The strange case of China’s self-employment statistics

It is a well-known habit of Chinese government officials to pepper their public remarks with statistics. Very occasionally, this habit leads to the disclosure of some new information. At a press conference early this year, a deputy director of the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), which among other responsibilities handles the legal registration of businesses, waxed enthusiastic about the rapid growth in small businesses–specifically getihu, meaning individual businesses or sole proprietorships. In the process, he dropped some big numbers:

The Party Central Committee and the State Council attach great importance to the development of individual businesses. By the end of 2021, the number of registered individual businesses nationwide had reached 103 million, accounting for two-thirds of the total number of market entities. Passing 100 million is a historic breakthrough. Among them, 90% are concentrated in the service industry, mainly in wholesale and retail, accommodation and catering and residential services.

According to a survey, the average number of people employed by individual businesses is 2.68 people. Based on this survey, it is estimated that individual businesses nationwide provide employment for 276 million people in our country. This is very impressive.

The last two figures cited by Pu Chun are indeed very impressive: 276 million people is 37% of the nationwide employed population, an extraordinary figure. Employment by sole proprietorships, which basically means self-employment, is the most internationally comparable way of measuring informal employment. It is, for instance, the measure adopted in a recent World Bank report, The Long Shadow of Informality, which collates and compares worldwide data on the informal economy. If the SAMR figures are correct, they would indicate that self-employment and thus informal employment in China are much more prevalent than previously thought.

Prior to SAMR’s announcement, the government had not published a figure for the number of people employed by sole proprietorships for the past two years. The last published estimate by the National Bureau of Statistics was that sole proprietorships employed 177 million people as of 2019, equivalent to 23.4% of the employed population. As SAMR reported 83 million registered getihu that year, those figures imply that sole proprietorships employ an average of 2.14 people each. The most accurate estimate is probably from the 2018 economic census, a massive effort to enumerate all businesses in China conducted every five years, which counted 149 million people employed by getihu, or 21.2% of the workforce; the census figure of 63 million getihu works out to an average of 2.37 people each.

The SAMR survey cited by Pu Chun, about which no other information was disclosed, therefore implies that either roughly 100 million people moved from formal employment to self-employment in two years; or that all previous estimates of self-employment had somehow missed around 100 million people and that SAMR, an agency with no previous experience in collating employment statistics, had gotten it right. Neither of these possibilities is very likely.

SAMR itself holds the administrative records for business registrations, so there is no reason to doubt its count of the number of sole proprietorships. But its survey showing average employment of 2.68 people, 25% more than the historical data, is hard to believe. Given the recent increase in gig workers such as delivery drivers, many of whom are independent contractors registered as sole proprietorships, it’s more likely that the average number of employees per getihu is falling not rising. China’s 103 million sole proprietorships do probably employ well over 200 million people, but the 276 million figure is implausible.

What is somewhat mysterious is why SAMR officials would wish to exaggerate the extent of self-employment in China in this way. A high degree of self-employment is usually considered a sign of a less developed economy; to quote the World Bank report, “countries with larger informal sectors have lower per capita incomes, greater poverty, less developed financial sectors, and weaker growth in output, investment, and productivity.” The World Bank uses the economic census figure of 21.2% of China’s workforce being self-employed; that puts China right along the trend line of a cross-country comparison (see the chart below reproduced from the report). If instead 37% of China’s workforce is self-employed, as SAMR effectively claims, then China would actually be an international outlier with an unusually high level of informality for its level of income. Having a very high level of self-employment doesn’t actually make China look better in a global context.

The best explanation is domestic political incentives. Over the past several years, Premier Li Keqiang has waged a campaign to improve the environment for small businesses, and he never misses a chance to talk about how important they are to the Chinese economy. Li has also implemented several measures that have lowered the costs and simplified the procedure for registering businesses. Their most dramatic effect has been in new registrations of getihu, which have surged to 9-10 million per year from 5-6 million previously (see my previous post, What’s behind China’s boom in company formation?).

Since SAMR, as the agency in charge of business registrations, can take credit for this increase, it has some incentive to claim that its efforts are benefiting the economy by creating jobs. As the National Bureau of Statistics has, for whatever reason, stopped publishing the standard data on self-employment, SAMR has an open field to put its own numbers out there. The size of self-employment has thus become a figure by which SAMR can advertise its administrative accomplishments rather than an objective tool for analyzing the structure of the labor market.

It’s a pity that the it is becoming harder to understand the evolution of China’s labor market, as the changes in recent years have been dramatic. The rise in self-employment is part of a trend of polarization: there has been relatively low growth in high-paying manufacturing and service jobs and lots of growth in worse-paid labor-intensive service jobs. The key text documenting this shift is an open-access paper by Scott Rozelle and several co-authors: “Moving Beyond Lewis: Employment and Wage Trends in China’s High- and Low-Skilled Industries and the Emergence of an Era of Polarization,” much of which is also summarized in a useful CSIS briefing.

Even if the share of self-employment is not as high as SAMR claims, it has still been rising over time. Based on available data, I estimate it was about 29% in 2021, up sharply from just 17% in 2016; however, there’s a lot of uncertainty about this estimate because much of the recent surge in registered sole proprietorships could be an administrative rather than real phenomenon. Nonetheless, the trend is clearly the opposite of what one would normally expect to happen as China, already an upper-middle-income country, gets closer to high-income status.

Lessons from Hall Overton

I knew the name Hall Overton from Thelonious Monk records: he was the arranger on Monk’s two large-ensemble recordings, At Town Hall and Big Band and Quartet In Concert. But I didn’t know anything else about him when I next came across his name, in Steve Reich’s new book Conversations, which transcribes chats with various friends and collaborators.

It turns out that Overton was an important music teacher and figure in the cross-pollination of musical worlds that was happening in the 1950s and 1960s. It makes sense that Reich, whose minimalism was in part an effort to recreate some of the dynamism of jazz and other musics in formal composition, would have studied with Overton, who was one of the first musicians to engage seriously and on equal terms with both jazz and the European tradition.

Reich thought very highly of Overton as a human being and a musician, and I particularly liked this anecdote about his lessons:

Steve Reich: I remember the very first day Hall gave me a compositional exercise to do. He said, “I want you to write some melodies,” and he went into my music notebook and drew it in pencil: “Write a melody that goes like this, down, another that goes up, and a third that goes straight.”

I looked at him, because this was the very, very beginning, and I said, “Hall, I don’t think I have enough technique.” And he looked me right in the eye and said, “You’ll never have enough technique. Get to work.”

David Lang: (laughs) Oh, that’s such a great lesson.

SR: Isn’t that wonderful? I mean, it’s still true.

DL: It’s still true.

SR: I’m gonna die and think, “Ugh, I was just getting started.”

DL: That’s like every composer’s great fear, you know? “There are things I wish I could do, but I’ll never be good enough to be able to do them.”

SR: So, best to do what you can do and get on with it. Because you’ll do that well, and who knows, you could get better.

DL: Yes.

That strikes me as pretty good advice for everyone, not just composers.

Ethan Iverson has also written a typically interesting and in-depth appreciation of Overton’s own compositions; he doesn’t claim that they are lost masterpieces but judges that he “successfully harnessed some of the jazz scene’s incandescent energy for the realm of fully notated formal composition.”

Robots in Chinese literature circa 1902

The concept of the “robot,” a mechanical replacement for a human worker, seems to have been one of those things that was just in the air at the turn of the twentieth century, across the world. As is now well known, the English word was coined by the Czech writer Karel Capek (who credited his brother Josef for the inspiration, from the Czech word robota, forced labor). In the interesting short article, “Techno-Utopias And Robots In China’s Past Futures” in the new, free anthology Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour, Craig A. Smith details the early history of robots in Chinese literature, which is not completely unlike the Western science fiction of the day. Here are some excerpts:

The idea of animated or mechanical humanoid servants and labourers appeared in classical Chinese texts. Mozi, a utilitarian philosopher active in the fifth century BCE, even created mechanical birds and beasts, and is now the namesake of a technology company. However, the concept of a ‘machine-man’ (机器人, the modern Chinese word for robot) only made its way from elite texts into the popular imagination towards the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Around the turn of the century, the entire world became fascinated with the idea of humanoid automatons and their potential for labour. The most memorable example of this in the West is the Tin Woodman from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), a depressed cyborg lumberjack yearning for a heart. Chinese fiction was in step and introduced labour automatons but with decidedly Chinese characteristics. In 1905 and 1906, the newspaper Southern News serialised a lengthy novel by Wu Jianren entitled The New Story of the Stone (新石头记).

Although other Chinese science fiction writers penned stories with automatons at the time, Wu’s novel was a wonderland, its plot following Jia Baoyu, the protagonist of the eighteenth-century Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), China’s most famous novel, into a twentieth-century technological utopia. Passing through a technological device called a ‘civilisation mirror’ (文明镜), Jia enters this utopia and is immediately served tea by a talking automaton ‘boy’ servant. The journey then proceeds through a melange of advanced technologies, including flying machines and submarines.

It might have been around this time that Kang Youwei wrote the Book of Great Unity (大同书). The complete volume did not appear in regular print until 1935, eight years after his death, leading to controversy and numerous studies on the dating of the text. Tang Zhijun’s extensive research has shown that Kang most likely finished his manuscript in 1902, a finding corroborated by Wang Hui.

Building on a few short chapters from [the Confucian classic] The Book of Rites (礼记), and contextualising these ideas within the modern reality of nation-states and new political economies, Kang envisioned a future world with no suffering. He saw robots playing an important role in his Confucian utopia, yet his position as a member of the literati class shaped his understanding of how robots would bring an end to the traditional hierarchies: ‘There will be no slaves or servants, but their functions will be performed by machines, shaped like birds and beasts.’

Kang imagined that ‘in the time of the Great Peace, there will be no suffering. Labourers will only find enjoyment.’ This will be possible because they will only put their skills to use in creating works of
art, as the heavy lifting will all be done by robots. Like H.G. Wells, Kang saw technological advancements bringing an end to toil and opening the door to universal leisure: ‘One will order by telephone, and food will be conveyed by mechanical devices—possibly a table will rise up from the kitchen below, through a hole in the floor. On the four walls will be lifelike, “protruding paintings”.’

This great trust in the emancipatory potential of science continued throughout the twentieth century, and revolutionaries, including Mao Zedong in his youth, found Kang’s work inspirational. However, largely
due to his promotion of constitutional monarchy, Kang is now remembered as a conservative opponent of revolution.

What’s unprecedented about China

I’ve been struck recently by how often Western observers are describing China’s current political-economic-social model as unprecedented. The first example comes from the eminent economic historian Joel Mokyr, in a very good interview with Allison Schrager. Although China is not the main topic of their discussion, she does ask him this question: “Do you think the culture they have now is conducive to innovation?”:

That is a really hard question and I go back and forth on it. But my sense . . . I was in China about 12 years ago and I taught a long course in Shanghai at Fudan, and at that time I actually would’ve answered that they could. I would’ve been very bullish about China. It was before the authoritarian crackdown of Xi Jinping, and I become more skeptical about China because I actually think that a society that penalizes people for thinking in ways that are not convenient to the government, those societies in the end will not be nearly as creative as societies in which there’s some freedom of thought in which the government basically shrugs and takes an agnostic view, and you can say and think whatever you want. If the market for ideas accepts your idea, good. If they don’t, that’s your problem, and we’re not going to put you in jail for saying things to annoy us.

Now, that wasn’t the case in Stalin’s Russia or in Brezhnev’s Russia for that, and as a result, they fell behind radically behind the West in this 1970s, 1980s, and eventually their system collapsed. What China is trying to do is to have it both ways, to let people think relatively free about things that are technical and don’t matter, and suppress people who come up with social-political ideas, which they don’t like. And whether that model actually works, I am doubtful about, but the truth is we haven’t actually tried anything like that in human history. It has nothing really to go by.

I mean, in Stalin’s Russia it wasn’t just social and political ideas were suppressed, they actually took an active interest in science, and they basically decided what science was good, what science was bad. The same was true for a shorter time, with similar results, of Hitler’s Germany. They suppressed large amounts of physics because it was Jewish science. I mean, if you start thinking like that you are going to fall behind.

The economist Chang-Tai Hsieh takes a different angle, in a very interesting short piece called “Two Strong Hands: China’s Vision for the Private Sector” that analyzes the “the political foundation for China’s support of the private sector” (there is also a video presentation on the themes of the article that is worth watching). In it he tries to explain the apparent contradiction between the government’s crackdown on large companies and its support for small ones:

The Party has targeted large private firms, not because of a desire to return to Mao’s socialist economic vision, but due to fear that their growing power threatens Party control. At the same time, there is a widespread recognition that without a vibrant private sector, the economy will wither and the Party cannot survive. The result is what I call a strategy of using “two strong hands”: The first involves eliminating all threats to the Party’s control, while the second lends support to private firms that serve its interests by delivering growth, jobs and innovation — without becoming too powerful.

The default view of Chinese economic reformers is that the ‘two strong hands’ strategy will not work long-term, because total Party control will eventually undermine the market economy. Smaller companies might stop investing to grow, for fear of becoming ‘too big’ and hence finding themselves in the Party’s firing line. In this view, the ‘two strong hands’ are thus fundamentally incompatible.

The default view of Western political scientists is similar, albeit coming from a different angle. They would argue that the ‘two strong hands’ will come into conflict with each other, as millions of entrepreneurs and a rising middle class will eventually threaten the Party’s control of the political sphere.

Whether or not the ‘two strong hands’ can co-exist successfully is ultimately an empirical question. If the Chinese economy can maintain its private-sector driven growth momentum while the Party consolidates its power, the strategy will be judged a success. The key unknown is whether the Party’s efforts to support its favored parts of the private sector can spur enough growth to outweigh the negative effects of its crackdown on other, less favored areas. How much is lost if entrepreneurs know that it could be dangerous to be the next Alibaba, and how much is gained by the creation of millions of new small firms? Can a private sector of many “million-dollar companies” drive an economy with fewer “billion-dollar companies”?

What’s clear is that this model has never been seen before: a market economy with a large private sector under the control of the Communist Party. China has returned to a Maoist model of political control, but not the Maoist economic model of central planning and reliance on state-owned firms.

Both of these interventions are useful in clarifying points of tension in China’s current approach: can the government control political discourse without dampening scientific discourse? can the government limit the power of large firms without harming incentives for entrepreneurship? These are indeed empirical questions that cannot be answered a priori, although it’s clear where the sympathies of both authors lie.

Yet I can’t imagine that calling their strategy “unprecedented” would be received as a criticism by China’s Communist Party leaders, who since their abandonment of the Stalinist and Maoist models have never claimed to be following a predetermined blueprint. They have always said they are exploring their way to a new development strategy based on China’s actual conditions. And of course, similar questions were raised in earlier decades about the attempt to combine socialism with market economics; no one less than Janos Kornai thought their halfway house was inherently unstable and would soon collapse. Chinese officials are no strangers to the simultaneous pursuit of apparently conflicting ideals.

The lived experience of market orders

Harald Jähner’s recent book Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich 1945-55 is a fascinating window onto German life during the end of one social order and the creation of another one; it covers everything from “rubble tourism,” mass migration and regional cultures to to jazz dance halls, sex toys, interior decoration and avant-garde art.

There is also quite a lot on how the people living in Germany’s ruined cities made ends meet on a daily basis, through a combination of official rations, looting and the black market. Jähner’s reflections on how people’s lived experience of these different types of economic systems influenced their thinking is interesting if somewhat speculative:

In an atmosphere of mistrust and curiosity, the black market was a vital learning experience for the Germans, offering a radically different trading experience and providing a fundamental corrective to the Volk community fetishised by the Nazis. It was a lesson that remained in the memory for many years. Its lack of defined rules, which “rewarded the cunning and punished the weak,” created an economic terrain “in which people had apparently once more become wolves towards their fellows,” as the historian Malte Zierenberg writes. The widespread wariness so characteristic of the 1950s found a powerful source here. That narrow-minded, stuffy atmosphere that lingered around the black market was the smell of mistrust. Even the appetite for cleanliness, tidiness and order in 1950s Germany, which appeared strange to the next generation, had an origin in the chaotic conditions of the illegal markets.

The black market only thrived because of the existence of its opposite pole, the rationing system. On the one hand the wild interplay of raw market forces, on the other rationed per-capita distribution. People were caught between two different systems, always experiencing both at the same time: the state dirigisme of the shortage economy and the anarchic freedom of the unbridled market. Two conflicting logics of distribution, both of which had severe shortcomings.

This daily exercise in practical sociology, with all the exertions that it entailed, explains the unshakable faith that West Germans would later bring to the system of the “social market economy,” which, from 1948, became the patent remedy for the emerging Federal Republic. The very phrase sounded like a magical formula, because it reconciled both sides: the caring state ensuring that everybody got something and a free market system that was demand-led and placed the consumer at its centre. The few black-market years ensured that the social market economy became an article of faith for generations.

This “practical sociology” of ordinary people may not have directly determined the top-level government policy decisions that built Germany’s postwar social market economy. But the functioning of that system, like any other, depends on some shared consent to and understanding of economic norms.

His discussion also reminds me of the way popular support for the planned economy in China fell apart in the 1970s. At first this happened in the scattered local experiments with local agricultural markets and light industry that were facilitated by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution; Frank Dikotter’s wonderful 2016 article on “Decollectivization from Below” compiles a lot of fascinating archival material on this theme. The government’s later, more organized efforts to build a “socialist market economy” were informed by this widespread rejection of the old system, a discontent that was all the more effective because it was based on practical lived experience rather than ideological preconceptions (see my older post on China’s grassroots market liberals).

State capacity and the income tax

State capacity is a difficult concept to make concrete: a government’s ability to do stuff is obviously important, but how to tell if it is high or low? As a useful overview over at the Broadstreet blog shows, the most common way to measure state capacity in general is to measure fiscal capacity: the government’s ability to extract revenue from the economy. This makes sense historically, as the growth over the last few centuries of governments’ ability to do things like wage wars and provide social benefits went hand-in-hand with the development of tax systems and debt markets.

For the 20th century onward, the authors suggest a more precise metric: “To measure the fiscal capacity of the modern state, we use the share of income tax revenue in total tax revenue, as the collection of the income tax calls for high administrative capacity to ensure compliance.” This is an interesting choice, as on this measure China is a real edge case. Taking a quick look at the OECD Global Revenue Statistics Database, which covers over 100 nations, here is a list of the dozen countries with the lowest share of individual income tax revenue (for China only a 2019 figure is available, the others are the average of 2015-19):

CountryIndividual income tax,
share of tax revenue
Côte d’Ivoire0.3%
Antigua and Barbuda1.8%
Costa Rica5.7%
Source: OECD Global Revenue Statistics Database

A measure of state capacity on which China underperforms Nicaragua and Mali is probably a measure that is not capturing some important dimensions of actual state capacity. To take just some of the most obvious physical manifestations of administrative and technical ability, the governments of the other countries on this list are not operating their own rovers on Mars, or managing massive numbers of infrastructure construction projects both domestically and across borders. And whatever you think of China’s zero-Covid policies, it is unquestionable that local governments are displaying extraordinary logistical capabilities in organizing the mass testing of millions of people on short notice. The common claim that these policies demonstrate “China’s strong capacity for resource mobilization” is certainly correct (whether resources are being mobilized in the best way is another question).

Why does this measure get China wrong? To some extent, the focus on income taxes overly privileges a particular set of institutions as representing capacity. The actual structure of taxation reflects more than just administrative ability: which taxes are levied is a political decision. In recent decades, China’s government has consistently made the political decision to exempt most of the lower classes from income taxes, and to tolerate plenty of tax evasion by the upper classes.

It would indeed be difficult for China to build the administrative systems to levy a more broad-based income tax, but probably not impossible. China has, for instance, successfully administered a broad-based value-added tax for more than two decades. If you were to rank countries instead by the share of value-added taxes in total taxation, then China’s share of 30.2% would put it comfortably above the OECD average of 20.3% (and the US, of course, would be at the bottom with zero, as it has consistently made the political decision not to levy a VAT).

Nonetheless, there is still some useful information in the fact that China is an outlier in terms of this particular measure of state capacity. It suggests that the nature of China’s state capacity is different from that of your common or garden-variety Western social welfare state. The Chinese government’s ability to extract and mobilize resources does not work primarily through formal fiscal channels. It is well known that off-budget instruments like local-government land sales and the operations of state-owned enterprises are extremely important in the economy.

More broadly, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Chinese state are tied up with its peculiar institutional structure and political heritage. China is a Leninist party-state that penetrates the private sector and civil society, operates more through political directives than formal legal instruments, and regularly undertakes mobilizational campaigns to achieve society-wide transformation. The capacity of its Leninist institutions is hard to measure precisely because they often hide behind conventional state forms, but is no less real for that.

What’s behind China’s boom in company formation?

Here is an interesting empirical fact about the Chinese economy that does not easily fit into the usual narratives: under Xi Jinping, more new private-sector companies are being created every year than at any period in its modern history. This of course is exactly the kind of factoid China’s government regularly trots out to demonstrate the vitality of its private sector. In March, the People’s Daily published a front-page article extolling the fact that the number of private companies had quadrupled from 10.9 million in 2012, when Xi took office, to 44.6 million in 2021. (I don’t actually read the People’s Daily every day, but I do subscribe to Manoj Kewalramani’s invaluable Tracking People’s Daily newsletter). Company formation is one of the ways of tracking what is usually called business dynamism: how much entrepreneurial activity is happening in an economy.

The figures are even more interesting than the propagandists seemed to realize. While the official publication of company registration data has been intermittent at best, the People’s Daily article and accompanying chart allow some of the holes in that published data to be filled in. The combined data provide a picture of private-company formation in China over roughly the past two decades. Before 2012, the population of private local companies was increasing by around 1 million or less every year (this is the net increase; there is even less data available on the gross number of new company registrations). Net company formation accelerated over 2013-15, and since 2016 has been running steadily around 4 million or more per year. There’s been an even more dramatic acceleration in the formation of new sole proprietorships (getihu: not companies with a separate legal existence, but businesses run as part of a household): the net increase was over 10 million in both 2020 and 2021, up from around 3 million in 2021.

That is a pretty dramatic change in the trend. The cause is well-documented: a systematic official effort, beginning around 2014 and continuing through the present day, to lower the costs and simplify the process of forming new companies (I wrote a piece about it back in 2014). The OECD is one of the few organizations that have attempted to systematically evaluate the effects of these changes (the much-maligned Doing Business survey of the World Bank was another). Here is some commentary from its just-published 2022 Economic Survey of China, which quantifies the administrative burdens on start-ups relative to other countries:

Enterprises in China are subject to somewhat lighter burden than in the average OECD country, though higher than in Japan, Germany or Italy. In some major non-OECD economies, such as Brazil or South Africa, the burden is much higher than in China. … Only one institution needs to be contacted to start a business in China, compared with the OECD average of around four. This is the same as in the frontrunner countries of Australia, Canada, Greece, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania or New Zealand, where to set up a new firm it is also enough to contact a single institution. There is neither minimum capital requirement nor monetary costs for registering a limited liability firm in China, which is in line with the best practice in OECD countries.

Substantially reducing the barriers to company formation to close to rich-country levels is a pretty decent accomplishment. It’s not a bad legacy for Premier Li Keqiang, whose signature initiative this has been and who is finishing his last year in office. What’s curious, though, is that the enormous boom in private-company formation in recent years has not had very visible macroeconomic effects. Economic growth is not any faster: growth in labor productivity has averaged 6.6% annually in the seven years since 2015, compared to 8.4% in the prior seven years. Of course, a lot of factors have combined to slow China’s economic growth recently, so growth might have slowed even more without this boom in company formation.

But there also hasn’t been any noticeable change in the structure of national income. Since barriers to company formation have fallen, and the pace of company formation has increased, we might reasonably think that a greater share of economic activity is now taking place inside legal corporate entities rather than in the informal economy. Yet the share of corporate profits in national income (technically, gross operating surplus in the fund of flows) has remained basically unchanged around 26% since 2015. Business profits generated by households rather than companies (through sole proprietorships, getihu), have also been stable around 5% of GDP. (The chart below uses the OECD’s presentation of China’s flow of funds, which is more standardized and easier to interpret than the one published by the National Bureau of Statistics; thanks to Bert Hofman for the pointer).

In other words, although the population of private companies in China has gotten much larger, the share of economic activity generated by those companies has not. Some of the increase in private company formation could thus be because it is now easier for people to create multiple corporate legal entities, rather than because there has been a true increase in the rate of entrepreneurship.

The flow of funds data goes only to 2019, and so doesn’t show what happened during the two pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. By all accounts, these were horrible periods for small businesses in consumer-facing services like restaurants and tourism. They lost huge revenues during the initial lockdown of 2020, enjoyed a few months of rebound in the latter half of 2020, and then settled in for months of disappointment in 2021 as waves of intermittent Covid restrictions discouraged travel and recreation. Things have obviously gotten even worse in 2022. Data from OECD countries show that new firm creation generally fell substantially in 2020, so the fact that in China net company formation actually picked up is surprising. Of course, China’s pandemic economic trajectory in 2020 was quite different from the OECD countries. But it’s also possible that the well-documented mass closures of small business during lockdowns are not fully showing up in the company registration data: companies could stop operating without canceling their registration. (Friends who have companies in China tell me that canceling your registration is difficult and time-consuming and often not worth the bother.)

The biggest surge in registrations has not been for private companies but for sole proprietors/getihu: the pace in 2020-21 was roughly double that of 2015-16. Because sole proprietorships have inherent limitations to scale (they can’t hire more than a few people) and no limited liability, they are usually more of a vehicle for self-employment. The desire to be an entrepreneur can be a reason to choose self-employment, but in developing countries like China, self-employment is often the result of a lack of more stable job opportunities. It can also be the channel for more modern forms of unstable employment: drivers for delivery and ride-hailing services often register as sole proprietors, which makes them contractors not employees. The increase in sole proprietorships does appear to be part of a broader structural change in China’s employment patterns: an important 2020 article by Scott Rozelle and colleagues documents a sustained rise in the share of employment in informal, low-wage service sectors.

It’s certainly not a bad thing that it has become easier for Chinese people to establish companies. But the rather ambiguous economic evidence suggests that the surge in private-company formation over the last several years is not a simple story of rising business dynamism.

Hong Kong in 1945

The backstory to why Hong Kong ended up still being a British colony after the end of World War II is interesting, and I did not previously know the details. At the time it probably appeared to be a small matter, but it did have big long-term consequences. This account is a from a recent review essay by Stephen Kotkin, Stalin’s biographer, in Foreign Affairs:

Arguably, with the exception of the Soviet capture of Berlin in May 1945 and the stern telegram that U.S. President Harry Truman sent to Stalin in August of that year warning him not to invade Hokkaido (one of Japan’s four main islands), the physical reoccupation of Hong Kong by the British in 1945 exceeded any other wartime episode in its strategic implications.

When Japan’s surrender suddenly appeared imminent in the summer of 1945, surprising Washington, the Truman administration hastily accelerated work on a plan for the hand-over of Japanese-occupied territories and assigned the acceptance of Japan’s surrender of Hong Kong not to the British but to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist government. The British, however, undertook furious military and political preparations to reclaim Hong Kong for themselves. U.S. officials wanted to satisfy their British allies but also allow Chiang to save face, and so they cleverly suggested that the British could accept the surrender on behalf of the Chinese government. But the British refused that offer, and eventually, Washington acquiesced. Chiang acquiesced as well, dependent as he was on U.S. military and logistical support to reclaim other areas of China. The upshot was that Hong Kong passed from the Japanese back to the British and remained that way even after 1949, when the Communists triumphed over Chiang’s Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War but shrank from attempting to expel the British from the strategic southern port.

Had the British acquiesced rather than the Americans and Chiang, history would have played out very differently. As it was, the communist regime in Beijing was able to take extraordinary advantage of something it would not otherwise have possessed: a world-class international financial center governed by the rule of law. During the period of Deng’s reforms, British Hong Kong ended up funneling indispensable foreign direct investment into mainland communist China—from Japan and Taiwan, especially.

People often ask why Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, when attempting to reenergize the Soviet economy in the second half of the 1980s, did not follow the successful Chinese approach to reforms. Beyond the immense gulf between a highly urbanized, heavily industrialized country and a predominantly rural, agricultural one, the Soviet Union had no Hong Kong to attract and direct incoming investment according to market, rather than political, considerations. No British Hong Kong, no Chinese miracle.

Japan surrenders Hong Kong to the UK

Why GDP growth targets are underrated

These are not good times for the credibility of China’s GDP growth targets. Just weeks after unveiling an ambitious target of 5.5% real GDP growth for 2022, the central government effectively ensured that target will not be met by requiring local governments to impose strict lockdowns to contain the spread of Covid-19. The restrictions cover most of China’s major cities, have had a clear negative impact on economic activity in March that will only worsen in April.

The government is now in a lose-lose situation: if it stimulates growth enough to actually meet the target, then it will overheat the economy (as it did in 2020); if it doesn’t, then its growth targets become less credible. The credibility was already not high after the 2021 target was set a 6.0%, a figure so disconnected from the reality of a cyclical bounce that delivered 8%-plus growth as to be almost meaningless in practical terms. If China’s government doesn’t even try to ensure that GDP growth is close to its target, then why bother having a target in the first place?

These kind of problems are among the reasons why well-meaning economists have for years been urging China’s government to give up GDP growth targets. They don’t seem to actually function well as a guide for macroeconomic policy. And the crude focus on increasing economic aggregates has been blamed for everything from worsening environmental pollution to driving the unsustainable accumulation of debt. The conventional wisdom about China’s GDP growth targets was well captured in this piece from 2014 by an old colleague at The Wall Street Journal:

The target is a relic of the Stalinist planned economy, the basis on which the government planned the allocation of scarce resources for industrial production. Its continued existence is testament to how far China has to go to fully embrace a market economy, one that operates according to market signals.

While this is an understandable view, I believe the events of recent years have strengthened rather weakened the case for GDP growth targets. Given China’s actually existing political economy, GDP targets are, if not exactly optimal, then certainly a reasonable second-best policy framework. And so far their track record is better than the alternative.

The belief of most economists, both Chinese and Western, that I have interacted with over the last couple of decades is that China would be better off moving away from GDP growth targets, as doing so would improve economic management and lead to more rational policymaking. So when Xi Jinping opened his second term in 2017 by announcing that the government would in future focus less on the quantity of GDP growth and and more on its quality, there was a general feeling that this was a natural, inevitable and generally positive evolution.

I did not have such a good feeling about this shift. Back in 2017 I wrote a piece for my employer arguing that if growth targets were de-emphasized, “then what’s left will be a confusing welter of political, social and environmental mandates.” Rather than being a victory for rationality and reform, the de-emphasis on growth targets was actually a signal that economic decision-making would become more politicized:

Xi now wants to orient the government around delivering a “better life” for people rather than economic growth alone. But determining what exactly a “better life” consists of is a top-down process managed by the Communist Party leadership, rather than a bottom-up process driven by local exploration. It is very unlikely to mean a more hands-off attitude towards economic management: Xi’s administration has shown a decreasing tolerance for volatility in economic growth and market prices. Since he doesn’t trust local governments to do the right thing, Xi actually wants to have more centralized direction of the economy in the future, not less.

I think it’s fair to say this prediction has been completely vindicated, particularly by the “regulatory storm” of 2021 with its multitude of highly interventionist policies aiming to reshape entire industries. Limiting the power of large private companies was even a fairly explicit goal: it’s probably not a coincidence that the main targets of last year’s political-regulatory campaigns were real estate and the internet, the two economic sectors that have created the biggest private-sector fortunes. All of this was certainly enabled by Xi’s dictum that there are more important things than GDP growth. The costs and economic downsides of the regulatory storm were put aside in favor of other goals.

What should now be clear is that GDP growth targets were not actually the main cause of excessive or ill-considered government intervention in the economy. That tendency comes from something much more fundamental: China’s Leninist political system, which is organized around mobilizing officials to direct social transformation. As Ken Jowitt put it: “The definitional tendency of Leninist regimes [is] their attempts to control and specify the substantive dimensions of social developments, not merely the framework within which such developments occur.”

De-emphasizing GDP growth targets would have done what liberal reformers hoped for if had been accompanied by fundamental political changes in the mission of the government. That is, if the government had accepted a role as a more neutral regulator and provider of public goods, and been content to provide a framework in which private actors could pursue their own goals.

Instead, what happened is that Xi Jinping carried out a grand project to reorient the Communist Party’s mobilizational machinery away from the pursuit of economic growth and toward a broader set of goals, which can be summarized as the pursuit of “national greatness.” These include things like technological independence, greater income equality, and a better natural environment. Xi’s idea that there is more to life than economic growth seems to be long-held and sincere: he articulated it back in 2001 when he was a mere provincial governor. But the shift to goals defined more by political and social values rather than quantitative measurements has led to economic management occurring through politicized campaigns.

The trick about GDP targets is that they are compatible with both the Leninist focus on achieving society-wide goals, and the liberal preference for allowing individual agents to pursue their own goals. Growth is a collective accomplishment for which the government can take credit, but the exact means by which growth is achieved can be left up to individual actors.

The focus on growth thus functioned to smuggle some liberalism into China’s Leninist political system. When Deng Xiaoping formally shifted the Party’s goal from class struggle to economic development back in 1978, he opened up much more space for individual choice and decentralized action in China than had previously existed. Entrepreneurs and local governments could pursue their goals without having to check them for ideological consistency.

As Joseph Fewsmith has argued, this process eroded the effectiveness of the Leninist political machinery, something that Xi has worked hard to fix. The de-emphasis on GDP growth, rather than being a technocratic or pro-market reform, is fully consistent with Xi’s renewed focus on ideology and political discipline.

But Xi also knows that continued GDP growth is necessary for his project of achieving national greatness to succeed, so he can’t completely ignore economic realities while pursuing his transformational political campaigns. By the end of 2021, the economy had slowed sharply enough that it was becoming obvious that a change of course was necessary. In December, when when Xi chaired the annual Central Economic Work Conference, the signal was clear: the priority is now the “stability” of the economy.

Since then, various political slogans and campaigns have been much less in evidence and the focus has been on more practical short-term measures. Senior officials have even promised not to introduce policies that “adversely affect market expectations”–effectively admitting that they had been doing just that in the recent past. Veteran economist Li Yang, in a commentary in January, seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at the change in policy tone:

At the beginning of reform and opening up, our Party clearly proposed to change its focus from “class struggle” to “economic construction.” This shift was a milestone: it brought us forty years of rapid growth that made China’s economy the second largest in the world and made China a country that the world does not dare to underestimate. However, this phrase has been said less often in recent years, and this meeting reiterated it, which is quite significant.

Such cautious optimism that the pendulum was swinging back to the “good old days” of more growth and fewer political campaigns has probably not survived the drastic Shanghai lockdown, which is widely perceived as being driven by a political imperative to demonstrate victory over the virus rather than pure public-health considerations. Covid policy is being personally directed by Xi, who used a Politburo meeting in March to require “perseverance” in the strict approach. The Party’s propaganda system also continues to churn out material supporting Xi’s long-term shift of aspirations away from simple economic development toward the more values-based “better life” framework.

In this context, the more that China’s government talks about how to keep economic growth humming, the better for business and investor confidence. A policy framework that focuses on steady growth in national income over time is certainly better than a policy framework that lurches from campaign to campaign. The debate over whether the government can achieve this year’s GDP target is a sideshow: it probably can’t, and it won’t cause a crisis of confidence to admit that. What’s really important is whether or not the government is re-committing to a growth-based policy framework.

The science fiction of social stagnation

Henry Farrell recently recommended Walter Jon Williams’ novel Metropolitan, and after devouring it quickly I will second the recommendation: it’s sharp, thoughtful, and engrossing. Nothing dates faster than visions of the future, but the vision in this 1995 book still seems strikingly contemporary. The book presents mind-blowing technological power that coexists with depressing stagnation, its extraordinary capabilities diverted mostly to bureaucracy and status-seeking.

This theme is comes out into the open at one point when one of the characters starts ranting about the inability to build new buildings, a synecdoche for the broader problem of social stagnation:

“Nothing changes in our world,” he says, “because the cost of change is so enormous. Not the least is simply the cost of space. Consider what’s needed simply to build a new building. There will be something on the site already, so the old building must be purchased, and all the people living or working there moved. All those displaced people will have to go somewhere else, at enormous cost, and even if the builders manage somehow not to pay the displacement fees, somebody will. So every new structure is a drain on the economy before it even starts. …

Nothing can be transformed in any significant way, because the cost of transformation is just so high.

The resonance with the contemporary debates over why it’s so hard to build stuff in the US is pretty obvious. Because it’s a novel and not social science, there’s no explicit argument about what has caused this problem in the fictional world.

But the world-building makes an implicit argument that stagnation is the result of the closing of the frontier. The conceit in the title is that virtually the entire surface of the earth, apparently including the oceans, is covered by cities. There is literally no usable space that is not already occupied by some structure and some political entity. Hence the problem that any new construction requires removing whatever is already there.

Furthermore, the universe beyond the earth is not visible or accessible, with the sky, sun, moon and stars walled off by a barrier called the Shield. This feature reinforces the book’s cosmically claustrophobic atmosphere, portraying a world in which people are trapped into zero-sum competition over a limited pool of resources. (As I recall, there’s a similar theme running through Iain M. Banks’ Against a Dark Background, though I read it some time ago.)

There is definitely a real difference between places where things can be built from scratch and places where building requires first compensating and removing the existing users (and it’s not just a US issue–compensation for residents displaced from their homes by new development has been a long-running political problem in China). But the the tradition of American science fiction, in which space travel is often the most important indicator of technological progress, is somewhat biased toward the idea that progress depends on having new frontiers of empty space to exploit.

We should hope this idea is not true. In general terms it probably is not: the American frontier was declared closed in 1890, but technological progress and economic growth in the US has been faster after 1890 than before. Nonetheless, I found Williams’ portrayal of stagnation pretty convincing and it will stick in my head for a while.