heavy Industries (CFHI).

Founded soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, CFHI was a beacon of the country’s industrial ambition, churning out gigantic pieces of machinery both civilian and military from its base in Fularji, a district in Heilongjiang’s second-biggest city, Qiqihar. “We had a lot of catching up to do,” Wang tells Sixth Tone of China’s then-inferiority compared to the might of international rivals. “Heavy industry is the backbone of a country.”

Today, that backbone is buckling. Economic growth in the industrial northeast, once fondly known as “the Republic’s eldest son,” is slowing, and an era of overproduction for the region’s heavy industries has given way to rampant borrowing. For the 2016 fiscal year, CFHI reported losses of 5.73 billion yuan (around $850 million), compared with 2015’s loss of 1.8 billion yuan and 2014’s loss of 25.7 million yuan; it is now scrambling to pay back debt by selling off shares to its parent company, China First Heavy Industries Group Co. Ltd.

CFHI’s troubles were compounded in 2015 when its chairman, Wu Shengfu, died suddenly just weeks after the state’s anti-corruption watchdog launched an investigation into CFHI’s parent company. Some news outlets at the time quoted sources stating that he was found hanging in his office, a detail that was downplayed in later state media reports. The anti-graft investigation discovered a number of infractions, including mismanagement of state funding, violations of recruitment procedure, and “indifference toward Party principles.”

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